“Having to choose to either leave the country and build a new life elsewhere or continue this cage-like life that I have had since I turned 18.”
by Christine Stoddard
When I chatted with community organizer Javi Infante Varas the night before the 2016 presidential election, I had already accepted that the conversation would end in tears. No matter how many times I interview an immigrant or refugee, I always have to take a moment to prepare myself.
I should clarify that I don’t mean an expat. An expat is someone, usually of white privilege and a comfortable background, who happily chooses to leave their home country and doesn’t have much trouble doing so. On a whim, maybe they chose to teach English in Thailand, for example, and simply never left. When I say “immigrant or refugee,” I mean people — and, let’s be honest, they’re often of people of color — who escaped war, poverty, and persecution. They’re the ones whose stories make my heart hurt. It doesn’t matter how much research I do. I’m not just a brain. These people’s stories resonate with me, in part, because of my family’s own narrow escape. I can’t help but think of what might’ve happened to my mother if she’d never left El Salvador during its civil war. From a purely selfish perspective, I would not exist.
Varas’ story reminds me of how lucky I am to have been born in the United States. I don’t say that because America is more “blessed” than other countries, but because of how hard its government is — even on undocumented children. Varas was born in Chile and moved to the U.S. with her family at age 12. Once her tourist visa expired, she became undocumented. Now a woman in her late 20s living in California, she remains undocumented. Thanks to President Obama, who pardoned undocumented young people who meet certain requirements, Varas qualifies for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).
Because of DACA, Javi and other DREAMers can get a social security number, a driver’s license, a job with healthcare and otherwise live similarly to a documented person — at least on paper. Unlike a documented person, Varas must worry about possibility of President-elect Donald Trump “slamming the door on Obama’s Dreamers,” to use Politico’s words. After all, Trump has vowed to deport an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States. Why wouldn’t she be scared?
On Facebook before the election, Varas told me that the election cycle “triggered a lot of my underlying fear of having to leave or being kicked out of here.” It caused her to “think about the future a lot, like if I do stay, am I still going to have my work permit? Is that going to get taken away? Am I on the deportation list?” As a single mother of an 8-year-old son, she isn’t just responsible for herself.
The fretting had a physical impact on Varas. In addition to gaining 25 pounds over a three-month period, she experienced physical tension and pain.
“I had to visit a chiropractor a couple weeks [before the election] because something was bothering me,” she said. “I thought I had slept the wrong way or something, but it turns out, I pulled a rib, which means I pulled the muscles that hold my back rib with my shoulder blade together. I have been at my job [as a house manager] for five years and that never happened to me.”
I followed up with Varas toward the end of the year to see how she was faring. She was still undocumented — and still terrified. When I asked her what her immediate reaction was when she learned that Trump had been elected, she said she felt “a sense of doom, deep grief and lots of anxiety for the future.” Short-term, Varas said that losing her job, health insurance and driver’s license were her biggest concerns. Long-term, she fears not being able to move and get a lease on a new apartment, not being able to travel abroad and re-enter the U.S., and not being able to buy a home.
She said that “having to choose to either leave the country and build a new life elsewhere or continue this cage-like life that I have had since I turned 18” has kept her “close to my family but makes me feel small.”
Since the election, Varas explained that she has gathered people at Know Your Rights workshops to guide them and support them as they struggle with similar anxieties. Attending educational workshops on California’s “immigrant-friendly laws” (AB540, AB60), as well as anti-immigrant laws (PEP), have kept her grounded and informed. During inauguration week, Varas imagines the anxiety will creep up again. She hopes she can become more involved in organizing again and “cope with folks in my community and sustain each other.”
I asked Varas for her advice to other undocumented people who want to practice better self-care during this trying period.
“Definitely find a creative or physically active hobby during this time,” she said. “We need to release the built-up stress that some of us have learned to live with, and understand that is not normal to live like that, even though it has become a norm.”
Varas personally plans to seek solace in spiritual practice, yoga, meditation, hiking and her women’s writing group.
“Gathering with my people is also going to be an important part of my self-care,” she said. “Talking to people going through similar struggles helps a lot. We all need to find the people that make us feel safe. A lot of folks still feel like they shouldn’t reach out, but there are so many of us, just need to learn to be open to that possibility. Try not to let fear control us.”
I also asked Varas how friends and allies can support undocumented people.
“Listen more, don’t lecture or ask dumb questions, and research a little,” she said. “We have found clever ways to survive in this system and most friends who are not undocumented have no clue.”
She told me how her employer once asked if she wasn’t interested in becoming a U.S. citizen. She then explained her immigration status to him, though she wished he had a better understanding of the U.S. immigration system.
“Ask yourself, in what ways are you attributing to the oppression of undocumented people?” Varas said. “We all just want to live dignified lives, without fear of being separated from our loved ones and with the freedom and access that any human being deserves.”