I was an undocumented immigrant. And the recent immigration rallies across the country have been a powerful reminder of what makes this country great and why I'm proud to be a part of it.
On May 1, I joined a march with hundreds of thousands of people that covered 50 blocks in Los Angeles. I was there with my 57-year-old mother, who was marching for the first time in more than 20 years.
Her eyes were brimming with tears as she looked around to see the throngs of immigrants dressed in white T-shirts and waving U.S. flags.
Minutes earlier, we had been discussing the terrifying tale of our crossing over the U.S.-Mexico border 26 years earlier.
We came as a terrorized family. In El Salvador, we survived five years of separation, civil war, unemployment and poverty. My mother, like hundreds of thousands of mothers, left her children to come to the United States to earn enough to support us. The civil war in El Salvador was just beginning to explode, as more than 80 percent of the population -- who were living in poverty -- called for change.
I was part of the mass exodus of Salvadorans to the United States in the early 1980s. I came here to replace memories of dismembered bodies, of malnourished children playing in the dirt and soldiers butchering their own people.
We immigrants come to the United States not because we want to work at jobs that most Americans won't do -- like cleaning toilets, washing plates and picking vegetables.
Nor do we come to become targets of hatred from people who blame us -- instead of U.S. corporations and a business-cozy government that push global development policies based on greed.
We come to this country because it is our only choice.
Back in El Salvador, the civil war has transformed itself into an economic war.
More than 300 Salvadorans leave their country for the United States every day. That number may soon increase.
In March, my former home country implemented the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
The trade agreement could put thousands of small merchants out of work. And it could flood the country with subsidized U.S. agricultural products, further diminishing the ability of local farmers to compete.
As a result, more Salvadoran mothers like my own will head to the United States.
Comprehensive immigration reform is necessary. But it is inhumane keep families separated -- especially when U.S. foreign and trade policy continues to create the biggest push for people to leave their countries.
It is also time for a comprehensive trade policy reform that prioritizes people, communities and the environment.
My mother has marched in the streets only twice in her life. The first time was in 1986, when the government granted amnesty, allowing her to become a U.S. citizen. I became a U.S. citizen about a decade later.
Now we march hand in hand to heal.
We march to oppose the inhumanity of being smuggled across the border in the trunk of a car.
And we march to exercise our civic rights.
Ana Perez is director of the Latin American Program at Global Exchange, an international human rights group based in San Francisco (www.globalexchange.org). She can be reached at email@example.com.