Yasmine Taeb was the keynote speaker at the Kansas Federation of Democratic Women Annual Convention on June 30, 2018.
She shared her own family’s story of immigration to the United States. Her remarks are below.
We were told to wear dark clothing, to only move at night, and to split up once we reached the border to reduce the risk of being caught.
Although more than two decades have passed since my family and I crossed from Mexico into the U.S., the memories came flooding back as I watched the heart-wrenching images of children taken from their parents at the southern border.
I was just 7 years old, and the Iran-Iraq war — which would ultimately leave a million dead — was raging. My older brother was about to get drafted to fight, and most likely die, despite being just 14. So my mom did what millions of other Iranian parents did: she packed up her children and fled the country in search of safety.
After arriving in Turkey, my mother, two brothers, sister and I spent several months living out of our suitcases in a motel during the dead of winter as my mother tried to find a legal way for us to join my father who was living in the U.S.
Frustrated and running out of options to save her family, my mother began to lose hope. Finally, with our visas about to expire, and risking certain death if we were to return to Iran, my mother made the impossible decision to entrust our lives and our hopes for a better future to a smuggler who guided us and traveled with us to Mexico.
When we finally reached the border in Tijuana, Mexico, we were told to run. We started running after crawling through a hole in the fence and ran for what seemed like an endless trek. My mom suffered from a thyroid disease and had trouble keeping up so we started falling behind my 9-year old sister who was with the smuggler. I hid behind some bushes with my 6-year old brother while helicopters hovered overhead. We were terrified of being caught. My mom threw herself over me and my younger brother as the lights of a chopper shined on us, and my older brother then threw himself over my mom to cover her white dress. That’s when I realized my sister had gotten separated from us and was nowhere to be found. I soon realized that both she and the smuggler had been caught by U.S. authorities. With the exception of my mom, none of us spoke a word of English and so I could only imagine what my sister must have felt, alone and scared in the middle of that September night.
Soon, I heard a loud voice coming from one of the choppers. My mom broke down as she realized through the announcement that my sister had been caught, and if we wanted to see her, we should come out of hiding. So we turned ourselves in. The next thing I remember was seeing my sister in a white van, tears streaming down her face.
For two weeks we were kept in a detention center until my father was able to borrow $10,000 from a friend to pay our bond so we could be released. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this experience would shape the course of my life. For years I lived as an undocumented immigrant, studying hard so I could earn a full scholarship to the University of Florida. I did, and, then became a citizen. I went on to earn a law degree, and to dedicate my career to fighting for immigrants and refugees and to ensuring that our country continues to welcome those fleeing violence and persecution.
But it could have been so different. I am where I am today because my own American journey began at a time when immigration law and policy was more humane and not as draconian as it has become. As a result, I was given a chance. I wasn’t turned away at the border. I wasn’t separated from my mother. I wasn’t kept out of school because I didn’t have documentation.
Now all of this is changing. Some politicians are going to extraordinary lengths to deny safety to those seeking it. The President’s ugly executive order purporting to trade the abhorrent practice of family separation for the cruelty of prolonged detention is the most recent example. As Americans, we have a proud history of welcoming those fleeing violence and persecution. It’s a tradition I benefited from. Now it’s our responsibility to help those most vulnerable in our communities and around the world. As Americans we have an ethical and moral obligation to live our values and be a light and home for those seeking safe haven.
By Yasmine Taeb, Senior Policy Counsel for the Center for Victims of Torture. You can follow her on Twitter at @YasmineTaeb.