I stood talking on the phone outside of Washington Elementary, a public school in a low- to middle-income neighborhood of Washington, D.C. I worked with families at the school through a nonprofit organization called Grace House, and in my role as a Community Support Worker, I connected them with basic resources including food, shelter, health services, and legal aid. I told my mom over the phone, “I’m going to start doing house visits with my clients.” My mom, possibly taking my call from our six-bedroom house in a historic neighborhood of Atlanta, knew this meant going to homes of Latino immigrants, many of whom were undocumented.

There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “I’m not sure if I like you doing house visits, Mellie. Is that safe?” The anger welled up inside of me. What do you mean, is that safe?! Who and what are you listening to on the news? I thought. “Mom,” I said. “This is important to me. My clients need help. They would never do anything to hurt me.” “I’m your mother, Mellie,” she said. “Can’t I just be concerned with your safety?”

NO! Shouted the twenty-three-year-old, self-righteous side of me. No, you can’t, Mom! Not if it means making me feel bad about my job, and making me think that you don’t understand what my clients are going through, and how they would never hurt me!

But if I was so sure that they would never hurt me, then why did I hesitate when approaching one of my client’s apartment buildings on a house visit? Why did I think to myself, Well, it’s a sunny day. Some cars are going by, so I don’t think anything will happen to me. I thought these things because, like my mom, I had heard the stories about immigrants: they’re violent, and they bring crime and drugs into the country. I don’t remember having any strong convictions about immigration prior to my work with immigrants, besides that, when it came to politics and policy, I just accepted the mainstream conservative viewpoint on it.

Working with Latino immigrants put me in a position to see that the rhetoric around immigrants is often false and leads to misconstrued policy. I grew up in a politically conservative family and I still maintain many conservative values, but as a result of my work, I have a liberal view on immigration. This is a book about my time working with immigrants, and what I learned as a result of my experience.

My mom and I were not alone in our misinformed beliefs about immigrants and crime. A Gallup poll shows that 42 percent of Americans believe that immigrants are making the crime situation worse in the United States.[1] Meanwhile, an article from the Cato Institute says, “All immigrants have a lower criminal incarceration rate [than citizens] and there are lower crime rates in the neighborhoods where they live, according to the near-unanimous findings of the peer-reviewed evidence.”[2] The data shows the disconnect between commonly held beliefs and reality.

The immigrants I worked with came to the United States because their countries were riddled with poverty, violence, and corruption. They went to school, worked one or more jobs, and wanted to learn English. But political candidates and representatives often vilify immigrants as job-stealing, drug-dealing criminals. In the same speech that Donald Trump announced he was officially running for president, he said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”[3] Based off of my experience of working with immigrants, I don’t agree with the image of immigrants that Trump depicted in this speech, or with similar rhetoric that I’ve heard from other candidates and representatives.[4]

While Trump called out Mexican immigrants in this specific speech, more immigrants are now returning to Mexico than entering into the U.S., as the Mexican economy has improved and there are now more jobs in Mexico.[5] Most Latino immigrants now come from Central American countries including Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and they are fleeing because their home countries are plagued by poverty and violence, which the U.S. played a role in perpetuating.[6] However when they seek refuge in the U.S., we tell them that they can’t stay here either.[7]

To understand immigration in the U.S., it is crucial to separate fact from fiction. By sharing my story of working with immigrants, I hope to put a human face on the immigration issue. The point of my book is not to give a list of policy recommendations, but rather to emphasize a person-focused framework for thinking about immigrants and immigration. The same way that my personal encounters with immigrants forced me to question my own beliefs, I hope this book will expand readers’ thinking on the issue and lead them to ask themselves what they believe about immigrants, and why they hold those beliefs. I hope my book will foster a discussion about treating others with compassion, regardless of their legal status.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be sharing excerpts and stories from my book, Hola Miss, in this article series. Hola Miss launched on April 9, 2020 on Amazon — here is the link to learn more! If you want to connect, you can reach me via email at mellienapolitano@gmail.com.

[1] “In Depth: Topics A to Z: Immigration,” Gallup, 2020.

[2] Alex Nowraseth, “Illegal Immigrants and Crime — Assessing the Evidence,” Cato Institute, March 4, 2019.

[3] “Transcript: Donald Trump Announces His Presidential Candidacy,” CBS News, June 16, 2015.

[4] Johnny Kauffman, “Georgia Candidate for Governor Doesn’t Plan to Use ‘Deportation Bus’ to Deport Anyone,” NPR, May 16, 2018.

[5] Michelle Mark, “More People Are Moving From the US to Mexico than the Other Way Around,” Business Insider, May 30, 2019.

[6] Daniel Gonzalez, “The 2019 Migrant Surge is Unlike Any We’ve Seen Before. This Is Why,” USA Today, September 25, 2019; David Gonzalez, “In Today’s Headlines, Echoes of Central America’s Proxy Wars of the 1980s,” The New York Times, February 27, 2019.

[7] “Asylum Decisions and Denials Jump in 2018,” TRAC Immigration, November 29, 2018.

Catholic author; Public servant; Wife, mom, and middle-child peacemaker