One of the great privileges of my job is making friends with Latinos who have moved to the U.S. seeking a better life. What they've discovered may not match the dreams that brought them here in the first place, but most will agree that what they've found is immeasurably better than what they left behind.
That's why I am so fed up with U.S. politicians who stoke the flames of discontent promising to “take back our country” and “make America great again”. The latest malcontents to take up these rallying cries are supporters of Presidential candidate Donald Trump. Before that, it was tea-party conservatives united in their hatred of President Obama. To be fair, prominent democrats like Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry have also used similar terms to energize their supporters.
But talk to an immigrant today, especially one from a country like Venezuela, where political mismanagement and despotism have that once-proud country teetering on the brink of anarchy, and you get a different, more balanced, perspective of just how good we have it here in the U.S.
Last month, I visited with a Venezuelan couple who have been living in Beaufort County, South Carolina for the past year and a half. Because they have hired an immigration attorney and are actively seeking political refugee status, they have asked that their names not be publicized. So I'll call them Mr. and Mrs. “Capriles”.
The Capriles are academic professionals in early middle age and parents to one son, age 19. For most of their lives they lived in an oil-rich state in the eastern part of Venezuela. They had a university education, shared a nice home, held good jobs, and were respected members of their community.
Three years ago everything changed.
“Our son came to the U.S. to learn English,” Mr. Capriles said. “When he returned home, the political situation in our country had deteriorated and he joined with some other youths in a public protest. Suddenly, he started receiving death threats from the “colectivos” which we took very seriously, because, in Venezuela it is nothing for a protestor to be shot in the head and left in the streets to die.”
Colectivos are armed gangs who use violence to intimidate and suppress opposition to the policies of Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro.
“I love my country but I love my son more,” Mrs. Capriles said, crying softly as she spoke. “We had family living here so we decided we had no choice but to leave our country. We were blessed to find angels here to help us.”
One of those “angels” was Beaufort resident, Agustin “Augie” Martinez. He's a youth counselor who is also a writer and frequent contributor to La Voz Latina. Augie first met the Capriles family when an elementary school in Beaufort called on him to assist as an interpreter for a young Venezuelan student.
“This child was at his school in Beaufort one morning when a police car pulled into the parking lot,” Mr. Capriles said. “The sight of the police car caused this child to start running and screaming so the school officials realized he was suffering from psychological trauma.”
When the Capriles fled from Venezuela, they left all their material possessions behind. Since arriving here, they have managed to earn enough money to remain solvent. But the thing that keeps them going, that gives them energy and hope for an opportunity to rebuild their lives here is the work Mr. Capriles has started doing with young people in local churches.
“Our Catholic churches have opened their doors to me and my wife,” he said. “They have allowed us to begin working with young people here and doing the same things that gave our lives meaning in Venezuela.”
Republican politicians like Donald Trump may not agree, but to the Capriles, the U.S. may not be “great” but it's pretty darn good considering the alternative.