The boy was 9 years old.
He had kind brown eyes, a small frame and a gentle disposition that made him more likely to punctuate a point with a joke than his fists. His mother knew even then what his adult life would later confirm: He was not a fighter.
Around her, a violent revolution had erupted, and she faced an impossible decision: Allow armed men to pluck her son from her and force him into battle, or send him away from their home town in central Mexico, alone.
Melecio Acosta arrived in the United States in 1910, the same year the Mexican Revolution began, according to his naturalization paperwork.
He was an “unaccompanied minor” before that term was coined by the U.S. government to describe children who enter the country without parents, and before the Trump administration tied that phrase to MS-13 gang members.
He was also my grandfather, a man who laughed with his whole body and who, more than 80 years after he entered the country, inspired my application essay to Stanford University, a place he had paved a path toward without even knowing it.
In recent days, there has been much outrage and confusion about two issues affecting immigrant children.
The hashtags #WhereAreTheChildren and #MissingChildren spread across social media with fury over Memorial Day weekend, accompanying criticism of the federal government for allegedly losing track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children who were torn from their parents’ arms.
The problem with that criticism is that it mistakenly and confusingly conflated two issues — testimony from federal officials about the unknown whereabouts of 1,475 unaccompanied minors who were placed with sponsors last year, and recent actions by the Trump administration to separate families who cross the border illegally.
Here’s the distinction. One group is made up of children who came to this country alone. The children in the other group are now being forced by our government to be alone.
For some people, the tangling of these two topics might be reason enough to dismiss the public outrage they stirred. But here’s why they shouldn’t. No matter how these migrant minors came to this country — holding someone’s hand or carrying their own bags — they are children. More than that, they are children escaping situations so dire in their home countries that their parents were forced to choose for them between two terrifying options: the unknowns of life here or the certainties of life there.
Now that they are here, how we treat them is a reflection of who we are as a society. As more narratives of families forced apart emerge, so, too, do descriptions of wrenching goodbyes.
There’s the 3-year-old who asked his older brother “Where’s Mommy?” each day they spent away from her in a shelter, as detailed in a Washington Post story about a family that came from El Salvador after a gang threatened to kill one of the children.
There’s the 18-month-old who cried as his mother placed him in a car seat and couldn’t even be comforted by her, “because the officers slammed the door shut as soon as he was in his seat,” the woman said in an account that MSNBC’s Chris Hayes shared on Twitter late last week.
An article in the Arizona Daily Star over the weekend describes tears streaming down the face of a 36-year-old Guatemalan woman who was led out of a federal courtroom without being told when she would see her sons, ages 8 and 11, again.
The article also contains this disturbing detail about the woman, Alma Jacinto, that sparked the spread of another hashtag, #YellowBracelet: “Jacinto wore a yellow bracelet on her left wrist, which defense lawyers said identifies parents who are arrested with their children and prosecuted in Operation Streamline, a fast-track program for illegal border crossers.”
We can debate what past presidential actions led us to this point, and we know from the Obama-era pictures of children in detention centers that were misleadingly attached to the recent anti-Trump critiques that there is blame to spread. But at some point, we have to acknowledge this is where we are now. Yellow bracelets that used to show our solidarity for finding a cure for cancer, supporting our troops and preventing suicides are now on the wrists of immigrants we are sending our harshest message to yet: They and their children should no longer expect to find a better life here.
We are losing our humanity in an effort to protect our nationality. And we are doing this knowing that immigrant children have long crossed our borders, alone and with their parents, and have helped shape our society.
My family’s immigration history is complicated. Many of my ancestors were in Texas before it became part of the United States. This includes a great-great-grandfather described in newspaper accounts as an Aztec Indian who settled in Texas and was forced by Mexican troops during the Battle of the Alamo to bury their dead.
Then there is that 9-year-old boy who came from San Luis Potosi. I don’t know all the struggles he faced after he arrived alone. But I know this: He grew into a man who worked much of his life as a laborer and a gardener, and he married a woman whose intellect impressed her teachers but whose circumstances left her working as a maid until long after her hair turned gray. Together, they built a house on a lot they bought in San Antonio for $245 and they turned one room into a library.
There, the shelves grew crowded over the years with books and framed photos of the nine children they raised, two of whom served in the military, and the dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren whom they watched seize opportunities they never had. One of those grandchildren became a lawyer, another a teacher, another an engineer, another an optometrist and yet another a partner at New York private-equity firm.
In the essay I wrote for my college application, I described the summer my grandfather asked my mother to let me stay with him. I was 10 and would have rather been home playing Nintendo or reading, but I spent my afternoons with him in a room with a sofa held together with tape. He spoke mostly Spanish and I spoke mostly English, and yet we somehow found enough in common that we passed hours laughing.
Then after a week of establishing a routine, he told my mother to let me stay home one day. That afternoon I wasn’t with him, he had a stroke that he never recovered from. It took years before I recognized what he had done. He had spent his entire life making sacrifices for his family, and toward the end of it, he had made another. By not letting me take care of him, he took care of me.