As an immigration counselor for Catholic Charities of Green Bay, Ana Rodriguez said one of her greatest joys was helping immigrants on their way to permanent residency and U.S. citizenship.
“Knowing that they are able to naturalize or even get their green cards — to have a voice — to me that’s everything,” said Rodriguez. “That’s why I love this job and that’s why I advocate for them, because I have been in their shoes. I know how it feels not to have a voice, to live in fear of the unknown.”
Rodriguez has lived in fear of the unknown since her parents, Arturo and Maria De Lourdes Rodriguez, brought her and her sister, Mariana, to the United States in 1998. That fear eased in 2012, when President Barak Obama signed an executive order establishing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
“That day changed my life forever,” said Rodriguez.
DACA provided protections to young people (often referred to as “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children) from deportation. DACA recipients received work permits and Social Security cards.
The future of DACA — and those who have qualified for it — was left in doubt after Donald Trump, who campaigned against illegal immigration, was elected president. This week (Nov. 10-16, 2019), the U.S. Supreme Court is set to review appeals court rulings that blocked a 2017 order by the Trump administration to end DACA.
DACA’s uncertain future, along with its travel restrictions abroad, led Rodriguez and her husband, Victor Amezcua, to make a life-changing decision: move to Canada. Friday, November 8, was Rodriguez’s last day at Catholic Charities.
“I got to know Jesus here in the Curia by my co-workers and by the people who sit in my office,” Rodriguez told The Compass on November 7. “To me, that’s a reflection of Jesus. When they come in need and they want something, when they are hungry or they don’t have a coat in the wintertime, I try to go and find it for them. I just try to find the resources. That is Jesus coming into my office and I think, ultimately, it’s just love.”
From her own experience and from the experiences of people she has served at Catholic Charities, Rodriguez said the story of immigration is about the desire for a better life. While people may not agree with the way her family and other families entered the United States, said Rodriguez, understanding why they did so is an important step.
“Once you get to know the people, I think it changes the way you view this individual, this immigrant who is coming from a different country,” she said. “When you are not open-minded, when you just close yourself to whatever the media is feeding you, you don’t actually get to know the real life stories.”
Listening, she said, plants the seed of understanding. “Once you come to understand their stories, it opens many possibilities. And then you can decide if you want to welcome or not,” she said.
Rodriguez’s story began while she was in third grade in Mexico City.
“My dad suddenly picked my sister and me up from school and said we were moving to the United States,” she recalled. “We had to pack only a few clothes and that was it. We didn’t get to say goodbye to my cousins, just my grandparents. That was the saddest, because that was the last time I saw my grandpa.”
Rodriguez said her father was a taxi driver. “He kept getting robbed and he was kind of tired of the situation and not being able to provide for us,” she said. “He wanted for us to own a home, get an education and a better life for us overall.”
The family traveled two days by bus and semi-truck to Des Moines, where a brother of her father lived. “My uncle offered him a job in construction,” she said. “He had family members in Iowa and Green Bay.” In 1999, they moved to Green Bay, where Ana and her sister, who is one year younger, welcomed a brother, Joseph, to their family in 2001.
“I knew we were coming here for a better life, but that meant a lot of sacrifices,” she said. “My parents had to work most of the time and we hardly got to see them. I am the oldest, so I had to take care of my sister. In a way I understood, but it was still difficult being away from my family in Mexico because I didn’t have cousins, aunts, uncles to talk to. It was just my parents and my sister.”
Rodriguez said school was challenging, but she eventually learned English. “Once I started to learn English, my dad wanted me to translate for him,” she said. “I felt that I had that responsibility of helping my parents in whatever way I could.” She also became a translator for other Spanish-speaking families at her schools.
Rodriguez graduated from West High School in 2008 and enrolled at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. “It took me a while because I was part time and I had to work to pay for my school,” she said.
While she did not have a Social Security number due to her undocumented status, she did have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) provided by the Internal Revenue Service. “Even though my parents did not have legal status, they always paid taxes because the IRS provided them with the ITIN,” she said.
From the time she graduated from high school in 2008 to the time she received her DACA status in 2014, Rodriguez experienced many family transitions.
Her father returned to Mexico in 2007 due to failing health and no insurance. “My mom had to decide, ‘Do I go back to Mexico with my husband or do I stay here for my daughters’ future?’” said Rodriguez. “She had to make that sacrifice and stayed with us in order for us to graduate.”
Rodriguez was married on Oct. 25, 2008. Her grandfather passed away on Jan. 6, 2009, and her mother returned to Mexico the following day. “My mom left knowing that she could not come back,” she said.
After receiving her DACA status, Rodriguez said doors began to open.
“When I got my Social Security number, I was able to work with authorization for the first time and was able to get my driver’s license, bank account and, eventually, my husband and I bought our first home,” she said. “It allowed me to have just a voice.”
Rodriguez began working at Catholic Charities in July 2017 and graduated from the Diocese of Green Bay’s Emmaus Lay Ministry program last spring. “I gained so much knowledge about my faith and it has transformed my life,” she said.
When DACA’s future was in question after the 2016 elections, Rodriguez said she and her husband began to consider moving. “I needed to finish Emmaus and he needed to finish his (welding) apprenticeship,” she said. They were also guardians for her younger brother while he was completing his education at West High School. He graduated last spring and is now in Mexico with his parents.
“We want to be free of the idea of being trapped in a country where there is so much uncertainty with DACA and immigration overall,” said Rodriguez. “We never know when it will be taken away and lose our jobs and stability here.”
She got a taste of that uncertainty last summer, when her DACA renewal was delayed. “I can only work to the date on my card, so I had to be off one day of work,” she said. “HR (human resources) really worked well with me and was very understanding of my situation. From HR to Bishop (David) Ricken, who also knows my story about DACA. He knows how difficult it is. I appreciate their time to listen to it and understand that it’s not easy.”
Family separation was the other reason for moving to Canada, said Rodriguez. After DACA was created, it included an emergency travel allowance called “advance parole.” Rodriguez was able to travel to Mexico in 2016 and visit her ill father and mother.
Advance parole was eliminated in September 2017. “I don’t want to wait anymore (for a permanent solution to DACA),” said Rodriguez. “My mom and my grandma are getting older and I want to be able to go and visit my family, spend Christmas with them. … I am very thankful for the opportunity with DACA, but to feel trapped here, it’s been the most difficult part.”
Rodriguez said the process for legal immigration — which has been described by Democrats and Republicans as a broken system — is nearly impossible to navigate.
“People from Mexico have to wait 20-plus years just to come here legally,” she said. “That’s what a lot of people don’t understand.”
She explained that her husband’s grandfather is a U.S. citizen and he petitioned for her husband’s legal status in 1998. “He just got a letter last year saying that he is eligible for the process, but now it’s too late because my husband is over the age (of 21).”
Rodriguez will spend the next few months in Mexico with her family before flying to Calgary, Canada. “My husband is a welder, so there’s a lot of opportunities for him,” she said. “I want to find a job with immigration, helping people like myself, even refugees.”
Knowing the challenges people entering a new country face and helping them find success is the service Rodriguez wants to provide.
“The stories I have heard from people here have changed my life,” she said. “They came here for help from me, but they have actually changed my life in so many ways. That has been a blessing.”
Rodriguez, who was a Department of Justice-accredited immigration counselor, said she has told her clients that, although she will no longer be here to help them, “there are still going to be people here that will, because we care.”
“I want them to know that when they come here, they don’t see me, that they see Jesus in me,” she said. “Every time I came into work, I didn’t care about how much money I made. I cared about the people who came here. That’s how I can share the love of Jesus. If you don’t’ have love, then what do you have to share?”
*Article by Sam Lucero; appeared originally in The Compass, official newspaper for the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, November 13, 2019.