As a child in civil-war-torn Guatemala, Director of Intercultural Affairs Alejandra Molina lived the life of a refugee, fleeing with her family to the U.S. in the early 1980s. Now she is helping refugees at the U.S. southern borders who are hoping for asylum.
“I cannot not help those who are now arriving,” says Molina, who is spending winter break at the Karnes Detention Center in Karnes City, Texas, volunteering with an organization called RAICES, which provides legal and other services to detainees on a pro bono basis.
“I have been assisting refugees, mostly Central Americans, who have arrived on U.S. soil seeking political asylum by doing intakes (taking their biographical information and the story of their arrival) as well as preparing them for their credible fear interview so that they can be successful in their asylum cases,” she says.
Molina says the refugees she speaks with are “hopeful and relieved” to have reached the U.S. following their journeys. Many of them are young men who are at risk from gangs called maras. “If they refuse to join the gangs, they may be killed,” she says. “Even if people relocate internally, these gangs, which are nationally organized, will find them.”
Their arrival in America, Molina says, renders them part of what she calls a “marvelous experiment.” The U.S., she says, “is a nation that has gone ‘against the grain’ in its belief that a democracy finds its strength in diversity, that our laws will find a way to adjust to the realities within our borders and outside of them.”
For decades, Molina has been an advocate for immigrant rights working through the Finger Lakes Solidarity Network, an organization that advocates for legal rights and provides a welcoming community for immigrants in the region. The organization was begun by HWS students, who allied with the Cornell Migrant Program, New York Worker Justice Center and other organizations.
“I am following in the steps of our students,” says Molina. “The Finger Lakes Solidarity Network was started by a group of students who wanted to help Geneva become a sanctuary city; organizations like Girl Up, One to One Friendship Club and the Latin American Student Organization have organized programs that have brought the conversation on immigration to our campus.”
A member of the HWS faculty since 1995, Molina holds a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin and a Ph.D. in Spanish American Colonial Literature from Cornell University.
Below is an editorial by Molina that appeared in the Jan. 13 Finger Lakes Times.
Finger Lakes Times
GUEST APPEARANCE: In America’s arms: From Guatemala City, Guatemala to Karnes City, Texas
By Alejandra Molina
Jan. 13, 2019
As long as I can remember, my youth in Guatemala was “guarded” by armed soldiers in the street and in our homes. I can still hear my mother’s daily warnings: “Be careful, you never know what may happen today.” These daily happenings could be a shootout, a bomb or a political assassination.
Don’t get me wrong: those were also years filled with the joy of being young and during which long-lasting friendships were forged. But in the 1981 I felt my youth was derailed. Family losses and the political upheaval “pushed” us out of our country and into America’s arms. We embraced our newly adopted country: We studied, we worked, we built community, we gave back, and, perhaps most importantly, we began to see ourselves as citizens of this marvelous experiment called Democracy.
Living between the country of my youth and the country of my adulthood has not always been easy. But one adapts and learns to live in the “in-between,” a dimension where nostalgia and hope co-exist — and one that connects us to the immigrant narrative that is at the foundation of our country.
The yearning for this connection took me to the Residential/Detention Center in Karnes City, Texas earlier this year. Assisting Central American asylum seekers with their intakes and their interviews would not only help them, but I knew that it would renew my connection to the narrative that many years ago gave me and my family the possibility of a new life.
In Karnes City, I heard stories that are inextricably linked to this narrative: Young boys being pushed out of their country because their refusal to join a gang meant their death sentence; the street vendors who must pay extortionists an increasing “tax” that, unpaid, meant their death sentence; the man whose family had all been killed and whose body had been riveted by the bullets of the Narcos. You see, once you piece together all these stories, the bigger picture of a war-like region emerges. And the families we assisted are the refugees this conflict has birthed.
It is up to us as a nation to decide what we will do with these stories: Will we push them all aside or will we listen to them and decide if those sharing their stories of violence and persecution should be brought into our fold? Do we choose to reconnect with the narrative that has guided our decision to open our doors and provide the possibility of a new life for “[the] tired … [the] poor … yearning to breathe free … the … homeless, [the] tempest-tossed …”?
These are indeed uncertain times for our Democracy. But uncertain times have the potential to reaffirm the founding narrative of these United States. I choose to believe that, once again, it will.
Alejandra Molina, Hobart and William Smith Director of Intercultural Affairs, was born in Argentina and grew up in Guatemala. She joined the HWS faculty in 1995 as a member of the Spanish and Hispanic Studies Department.
She received her BA and MA from the University of Texas at Austin and earned a PhD in Spanish American Colonial Literature at Cornell University.
She was named Director of Intercultural Affairs in 2006 and has been focused on strengthening programs that bring together HWS faculty, staff and students. Intercultural Affairs, in collaboration with HWS department offices and Geneva community groups, has sponsored campus-wide conferences open to both the campus and the Geneva community, bringing together persons with common concerns and interests.
Molina currently serves on the boards of Geneva 2020, the Geneva Community Compact, the Finger Lakes Solidarity Network as well as the Ontario County Juvenile Sex Trafficking Task Force. She also has served on the boards of the Finger Lakes Health Foundation, the Liturgia Workers Center of Rural and Migrant Ministry, Catholic Charities and the Geneva Public Library’s Personnel Committee.
In recognition of her service to her community, Molina was nominated for the Athena Award in 2007, received an NAACP Award of Excellence in Education in 2008 and the NAACP Mary Ann Mallard Community Service Award in 2010. At HWS, she was awarded the Student Life and Leadership for Advisor of the Year Award in 2001, the Latin American Student Association Award for Faculty Support, in 2003 and the Hai Timiai Honor Society Faculty Recognition Award in 2011.
At HWS, Molina received the 2015-16 recipient of John Readie & Florence B. Kinghorn Global Fellowship, which honors outstanding faculty at HWS who have exemplified global citizenship on a continued basis. In 2017, she accompanied two students to Tokyo for Technos International Week. Additionally, she was awarded the Student Life and Leadership for Advisor of the Year Award in 2001, the Latin American Student Association Award for Faculty Support in 2003 and the Hai Timiai Honor Society Faculty Recognition Award in 2011.