Esther J. Cepeda


 Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. 
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(Advance for Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- The last time I saw Sil Ganzó, she was beaming as she gave a tour of her after-school care facility for newly arrived immigrant and refugee children.

Based on her enthusiasm, you'd have thought the tiny, two-room storefront for the elementary-school students had the grandeur of Google's headquarters. But, as I recall, it had few windows, and she was fighting to get local dog owners to pick up after their pets on the loose gravel outside the building -- the barren spot where the trash cans were kept but also where the kids liked to make up games and run out their wiggles.

That was back in 2015, when I visited the OurBridge program in Charlotte, North Carolina, which Ganzó runs as executive director. I learned on my visit about the astounding diversity and expanding population of U.S.-born Hispanics, immigrants and refugees in the American South.

Charlotte continues to expand and serve as a gateway for new Americans. This has meant major changes for OurBridge and for Ganzó's newcomers.

"We've grown! In the last couple of years, we tripled the number of kids to about 200 and expanded to middle school-aged kids. Our home is now a beautiful building with hundreds of acres of green space, a lake and a kitchen," Ganzó gushed to me on the phone recently. "We partnered with an elder care organization and are renting it for one dollar a year! We can take the kids to cook, on hikes; they have soccer fields and have planted a garden."

It sounds like an oasis for children who are often scarred by the effects of war, deprivation and unspeakable trauma -- whether it be from crossing our southern border or arriving here from Syria, Burma, Bhutan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Truly, it's a sanctuary. And I don't mean the new facility -- I'm sure it is beautiful, but when I visited, I witnessed gold-standard student-centered engagement. Kids working with each other to build block towers, teachers modeling self-advocacy and problem-solving, older students helping younger ones with homework, groups practicing English and filling in the blanks with their shared language of hand gestures and smiles.

My visit to OurBridge sprung to mind when I heard Ken Cuccinelli, the White House acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, make a mockery of the Statue of Liberty's famous Emma Lazarus-penned inscription. He suggested: "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge."

What he didn't say was that almost all poor, undereducated immigrants can pull themselves up by their bootstraps -- they just need a loving, helping hand.

"We make our families feel cared for, not just by teaching their kids English, but by advocating for them in the community," said Ganzó, herself an immigrant from Buenos Aires, Argentina. "Last year when we had ICE agents knocking on doors, I had a parent calling me from the closet, scared because they were outside her house. We went to our elected officials to ask that the city not cooperate. Unfortunately, the mayor didn't sign on to do that, like many other major cities, but it gives our families peace of mind that someone is fighting for them."

Ganzó said that both parents and students come to understand and eventually love the U.S., not because they're offered English as a second language classes or after-school care, but because they feel connected to their new home when their own homelands are honored.

"We know we don't want our families to 'assimilate' -- that word is misused because it means that one culture supersedes the other. What we want to achieve is acculturation, where you learn and become part of a culture without losing your identity or where you come from," Ganzó said. "We take the kids to their markets where they see their flags. We'll go to the Nepali store, the Asian market, the Latino food market, the African store -- then we ask them to help us buy the food for their recipes, and it makes the kids so proud that they know something that we don't know."

People who seek to keep others out of this country don't realize that people who make the treacherous and heartbreaking journey to this country do so because they (BEG ITAL)want(END ITAL) to get on their own two feet. They don't want a handout, but their success here does rely on being met with a welcoming hand.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- The massive immigration-reform marches of 2006 started as a response to, among many other things, pending legislation that would have made unlawfully present immigrants into felons.

The marches helped squash the legislation, which was known as the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. But the rallies also had a lasting impact on our country by marking the beginning of a move toward bringing unlawfully present immigrants out of the shadows and into the spotlight to take a well-deserved bow. These are your neighbors, the people who cheaply cut your lawn, help you take care of your elderly, prepare your food from farm to table and clean your homes and offices.

After the 2006 marches, unlawfully present immigrants began to "come out," echoing the phrase that LGBTQ people use when disclosing their sexual identity to others.

"In the last few years, many immigrants, particularly those who were brought to the United States illegally when they were very young, have invoked the narrative of 'coming out.' Specifically, they have publicly 'outed' themselves by disclosing their unauthorized immigration status despite the threat of deportation laws," wrote University of California at Davis law professor Rose C. Villazor in "The Undocumented Closet," an article published in the University of North Carolina's Law Review in 2013.

"In so doing, they have revealed their own closet -- 'the undocumented closet' -- in which they have been forced to hide their identity as 'undocumented Americans.' Notably, by choosing to become visible, these undocumented Americans are slowly yet powerfully reforming immigration policy by demanding that they are recognized as lawful members of the American polity."

Most people will remember a period of time when young, unlawfully present immigrants were making headlines by being publicly "undocumented and unafraid." And then some of their parents started being open about their illegal status.

That really stuck in the craw of people like President Trump and his immigration advisers -- official ones like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon and unofficial ones like Kris Kobach -- who have made demonizing immigrants the cornerstone of Trump's election and reelection campaigns.

Trump popularized making America "great again" -- an idea that seemed to rest on the belief that immigrants, regardless of whether they are legally or unlawfully present, are what made America not great.

Cue the rash of white Americans getting caught on tape attempting to shame non-whites for speaking languages other than English out in public, or physically harming non-whites seemingly for just being themselves. The shooter who killed 22 people at an El Paso Walmart in early August freely admitted he was targeting Mexicans.

Not "illegal immigrants," but what he and Trump's followers consider a "Hispanic invasion."

Hispanic -- as in legal immigrants and naturalized citizens from Latin America and U.S. born citizens from parents with ties to Latin America.

Though the shooter said in his manifesto that his views on immigration pre-dated Trump's run for president, it hardly matters.

Trump's hard-charging campaign to keep immigrants away from the U.S. and make those strident "undocumented and unafraid" people scared is no secret.

Now that every brown-skinned immigrant and U.S.-born-Latino feels they are a target, Trump is moving on to terrorizing those who got into the U.S. "the right way."

This week, the White House announced new standards for obtaining a green card, and thus U.S. citizenship, increasing the scrutiny of applicants' finances to ensure they are not likely to someday use taxpayer-funded benefits like Medicaid, housing assistance or food stamps. These measures are expected to weed out low-income immigrants of color who Trump and his followers consider to be undesirable.

Starting last fall, when the idea of tightening the standards for which immigrants might eventually become a "public charge" was floated by the administration, the effects have been chilling. There are reports that immigrants are forgoing their U.S.-born children's food assistance and medical benefits for fear that if they used them, it could threaten their ability to eventually obtain a green card.

It's all a part of a master plan to make immigrants, even those who are documented, afraid.

But there are a lot of U.S.-born Latinos who aren't buying into this noise.

Many of us recognize there (BEG ITAL)is(END ITAL) a target on our backs. But some of us are happy to say -- to Trump and to anyone who feels they need to rid the country of Hispanics -- come at us.

Everything that happens to vilify and frighten Latinos in this country only serves to make us more willing to call our legislators, to register voters and canvas neighborhoods to get out the vote.

In other words, (BEG ITAL)their(END ITAL) hatred makes (BEG ITAL)us(END ITAL) stronger.

Esther Cepeda's email address is, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group


(Advance for Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Cepeda clients only)


CHICAGO -- If you know a teen -- a relative, a family friend or even just the kid behind the counter at your local pizza joint -- give them a gift today: Look them straight in the eye and assure them that everything is going to be OK.

It's the time of year when tensions are especially high for older children. Recent high school graduates might soon be saying goodbye to lifelong friends as they head off to college and oftentimes-daunting independence. Meanwhile, the pressures on high school juniors and seniors are ratcheting up as seemingly everyone asks the innocent but heart-stinging question: What are you doing after you graduate?

And this is the very least of their stresses.

It doesn't take into account the complicating day-to-day factors of life as an adolescent. Many worry about being able to afford a post-high school education or living arrangements. Others struggle with issues related to sexual identity that can emerge during these years. Some, of course, deal with chronic medical or physical conditions. And there's the mounting stress for many of simply being nonwhite in an America that is increasingly racially hostile.

Can you begin to imagine being a teen and starting the new school year feeling like you've got a target on your back because you have a dark complexion and maybe an accent from another country?

"Personally, I didn't want to go to school," 17-year-old Roman Pastrana told Education Week. Pastrana explained that when his senior year at El Paso's Eastlake High School began two weeks ago -- before the mass shooting there that apparently targeted Latinos and killed at least 22 people -- he felt anxious even though his family is documented and living in the country legally.

"Regardless of that fact, we're just scared. We're afraid that something can go down … Anywhere I go, I feel threatened," Pastrana continued. "A minor who hasn't even voted yet shouldn't have to be afraid of being in school or afraid of being Hispanic."

Education Week reported that similar concerns are shared by officials in school systems that serve large populations of U.S.-born Latino students and legal immigrant and undocumented youth.

"It's the first catastrophic, mass-killing event that targeted individuals -- adults, children -- just on the basis of being Hispanic, being Latino," said Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of the Miami-Dade district, where 71% of students are Hispanic. Carvalho noted the appalling likelihood that some of the victims at the El Paso Walmart were doing their back-to-school shopping.

It might have been the first mass murder to target Latinos in this country, but it may not be the last.

Distinct overtones of white supremacy are a feature, not a bug, of our current president's rhetoric. The attitude that Donald Trump exudes toward people from other countries is simple: They are inferior.

Immigrants are frequent targets of derision in his comments, tweets and applause lines at rallies. He's also, of course, insulted black people and women, and even mocked a disabled reporter. Which group will he target and demonize next?

Teens' lives are already racked with uncertainty and pressures -- to get good grades, find their first jobs, face pressure to drink or do drugs, and generally fit in and promote an Instagram- or SnapChat-worthy self-image. This all takes a heavy toll. A February Pew Research Center survey that 70% of all teens 13 to 17 believe that anxiety and depression are major problems among their peers. Another 26% said they are minor problems.

And a lot of teens work very hard not to show it -- to varying success. Therefore, they need understanding, comforting and support even at the most boring, ordinary moments.

The other day I went up the street to pick up some meatballs for dinner. They cost $6.40, and I gave the polite young man behind the counter a $10 bill. As he started counting out my change, he apologized. "I'm sorry I'm going so slow," he said. "This is my first time doing this."

I assured him that he wasn't going slow at all and that he was doing a great job and would only get better as time went on.

The teens around you are probably bearing a heavy load. Pay attention to them and, whenever possible, give them some kindness and encouragement.

Esther Cepeda's email address is Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. She was previously a a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.