When Agustin Garcia was four years old, he traveled from Cuba to Miami with his family.
Within 45 minutes of arriving, he was deported.
He remembers crying at the airport because he felt unwanted.
It took two years before he was allowed back into the United States.
Garcia, 52, who has become an advocate for human and civil rights, discussed immigration and related topics Friday in the Marshall Center Ballroom. Garcia’s speech was given as part of the University Lecture Series.
Garcia said it was an injustice to call different cultural groups “foreigners” – groups that have helped make America what it is today.
He also questioned the United States’ openness to those of different cultural backgrounds. In other countries, he said, the more languages a person knows, the more they are admired. In the United States, however, people are viewed as more inferior and unusual with each additional language they know.
“Are we a nation of the educated, or are we a nation of fear and hate?” he asked.
Immigration, Garcia noted, is an increasingly pressing issue in the nation today. He said that the U.S. needs to control its borders, but that it should be done in a humane manner.
“If we’re going to do something (with undocumented persons), at least treat them with respect,” he said.
The government used Ellis Island in New York Harbor to screen immigrants from 1892 to 1954. Only two percent of immigrants were deported then, Garcia said, and that was due to illness.
Garcia described the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of hope for the oppressed, no matter where they are from, but said he’s concerned about its status today.
“People no longer respect her,” he said.
He said Latinos have had a noticeable influence on American history. Latinos fought in U.S. wars, he said, and many, far back in history, didn’t even speak English.
“They were part of this force that settled this great nation,” he said.
The fact that U.S. soldiers fight overseas and have undocumented relatives living stateside deserves attention, Garcia said. He referred to the case of Alex Jimenez, an American soldier who has gone missing in Iraq. Jimenez’s wife, who entered the country illegally in 2001, faced deportation earlier this summer.
“Americans that are fighting for this country are watching their families get deported,” he said. “Is this the way we pay the people that are willing to fight for this country?”
Other countries are watching how the U.S. handles questions of human and civil rights, Garcia said.
“We are the ones that teach the world how to be humane, how to be just, how to be equal,” he said.
Garcia stressed voting as a way for citizens to solve some of the nation’s problems.
“That’s where it starts,” he said. “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.”
Garcia said it’s not the language or the culture that defines the country.
“It’s the dream – that’s what makes America so great,” Garcia said.
He said the nation is on the brink of a great age and has much hope for the future.
“I love the great America, the America of justice, the America of equality,” Garcia said. “We all love this country. We all came looking across the border, and said ‘This is where I want to be.'”
The lecture was co-sponsored by Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, Inc., in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Amaris Castillo can be reached at (813) 974-6299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.