We wanted to learn about immigration. So Sabina told us her story about leaving Colombia for the U.S. to escape violence and embrace opportunities.
To understand immigration, we must listen to immigrants as they tell their stories.
In our podcast, we spoke to Sabina Wills, a 17-year-old Colombian who recently moved to New York City.
Sabina spoke of Colombia’s political violence and the difficulties she faced growing up as the daughter of a politician. We learned of the gaping economic differences between classes in her native country.
Education, she said, is not very valued in Colombia, and a young person’s options can be limited, putting a lid on economic advancement. For her, it was important to move out of the country to the United States.
While she is glad for the opportunities she has in the United States, she said some Americans jump to conclusions when they learn she is from Colombia because they have certain negative stereotypes about immigrants from that Latin American country.
Here is a transcript of our podcast.
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Hi, I am Hanna Rahman. And I am Sadie Dyson.
This podcast is focused on immigration today and the lives of immigrants coming to America. We are interested in learning about the immigration experience for individuals. It is important to explore immigration in the United States because we must understand why people emigrate and clear out misconceptions.
Our diverse community includes many immigrants from around the world. Our podcast has one interview from a younger immigrant, Sabina Wills. Sabina is a 17-year old Colombian immigrant. She is an 11th-grade student at the Hewitt School. Sabina was born in Bogotá, Colombia, which is the capital. When she was five years old, she moved to Madrid, Spain for a year and then returned to Colombia. She stayed there until she recently moved to the U.S. at 17. She has a brother and a sister. Sabina’s mother was in politics and created her own political group in Colombia. Their family has moved to New York for her mother’s work as a diplomat for the United Nations.
Sabina’s mother is Alexandra Moreno Piraquive, a Colombian lawyer and politician, who served as a senator of Colombia from 2002 to 2014. She is the co-founder of the Independent Movement of Absolute Renovation, a conservative social and political party with a communitarian ideology, in which she has been Vice President and President.
We asked Sabina many different questions about her identity and what America means to her. We will share information about her background, experience coming to the U.S., reasons for leaving her home town and challenges she has encountered. As we weave her story into the larger topic of American immigration, we will explore U.S. immigration laws and the asylum-seeking process, along with flaws in our system. We will discuss what America means to immigrants and how our country represents itself with its immigration policies.
Recently, the U.S. has not welcomed immigrants.
The general definition of immigration is the “international movement of people to a destination country of which they are not natives or where they do not possess citizenship in order to settle as permanent residents or naturalized citizens.” In the U.S., immigration is the main source of population. The U.S. is often called a “melting pot” because of the joining of many nationalities, cultures and ethnicities, but also for its assimilation. America has the largest immigration population, with 47 million immigrants as of 2015. This number is 14.4% of the population.
Many immigrants from around the world had an opportunity to migrate and succeed in America, until 1924, when The Immigration Act was established. This was a United States federal law that prevented immigration from Asia. This act limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the U.S. through a national origins quota, which was 2% of that nationality already living in the United States in 1890. This quota provided immigration visas to 2% of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. The number of immigrants was increasing dramatically, and the U.S. wanted to decrease it, and the House of Representatives signed/passed a bill with a vote of 322 to 71.
According to the American Immigration Legal Council, “currently the body of law governing current immigration policy is called The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The INA allows the United States to grant up to 675,000 permanent immigrant visas each year across various visa categories.”
“United States immigration reform was built on the following principles: reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills essential to the U.S. economy, supporting refugees and encouraging diversity.” I believe this statement of reform is not followed because in the past few years, our country and government has not been supportive of immigrants and are very excluding.
While researching current immigration in the U.S, I realized a common reason for leaving one’s home or seeking asylum is due to persecution on account of race, religion, nationality and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
In current immigration, asylum-seeking U.S. policies have made it much more difficult for refugees to claim asylum at the U.S. border. Asylum seekers are required to put their names on informal lists at the border and wait for weeks or months for their number to be called. Under the Migrant Protection Protocols, asylum seekers are required to wait in Mexico for their hearings in the U.S. immigration court.
They experienced violence in Colombia.
Our interviewee, Sabina, falls under the persecution-of-political-opinion-and-membership category. Although she is not an asylum seeker, Sabina explained that due to her mother’s founding of a political party, they were targeted and experienced violence during their life in Colombia.
We asked Sabina about her childhood and her experience growing up in Colombia and how it might be different from the U.S.
Sabina says, “My mom was a senator. Ever since I was little, I’ve been really protected. I’ve had nannies, and whenever I went out, I would have two bodyguards or sometimes four.”
Sabina elaborates on the socio-economic differences in Colombia. She says, “I live with my mom ever since then, and my dad has his own apartment. My mom has the good life, and my dad has a different life. So with my mom, I am super protected. I have everything. I have a good house, she gave me a good education, as good as it can get in Colombia, good neighborhood, good everything. But when I went to my dad’s house, it wasn’t like that. He lived alone, he didn’t have any help, he was in an apartment, and he didn’t really have a job, so he was basically living off of my mom’s family, because he’s old, he’s like 50-something. At that age, it’s really hard for people to get a job. For the last 10 years, my dad hasn’t had a job basically. I love him and I am proud of him, but that’s an issue.”
The U.S. offered safety, better opportunities.
As Sabina discusses in her interview, a large part of her leaving Colombia had to do with the current political situation of her country. Since her mom is very involved in politics, Sabina from a young age needed to be protected and have security. She describes even being exposed to the corruption of her government. As a result, her immigration had a lot to do with taking advantage of a safe, better opportunity in America. Searching for better opportunities is a prevalent theme for many immigrants, but it is a privilege to be able to take advantage of it.
We asked Sabina to elaborate on the reasons she was so protected throughout her life and the dangers regarding the politics in Colombia.
She explains, “Since my mom worked in politics, whatever, my mom made her own political party in Colombia. It’s called MIRA (Spanish: Movimiento Independiente de Renovación Absoluta). She made it from scratch, she was a president, she made it herself with her cousin Alberto Baena…. My mom’s family is really into politics, there are a lot of cousins from my mom’s side that are into politics, so every single one of them is ultimately a target, but for me, my mom was the most relevant. But nowadays, my mom’s cousin is the most relevant, and my mom is not really in there anymore because she’s not part of it right now.”
Sabina explains a dangerous situation she experienced when she was young due to her mother’s political presence in Colombia. “Since my mom and my dad divorced, my dad would come late to our house to visit us because he didn’t have a good schedule. Basically, one time my little brother, he is two years younger than me, so he was like five. He thought my dad came home, but actually it was some men. I don’t know if they wanted to kidnap us or just rob us, but they knew who we were because of my mom. My mom wasn’t home because she was working, because my mom would work until 12. She would come home at 11 or 12, and then she would sleep until 4 am and then go back to work. So she wasn’t there. But I was with my sister, my brother and my two nannies. They put us in my brother’s room and like tied us up. I wasn’t scared, like none of us were scared except one of the nannies was crying. I just didn’t feel like anything would happen, but it did. Basically, I untied myself, and I my other nanny untied herself, too, and she called the police. Then my mom came. My mom decided to buy another house, and after that we started the process of moving again…. We needed more security because it was an inside job. We needed more security. We were always so protected because Colombia itself is dangerous.”
‘In Colombia, we always had this bulletproof car.’
Sabina explains how dangerous situations depended on who you are and where you are, but for her, it was always a possibility.
She says, “My cousins, they moved to Panama because they were persecuted a lot, and that happened to me once. That happened to me once. I was going out one time. A motorcycle started following me. I couldn’t go out by myself. I was always with people, with my bodyguards. I always had a car. We always had this bulletproof car.”
Due to her mother’s role and her success, people knew her, and her family was constantly in the public eye.
She explains, “One time my sister had a stalker. He would visit her and send her things while she was studying at college…. We didn’t have a normal childhood, like normal Colombians…. We were called out a lot on TV because not everyone loves my mom. She did really good stuff, but of course there’s like negative and there’s positive.”
Sabina’s mother was given the opportunity to move to New York or Paris for work, and they chose New York. She explained a lot of the motivation to leave was because anything can happen in Colombia. She says, “You are exposed to everything, anything can happen. I’ve had crazy experiences at school or just being on the streets. You can see anything, and it’s disturbing.”
Sabina says she has a normal life here in a private school in New York, but it is very different. She says, “None of these girls, they were also so protected, but in a different way than I was. I was physically protected, but here, this is a nice bubble, I would say. But once they go out, they will face the world…. It is really different. I was exposed to the world since I was like four. My sister, too.”
Sabina comments that she was excited to leave and come to the U.S. Although she has many memories and loves her country, but she didn’t want to live there anymore.
‘People think I’m dumb because I come from Colombia.’
Common to many immigrants, the U.S brings a lot of opportunities they wouldn’t be able to find in their home country. Sabina says, “You have the opportunity to do whatever you want. If I want to study Chemistry, you can do it, and you will get somewhere. If you study in Colombia, like Business Administration, you will do nothing with that degree. It’s really hard to get out of Colombia because the mindset is completely different. And once you’re there, you’re going to stay there. That’s it. That’s how I feel. When you have an opportunity, take it, and I did that. I was like, ‘Mom, we’re going to New York,’ because she wanted Paris. All of my friends, they were like, ‘No, I want to stay here. Maybe I’ll be a news reporter or whatever….’ There’s a bunch of things you can do with your life, but you’re limiting yourself, too, staying in one place for the rest of your life. It’s not good. So I was like up for it. I loved coming here. There’s a language barrier, of course, but … I’m pretty open-minded. I can take a challenge. So I didn’t have any emotional or, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go.’ I knew that I needed to be here…. It’s not easy, but it’s not hard. Here, my only concern is to study, that’s it. Still, I’m going to go college. Any college that will take me, I will go there. I’ll just go on with my life. In Colombia, it is more restrictive.”
We asked Sabina about some stereotypes she has faced in the U.S. She explains that when she visits her grandmother in Florida, she encounters stereotypes people assume about her or her sister. She says people assume she likes certain things because she is Latin. She explains how it’s different being Latina than Colombian. She says when people find out she’s Colombian, they suspect something, which is not right. Sabina says that people think all Colombians are a certain way and don’t deserve respect. She says, “Literally anyone. From an Uber driver to whatever…. Being Colombian is a huge part of my identity, but it doesn’t define me. Those stereotypes are bad, and other people think that I’m dumb because I’m Colombian, just because they know I’m Colombian. They think I’m dumb or maybe I don’t know anything about politics, American politics… things that go with being Colombian, not only as a woman but in general.
Immigration is central to our history.
Sabina was able to come to the U.S. because of her mother’s diplomatic visa and hopes to stay for a while. Although Sabina was able to migrate to the U.S. easily, many immigrants are not able to and face challenges during the process. Due to our government’s new immigration policies, the Trump Administration has made it significantly more difficult to immigrate to the U.S. legally.
Sabina’s story is one of many unique immigration experiences, including political persecution, socio-economic differences, stereotypes in America and many other challenges. It is important to bring attention to all immigrants’ stories to make sure they are heard and understood. There are a lot of misconceptions related to immigration, so learning about the lives of immigrants and their reasons for leaving assist in clarifying these misunderstandings and stereotypes. Immigration is very central to our history, so it is very important to understand and empathize with immigrants.
Thank you. We hope you enjoyed our podcast!
Sadie Dyson is in her last year at the Hewitt School in New York City. She is part of her school’s Service Board, which helps local communities in New York, and The Wave Club, which she co-started and which focuses on addressing global feminist issues. Dyson’s passions include squash, English and Art History, which she writes about on her art blog.
Hanna Rahman is in her third year at the Hewitt School in New York City. She is interested in law and international affairs. Rahman leads her school’s debate club and runs cross country and track. She is the co-chair of the CAFE (Cultural Awareness for Everyone) committee.