The Power of 11 Million Stories

11/17/2015 11:53 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

By Marie Marquardt

How to respond when the "subjects" of your academic research offer to throw you a baby shower? This was the quandary I found myself facing fifteen years ago, as a graduate student deeply immersed in dissertation research.

I had, for many months, been spending time in two Georgia churches frequented primarily by immigrants from Mexico. My work in these churches was part of an ethnographic research project exploring how religious participation helps immigrants, both to maintain enduring connections with their place of origin and to settle in a new place. I had read all the books. I had studied all the theory. I had taken courses on ethnographic research methods, written papers, and made presentations about the "insider/outsider" stance of the ethnographer. I had come into the research believing that I was fully prepared.

But none of this prepared me to respond when Alma, a young mother from the Mexican state of Guerrero, called to tell me she was planning a baby shower. For me. So I went with my gut and accepted her generous offer. I headed out to a suburban Atlanta church on a Saturday evening, eight months pregnant with my first child, and I partied. I danced around chairs with a dozen women. They measured my belly and dangled rings over my stomach. We laughed and joked, drank ponche and shared a pastel from the local Mexican bakery. At the end of the night, watching them distribute figurines of Jesus and The Last Supper—recuerdos of our special time together—I allowed myself to give in to the nagging feeling that had been with me for months: These women were my friends now, and we shared a great deal in common.

Let me be clear: I understood the profound differences between me and the other partygoers. The most evident were socio-economic class and ethnicity, but the most significant was "status." By chance, I had been born in the United States. I am a citizen. Every one of the women gathered around me on that night was an immigrant, and not one of them had legal status in the United States. They were (and those who remain in the United States still are) undocumented. Nevertheless, they took a chance on our friendship. They showed me that - at the heart of the matter—we shared more commonalities than differences. They were new mothers, I was becoming one. They had much to teach me; I had much to learn.

For the next decade, I continued to research among these women and their families, and among hundreds of other undocumented immigrants throughout the Southeast. There was plenty of research to be done in this region, which is filled with counties and cities that demographers call "hypergrowth" regions for immigration. I gathered "field research" data, conducted focus group interviews, distributed surveys. I worked with talented colleagues from across the United States and Latin America to publish academic books and articles. I also continued to build friendships. I participated in birthday parties, baptisms, and quinceañeras. My friends came over with their babies and we practiced their English while nursing.

We sat around kitchen tables, eating mangos, drinking coffee. They told me their stories and I told them mine. When my undocumented friends felt ready to buy a home, they asked my advice about neighborhoods in strong school districts. (Yes, undocumented immigrants buy homes. In fact, almost half of those who have lived in the United States for a decade or longer own their homes.) I attended ceremonies to clap and cheer when my friends' children won their schools' "citizenship" awards (the irony certainly not lost on any of us). I attended high school plays, sporting events, and graduations.

I watched those beautiful, resilient children make their way toward adulthood. Some of them struggled to find their way. But so many of them thrived against great odds. I was awed by their capacity to excel in school, and to serve as translators and cultural intermediaries. They were becoming young adults proud of their heritage, civically engaged, striving to form an identity as hyphenated Americans. They had, indeed, earned those "citizenship" awards. They were poised to become the best of Americans, the same kind that have built and reformed this nation. But most of these kids were not becoming American citizens. They were powerless to do so. Unless (like me) they had the good fortune of having been born on United States soil, they (like their parents) remained among the undocumented.

The "eleven million."

Now, almost fifteen years later, they and I—all of us—are being bombarded with the question: what is to be done with the "eleven million"? Even after having organized one of the most significant twenty-first century social movements on United States soil, after having worked together to urge passage of the DREAM Act—and in the absence of that legislation, having been granted some relief with DACA (the executive order that offers many of these young people temporary "deferral of deportation" and gives them short-term permission to work)—these promising young adults continue to be perceived as a number, a problem, a burden.

In recent weeks, they and their supporters have been assaulted, harassed, commanded to "go back" to a "home" that they haven't been able to visit since the day they left. Presidential hopefuls have vowed to take away the small measure of protection these young adults have been granted with DACA. Pundits debate the viability of deporting them, their parents, even their citizen siblings. They wonder: How much would it cost? Who would pay for it? How long would it take? What sort of vehicles would be used? Would it serve as an effective "deterrent"? The politicians and pundits speak of these immigrants—who are deeply embedded in the fabric of our nation—as if they are a single monolith that can be erased with ease, and without any negative impact on the rest of us.

I read about these musings, and this is what I wonder: Have any of these candidates and pundits paused to think about the impact of just one deportation—on individuals, families, communities, businesses, places of worship? Unfortunately, I have been given ample opportunity to consider this, and it's heartbreaking.

My first chance was seven years ago, when I learned that Alma, the woman who had organized my baby shower, was returning to Mexico with her daughter, a United States citizen. Her husband had been detained in a roadblock for driving without a license. (In Georgia, as in thirty-seven other states, undocumented immigrants cannot obtain driver's licenses). Not only did her husband's deportation put their small family in disarray, it ruined his small business—which employed U.S. citizens— and tore through the fabric of their close-knit church, where he served as a deacon and as president of the lay governing body.

As detention and deportation continued to rip through the communities where my friends lived, worked, and worshipped, I felt compelled to take action. So, I paused my research and detoured from my academic path. I spent five years helping to build an organization that serves detained immigrants and their families, and that walks alongside these families as they suffer the crisis of deportation.

Somewhere along the way, I also made a rather unusual decision for an academic. I decided to write a novel. I took fifteen years of research and friendship, celebration and heartbreak, scholarship and service and I distilled them into one story. It is a fictional story for young adults - a romance, in fact. Why a love story? Because I believe that when we see thorny issues through the eyes of love, it changes everything.

Dream Things True tells of one Mexican-American family's journey through immigration, settlement, adaptation, detention, and deportation. It's told from the perspective of a promising girl on the verge of adulthood - a girl named Alma Garcia. (Yes, I named the main character in honor of the young woman who, so many years ago, invited me to be her friend). It also tells the story from the perspective of Evan, the privileged Southern boy who falls in love with Alma, and who tries with all his might to preserve her humanity, her extraordinary individuality, and her dreams.

Alma is one of the "eleven million."

Why have I chosen to tell her story? Because I believe that, through the power of story, we can resist the de-humanizing effect of the number. When we turn real, complex people into nothing more than a number, we strip them of their dignity. This paves the way for those unspeakable actions that we see and read about every day now—the assaults, the harassment, the threats, and taunts.

Every one of the "eleven million" has a story. Some of those stories may, indeed, be of making mistakes, committing crimes, causing harm, bringing about suffering. (Any group of millions will have a few of those). But these are by no means representative of the overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. today. If we listen to their stories, we will hear mundane, everyday accounts of working hard, going to school, making lunches, and making ends meet. But we will also hear extraordinary tales of sacrifice, hardship, and heartbreak. Their narratives are—and will continue to be—about thriving against the odds. These stories are real; they are quintessential American tales and they cannot be ignored.

Every one of the "eleven million" has a story, and this country needs to hear them, now more than ever.

Marie Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University's Candler School of Theology and the author of Living Illegal: The Human Face of Unauthorized Immigration. She is widely published in the areas of religion, inter-ethnic relations, and civic participation of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. South. Marquardt has also worked extensively as an advocate among immigrants in Atlanta. She is a founding organizer and currently serves as co-chair of El Refugio, a hospitality house outside the gates of the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. Marie is also a member of the We Need Diverse Books team. Marquardt lives with her husband and four children in a very busy household in Decatur, Georgia. Dream Things True is her first young adult novel.