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An ode to immigrant families

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What will happen if my family is broken up? Would we have to move? Who would take charge of the rest of us?

Edith Avila
Olea

This is the time of the year when students are graduating from high school, college, graduate school and so on. It has me reflecting on my own graduation coming up. My entire family will be traveling 12 hours to come see me walk on stage.

Graduation isn't just my own triumph, it is our triumph!

I started my master's program because of the encouragement that my family gave me. My family is in the midst of a long and difficult battle with the immigration system. Because of the stress and uncertain future, I found myself doubting my ability to pursue the degree.

My anxiety felt overpowering. This fear is one that many families know. What will happen if my family is broken up? Would we have to move? Who would take charge of the rest of us? The questions go on and on.

But my family told me, "Don't let them win. The only way to overcome this battle is for you to continue with your life. They might be able to break us apart, but they'll never be able to take away your education."

With lumps of fear in my throat and tears in my eyes, I went back to school. Nearly the entire time I was studying, I had a family member in a detention center.

We made it a habit to visit many detained people, even if they weren't our own family. It was important to take the time to visit and listen to their stories. They deserved to be heard, too. I'm grateful for these experiences, for they greatly impacted my studies.

Eighteen months later, we're still fighting the system. In those 18 months, I can count at least 10 relatives or family friends who were detained. Some made it back home, others were removed from the country. Needless to say, those who were forced to leave left behind children and broken families.

According to a study, there are over 5 million mixed-status families living in the U.S. In these family units, at least one of the immediate family members is undocumented.

However, in the Latino culture, we don't recognize the terms "immediate family" or "extended family." As far as we're concerned, every elder is your aunt or uncle and every kid is your cousin. Based on our culture, there are many more than 5 million mixed-status families.

Yet, despite our challenges, we choose to carry on. We choose faith over fear every day.

My family has taught me to be courageous. They taught me to be faithful. They even taught me to be a translator. This specific ability that came at such a young age taught me to have no shame about my culture. No matter how unjust things seem to be, we are here to succeed.

This is why this column is an ode to my family, an ode to all immigrant families and to all immigrant graduates. I continue to be humbled by your bravery and faith.

You taught me to be fierce, loving and grateful for every moment in life, the good and the bad. As I walk on that stage in a couple of weeks, I will remember it's because you nurtured me to be a strong Latina woman.

Despite all the negative propaganda against immigrants in this country, our mothers continue to pray the rosary, our fathers continue to pray for their enemies, and our children continue to pray for protection.

The immigrant faithful are playing a crucial role in bringing back peace in a divided world. After all, young Latinos will be the majority of the Catholic Church in the near future! If we open up our hearts, we will be blessed by the next generation of immigrants.

As a priest friend reminded me recently, we must remember that we are all pilgrims on this Earth. The only citizenship that matters is that which we will receive in heaven.

Father, creator of this world, pray for us. Virgen Maria, ruega por nosotros.

Edith Avila Olea is associate director of justice and peace for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. The 2015 winner of the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, she holds a masterís degree in public policy and a bachelorís degree in organizational communication.

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