As national debate rages, immigrants and their supporters step out from the shadows

Andy Downing
Hamdi Mohamed

Growing up in Wauseon, a small town 30 miles outside of Toledo, Ohio, Elvis Saldias kept his undocumented status a closely guarded secret.

“I always kept it hidden from my friends. I was the poor kid who lived there, but I wasn't the undocumented poor kid,” said Saldias, 26, who immigrated to the United States from Bolivia at age 9 with his mother; she arrived on a visa but was unable to renew it. “As a kid, I was angry about it. I considered myself equal to other fifth graders, and I thought: ‘Why can't I have the same rights they do?'; ‘Why can't I go back to Bolivia today and then come back?'; ‘Why can't my mom get a better job?'; ‘Why do we have to be afraid of the police?'; ‘Why isn't there the same opportunity for us?'”

Even after being accepted into Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program established by former President Barack Obama in 2012 as a way of providing some legal protections to undocumented children (recipients are granted a renewable, two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a U.S. work permit), Saldias refrained from speaking out on the issue. Instead, he carried on with his day to day, graduating from Ohio State University and accepting a job in insurance at Nationwide, which he accurately described as “the most Columbus things anyone could do.”

But following now-President Donald Trump's ascension to the Republican nomination, Saldias, spurred on by the candidate's hardline immigration stance, opted to step out of the shadows, penning a pair of newspaper editorials, working as a field organizer and visiting Washington, D.C., nearly a half-dozen times over the past year to speak with legislators about DACA and the larger issue of immigration.

“It even helps congressmen to see somebody and hear their story and to know there's a person behind it,” said Saldias, who was able to renew his DACA status for another two-year stint earlier this year (his immigration status remains an open question beyond 2020). “I have friends on Facebook from my little working-class town, Wauseon, and I can see they weren't aware of any of this, but I was in their life, and have been since fourth grade, and I think they view the issue differently now because they know someone in the program. ‘Oh, Elvis is an undocumented immigrant, and I remember playing soccer and basketball with him. I remember him being in my class.'

“I think that is valuable. We grew up the same way you did. We went to the same schools. We're doing the same things you are. I think there is more empathy for Dreamers (DACA recipients) now, and hopefully that's a catalyst for understanding the broader issue and approaching immigration in a more compassionate way.”


Immigration has remained at the fore of the national conversation since President Trump launched his presidential campaign by promising to crack down on border enforcement. Since taking office 18 months ago, Trump has already placed a travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries, a decision which was recently upheld by the Supreme Court; announced an end to the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which granted protections to foreign nationals whose countries experience civil war or national disaster; and placed deep restrictions on the H-1B visa program, which offered temporary work documents for skilled foreigners to find employment with U.S. companies.

Most recently, the issue flared up when, beginning in June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions instituted a policy dictating that adults discovered crossing the border illegally would face criminal, rather than civil, prosecution. As a result, families crossing the border have seen parents detained and separated from their children, who have subsequently been taken into custody and placed in government centers — sometimes hundreds, or even thousands, of miles from their closest relatives. Though Trump later signed an executive order ending the policy, it remains unclear how or when separated families might be united, and the policy still allows for indefinite detention of entire families.

For many, including Melissa Myers, this development served as a breaking point. In late June, Myers spearheaded the 2,000-strong Families Belong Together Rally at the Ohio Statehouse, joining a growing chorus of voices across the city that have started speaking out on immigration, decrying administration policies that protesters view as cruel and inhumane.

“I've never been to a rally, much less organized one, so I had a small moment during the planning [process], feeling like I was in over my head,” said Myers, joined Downtown the day before the rally by co-organizer Usjid Hameed, public affairs coordinator for the Ohio branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and Myers' 7-month-old daughter, Emerson. “The night I signed up [at] to lead the Columbus rally, I read about an 8-month-old boy from Honduras who had been taken from his mother. … I can't imagine Emerson being gone an hour, let alone going months where I don't know where she is. She started crawling on Wednesday! Every week is some new plateau, or something new she does, and I can't imagine missing any of it.”


This growing class of immigration activists ranges from individuals such as Danielle Harlow, one of four mothers arrested in Sen. Rob Portman's office in June amid the act of protesting the family separation policy, to entire parishes. In June, Rev. Sally Padgett, pastor at First English Lutheran Church on the Near East Side, joined her congregation in granting sanctuary to Miriam Vargas, a 41-year-old Honduran immigrant and a mother of two daughters. Vargas is the second undocumented immigrant to seek sanctuary in a local church, joining Edith Espinal, a 40-year-old mother of three from Mexico, who has lived in sanctuary at Columbus Mennonite Church on the North Side since October.

“To me, this is what our mandate is from scripture,” said Padgett, who, with the aid of a number of local Lutheran churches, has made arrangements for Vargas to remain in one of First English's large classrooms as long as needed. “This idea of loving your neighbor, or reaching out and welcoming the stranger, is woven throughout scripture. When these situations are put in front of you, you have to make a choice. It's not just a policy. It's a human being's life.”

These new voices join local organizations such as Community Refugee & Immigration Services (CRIS) that have long advocated for the city's thriving immigrant population. CRIS will host its first-ever Columbus Nations Cup, a single-day, fundraising soccer tournament featuring teams made up of employees, refugees and locals, at Easton Soccer Fields on Saturday, July 14.

“It's interesting, because Columbus is so welcoming and positive that a lot of kids forget Ohio is part of a larger country that maybe isn't as positive,” said Jeremy Hollon, CRIS' community connectors program coordinator. “The travel ban, the wall … they see it, but I don't know if they feel that weight. At the same time, you can flip a switch and they may feel that weight very heavily, if they have a cousin or someone who is undocumented, or if they do have a family member caught up in the travel ban.”

A number of these aligned factions collided at the Statehouse on Saturday, June 30, during the Families Belong Together Rally. Myers served as introductory emcee for the event, which featured one of Espinal's daughters as a speaker. Harlow, fresh off her arrest, was also in attendance, as were a couple thousand fellow protesters hoisting handwritten signs: “Stop calling your racism patriotism,” “Children are not political pawns” and “Jesus Christ was an immigrant.”

“I'm a mother — I have a 6-year-old daughter — and I know if I was one of these parents in Guatemala who is afraid of gang violence, and you have a daughter you love more than anything in the world, I would be one of these women making the dangerous, 2,000-mile trek to the American border,” said Harlow, who occupied Portman's office hoping to spur the senator to take more direct action on the issue of family separation. “I would be one of these women, and if I was one of these women, they would take my daughter away from me. I can't even imagine the trauma it would inflict on her. That's why for me, on this issue, I had to put myself all the way in.”

In an emailed response to a request for comment, Emily Benavides, a spokesperson for Sen. Portman, wrote, in part, “For months, Portman has made clear that children should not be separated from their families at the border. That's why he joined with nearly 40 of his colleagues to introduce legislation called the Keep Families Together and Enforce the Law Act.”

Back at the rally, attendees ranged from young families (one mother of three stressed the importance of snacks and water in helping pacify children as the temperatures climbed above 90 degrees) to grandmother of eight Toni Brooks, who said she felt compelled to speak out against an administration she viewed as increasingly antagonistic.

“I've been writing. I've been emailing. I've been calling. And now I'm out here taking a stand,” said Brooks, a veteran of the Civil Rights era who, as a young girl, once saw Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in nearby Mansfield. “I want my grandchildren to grow up in a world where they can walk down the street without being called racial slurs, like I have. I want them to be able to vote without worry of having their vote taken away by cruel people. … I have a right to stand here and protest against this immigration policy. It'sbullsh..., er, it's not nice — I'll be polite because my grandchildren might read this — and it's not American. I love my country enough to fight for what I know is right.”

It's a point co-organizer Usjid Hameed broached the day prior to the rally, linking anti-immigration rhetoric with other prominent forms of racism and oppression.

“When you examine this in a broader view — xenophobia, anti-Central American racism, Islamophobia, anti-black racism — all of these are interconnected and need to be examined,” he said. “This issue isn't going to be solved on two hours on a Saturday morning, but hopefully if people come out we can at least try to build a more inclusive society.”


On a Monday in early July, two dozen or so teenage immigrants, most from North African countries such as Somalia and Kenya, are playing soccer at Innis Park on the North Side. The goals are turned sideways, making a smaller target for offenses, but it has little effect on the play, which is fast-paced and competitive. One team scores a goal on a nifty header off a cross, and another after a player dekes a defender and then slips the ball into the narrow crack between the goalie and the post.

On the sideline, CRIS' Hollon takes in the action. For Hollon, these games are an important aspect of community building, or “meeting the kids where they are,” as he explained it, helping forge better relations between the city and its rapidly growing immigrant population. (According to the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, an office within the State Department, only Texas took in more refugees than Ohio between October 2017 and June 30.)

“If you aren't lucky enough to be around these communities, it's easier for that element of hate to seep in,” said Hollon, who added that CRIS' mentoring program grew from 25 or 30 mentors to more than 150 following Trump's election, many of them students at Ohio State. “When I hear people say things, I see names and faces. If someone says something negative about the Somali population, 60 or 70 families will come to mind, and it'll be like, ‘Well, no, here are the facts. Here are the tragedies the family suffered just to be here.'”

Among the players on the field on this evening is Hamdi Mohamed, a broad-shouldered 16-year-old who traces his love of soccer through his bloodlines (his late father also played the game). For Mohamed, who was born in Somalia and lived in a refugee camp in Djibouti for five years before immigrating to America with his mother and three siblings in 2012, the sport has served as therapy, a motivating goal (he hopes to play professionally someday) and a way of adapting to life in a new country.

Mohamed, who relocated to Columbus with his family in 2015 following three years in Atlanta, said he first learned English on the soccer field, which helps explain why some of his earliest words were “pass,” “shoot” and “open.”

“When I was in fourth grade and started going to school, I didn't know any English. Kids would make fun of me, and I felt embarrassed about it. The first time, I couldn't even ask my teacher, ‘Can I go to the restroom?' I just had to point at the door,” said Mohamed, who has participated in CRIS' mentoring program for nearly three years and will be among the couple hundred youths and mentors expected to participate in the organization's Columbus Nations Cup on Saturday. “But I'd play soccer at school with different kids, and they weren't from my country and didn't know my language, so that's how I learned. I would listen to whatever they said, and would keep it in mind, and the next time it came around I would know it. ‘Oh, he means to pass the ball.'”

Generally, soccer exists as an escape for the young refugees. Coach Abas Farah, reached by phone in Minnesota where he was participating in a tournament with his adult team, said he tries to keep the talk to sports at Innis Field because “they're kids, and some of them can be hurt by words someone else said, and I don't want that.” At the same time, Mohamed and Farah both said it's impossible to not feel the effects of the larger national conversation currently taking place while living as an immigrant in the U.S.

“When the president starts talking about deporting ‘bad' people, or cutting off refugees, it hurts me, because I know there are a lot of people back there just like me, who need a chance to come here and change their life,” said Mohamed, who recalled walking upwards of 10 miles a day selling ice in Djibouti. He would purchase it from a vendor for 25 cents and sell it for 50 cents, donating the meager profits to his mother. “Some people say refugee is not good, or Muslim is bad, Muslim is terrorists. And nobody likes their culture to be called a bad thing. … These people aren't understanding what a refugee is going through. Refugees worry about, ‘What can I eat today? What can I drink? What can my son or daughter drink?' Go see. Go show them what it's like in refugee camps.”

“I have a lot of family that still live back home in Somalia, and they had high hopes and dreams to come to America one day, and right now that dream is collapsing, and it's heartbreaking,” Farah said.

Still, Farah maintains hope the immigration backlash is temporary, even telling family back home that he believes change is imminent — an idea buoyed by the growing chorus of local voices moved to take action on the issue in recent times.

Not that it will be an easy lift. More than rallying to end the practice of family separation, or focusing efforts on the upcoming 2018 midterms in hopes of electing politicians willing to take more courageous, supportive stances on the issue, CAIR's Hameed said real, lasting change requires shifting the prevailing anti-immigrant attitude that has taken root in parts of the country and redefining what it means to be a patriot.

“The Statue of Liberty says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' It doesn't say, ‘Give me your white, your Christian, your Western European,'” Hameed said. “I think we really need to aspire to those words on the Statue of Liberty, to aspire to those founding documents. We all need to aspire to something better.”