OPINION
07/07/2018 01:35 pm ET

Diane Guerrero Is The Immigrant Advocate Young People Need Right Now

Guerrero's parents were deported back to Colombia when she was just 14 years old.
Paul Morigi via Getty Images
Guerrero's parents were deported back to Colombia when she was just 14 years old.

A glaring omission exists within the questions surrounding our country’s latest immigration battle: How are children and teens in America processing what is happening to migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border?

Thankfully, actress Diane Guerrero, in her daring and passionate new book, My Family Divided, is helping pave the road that will guide youth through the ins and outs of immigration ― specifically, how immigration affects children, adults and their communities. Unlike her first memoir, In the Country We Love, here Guerrero returns to the subject of immigration with a new audience in mind: teens and young adults.

Guerrero’s book presents extremely difficult themes ― the impact of immigration law, the fear of having your loved ones taken from you, and the constant struggle to thrive in the United States. It is written in an unapologetically honest tone and unpacks the delicate situation many children and their peers are experiencing today under the Trump administration. 

“I don’t pretend to have all of the answers on immigration,” Guerrero told me during a recent conversation. “What I can tell you is that I am passionate about storytelling because I believe that my story has the power to educate others about what immigrants and their families have to go through in the United States.”

Throughout her book, Guerrero ― a born U.S. citizen ― uses her personal experiences to explain the pain and fear that deportation causes. Her parents were deported back to Colombia when Guerrero was just 14 years old.

“Like my parents before me, I was careful and law-abiding out of necessity,” she explains in one chapter. “First, out of the fear of getting found by the authorities, who would have to place me into foster care. Second, because if my parents had a chance at coming back, it would be through me as their lifeline.”

Guerrero doesn't shy away from bold statements about how hard it was to be separated from her parents at such a young age.

This kind of internal monologue is something that most, if not all, undocumented youth recite to themselves at some point in their lives. And this is what sets Guerrero’s story apart from others: the small but detailed anecdotes that reveal the trauma and anxiety that haunts young immigrants every day in America. Hers is not the brightly painted narrative often seen today in news stories about undocumented youth and Dreamers; it is the kind of story older immigrants will likely wish they could’ve read while growing up in the U.S.

Anything that sits at the intersection of life and immigration carries a heavy toll on immigrants and their families, and Guerrero doesn’t shy away from bold statements about how hard it was to be separated from her parents at such a young age. In one chapter, she recounts a conversation she had with her mother after her deportation; and in just a few paragraphs, Guerrero manages to describe one of the most painful, yet not uncommon, sentiments many undocumented youths feel at one point or another: anger toward one’s parents.

“You know what, Mami? I don’t want to hear another thing about how hard things were for you!” Guerrero recalls shouting at her mother during a reunion after their separation. “You don’t even know how hard things were for me! You abandoned me! You destroyed our family! I hate you!” 

Guerrero offers teens and young adults a rare gift in these politically polarized times: hope.
Mat Hayward via Getty Images
Guerrero offers teens and young adults a rare gift in these politically polarized times: hope.

This is what navigating this country’s immigration system does to us. It makes us question our identity, our sense of belonging and whether your parents were right to immigrate in the first place. It’s a poisonous thorn in our side that can take days, weeks, months or even years to heal before we finally come to understand that we were brought or born here out of our parents’ larger sacrifice.

It took Guerrero nearly a decade to reconcile her anger, which is displayed in a sincere statement toward the end of her book. “Who am I? I am the girl whose parents were stolen,” she writes. 

I asked Guerrero if she had trouble writing the book, given she had to revisit childhood trauma and break it down for a younger audience.

“It is not easy having to summon these memories; they are very painful,” she told me. “But as someone who has been impacted by this country’s broken immigration system, it is my responsibility to speak out, educate and in some way comfort youth who have and continue to experience the pain of having a loved one deported.”

Guerrero’s book is a breath of fresh air for Dreamers and undocumented youth who wrestled ― or are wrestling ― with deportation fears and lack of identity while living in America during our formative years.

“Why don’t you come to Colombia with me?” Guerrero’s mother proposes in an early chapter. “I froze,” she writes. “I’d never considered the idea of a life away from Boston. Away from America, the only country I’d ever lived in. I’d grown up hearing about my parents’ homeland. But it was a world far, far away.” 

Do not mistake Guerrero’s work as simply another sad tale about immigration.

My Family Divided gives young adults and teens a powerful glimpse into what their immigrant peers are up against ― a fight against a broken immigration system and a government set on destroying families via deportation. On the flip side, Guerrero also offers a rare gift in these politically polarized times: hope, which is by far one of the most important things anyone can offer immigrant youth and their families right now.

“I haven’t given up hope that [my parents] may return to America one day,” Guerrero writes regarding her wishes to reunify her family. “I just don’t think it, realistically, that it’ll happen with someone like Trump in office … I’m still working with a lawyer and navigating the process of one day bringing [my parents] back, once we have fairer, saner politicians running the country.”

Do not mistake Guerrero’s work as simply another sad tale about immigration. She includes a political, social and economic call to action for reforming our nation’s broken immigration system. And she implores Americans to get involved in state and local elections to elect representatives who represent immigrants’ interests.

My Family Divided reminds immigrants that despite the immigration system’s treacherous road, hard work and ambition go a long way in overcoming the obstacles of being undocumented or coming from a mixed-status family. Diane Guerrero’s willingness to be candid makes her a powerful ambassador and advocate for immigrants ― something sorely needed at a time that can only be described as one of modern America’s darkest chapters.

Juan Escalante is an immigrant advocate and online strategist who has been fighting for the Dream Act and pro-immigration policies at all levels of government for the past 10 years. 

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