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'Love Has No Borders' campaign spotlights Ohio immigrants' stories and seeks to change the system

Most Americans can look at their lineage and find that families and ancestors came here from somewhere else. Americans, for the most part, are immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

But getting here, and saying goodbye to home, isn’t easy. For some, the immigration system itself adds to their hardship. They yearn for more empathy.

The social justice organization OPAWL, Ohio Progressive Asian Women’s Leadership, is giving voice to these immigrants and children of immigrants with a storytelling campaign called "Love Has No Borders," where those affected by the U.S. immigration system can share their personal stories and affect change.

Jenika Gonzales and her mother. [Jenika Gonzales / OPAWL]

The stories are told through poetry, photography or, in Jenika Gonzales’ case, a video titled "Lost Years."

“The hardest part about the whole process of immigration is the long time separated from my family," Gonzales said in the video.

Gonzales’ mother moved to the United States from the Philippines in 1998. The single mother left her four children with her own mother with hopes of earning money to send back to the family. Her plan was to become a U.S. citizen, then sponsor her children for citizenship.

“She really wanted to provide for us, but considering our socioeconomic status in the Philippines, it was really hard to provide for four children," Gonzales said.

It wasn’t until 2006 – eight years after her mother left – that Jenika was able to follow her mother to Ohio.

“I was 14. It was kind just of a bittersweet moment because I had to say goodbye to my grandparents, who basically raised me," she said. "A lot of people don’t talk about the other side of it. They only talk about the part where you arrived to the states and you build a life, but nobody talks about the life you left.”

It is not unusual for Filipinos to wait a long time to become legal U.S. residents. Many Filipinos, even those with family already in the United States, have waited more than twenty years before they were even eligible to apply for a green card.

Gonzales said she wishes there was a built-in support system designed to help immigrants settle in the United States. Her mother faced many difficulties and lacked such support.

“Once she got here, she was practically alone in not only dealing with everything financially, but also just understanding the language of everything she’s had to fill out," Gonzales said. "A lot of the things she had to figure out, she had to figure out herself.” 

The “Love Has No Borders” project includes an episode from a podcast called “Dear World,” where Eunice Uhm, a recent Ohio State University graduate from South Korea, shared her story.

“I’m not sure if it’s accurate to say that we wanted to come here, more like so many other families, we felt compelled to come here," Uhm said in the podcast. "We are part of this wave of immigrants from Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s after the Asian market crisis who left their home country for better economic opportunities.”

Uhm’s father was undocumented. Her family lived with the fear that he could be deported at any point.

“My parents never went out. They didn’t have a single friend," Uhm said. "I think everything that we did was kind of shaped by my anxieties surrounding deportation or the ways we had to live our lives in secrecy.”

Nearly two decades after settling here, the family’s fears were realized. Uhm’s father was deported in 2018. He hasn’t been back since.

“I wished for all of these things to feel like I belong here, but Asian Americans and immigrants, I wonder if that’s ever possible, for us to feel like we truly belong in the U.S.”

Uhm says immigrants constantly have to prove their value here.

"I really hate that narrative and discourse in a way that our worth and our humanity is only defined through these capitalistic terms. And we can only be appreciated and we can only be considered human when we can contribute to a society that is actively trying to erase our existence," Uhm said. "That seems really cruel and violent to me."

By sharing these stories, OPAWL Co-Director Tessa Xuan hopes to uplift stories of Midwest immigrants.

Xuan and OPAWL storytellers Mai Lor and Houleye Thiam joined The Sound of Ideas to share their 'Love Has No Borders' stories. You can listen to that conversation in the audio player below.  

“We do want more Americans to wake up to the reality that our immigration system doesn’t work the way they think it does. There’s not a simple line that people can get into and it’s causing so much heartbreak and pain and trauma that doesn’t need to happen," Xuan said.

Hmong American Mai Lor shared her story in the 'Love Has No Borders' project. [Anita Kwan / Reel Hoot Productions, LLC]

In addition to sharing stories, OPAWL is pushing for action in Washington to improve the experience for immigrants. OPAWL has urged lawmakers to pass immigration legislation that has more empathy for immigrants. “Love Has No Borders” includes a letter writing campaign to encourage citizen support for this political push.

OPAWL wants Congress to support changes in immigration law, most notably to create a pathway to citizenship for roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and those with Temporary Protection Status (TPS) in the United States.

OPAWL lays out on its website what it wants Congress to do:

  • Pass the Reuniting Families Act, which clears family and employment-based visa backlogs and provides different forms of relief for orphans, widows, stepchildren and bans LGBTQ discrimination while embracing the diversity visa program.
  • Create a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, DACA recipients, and TPS holders, including those with past criminal records.
  • Decrease funding for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and reduced funding for the administration’s overall immigration enforcement and detention operations.
  • Pass the GRACE Act, which ensures refugees that admissions do not drop below 125,000 per year.
  • Pass the New Way Forward Act, which ends mandatory immigration detention.

“In the year 2021, we really need to think about whether that’s the immigration system we want, whether or not that reflects our values. We don’t have to have racist immigration laws anymore. We can change the laws to reflect our ethics and our values as a country, believing that families belong together and that immigrants make us stronger," Xuan said.

Houleye Thiam from Mauritania wrote poems for 'Love Has No Borders.' [Houleye Thiam / OPAWL]

Love Has No Borders features immigrant stories of Americans from all over the globe including Tanzania, Mexico and Nigeria, but all share one distinct storyline: people looking for a safe and secure home.

“Everybody deserves a place to flourish," Gonzales said. "I just don’t understand why it has to be that complicated to just live a better life.”

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