The future and integration of immigrants

02/13/2014

In my last column I dealt with the constant uncertainty with which many Latino immigrants live in this country as a result of their precarious immigration status that prevents them from traveling freely and could at any time divide families by deportation. This uncertainty is exacerbated by the difficulty they have in adapting to local systems and customs. An acquaintance said to me that he believes Latino immigrants in this country do well: they are here because they want to be and the fact that they had to leave their home and family matters little to them. They are better off, he said, because they now enjoy comforts and benefits they never could in their homeland.

As an example, he spoke of an immigrant from Zacatecas, Mexico, who arrived here as a child with his parents. He now has his own business, doesn’t miss his hometown or his previous life, and when he returns with his family (he is documented), he is saddened to see the poverty and ignorance of his relatives, and is moved to help them. This further convinces him that everything is better here and he doesn’t understand why everything and everybody is in such bad shape there.    

Certainly many immigrants have done great things in the United States that they couldn’t have achieved in their home countries. But this is not true for the majority, who fight all their lives to get very little and every day confront the painful circumstances of not being able to integrate themselves into a new lifestyle and culture because of a lack of skills, formal education, language and more. They live a traumatic existence and must take psychological refuge in remembered customs and memories difficult to reproduce here. As their only recourse, they offer their cheap and available labor, under whatever conditions may exist. 

Many have family here and besides working are involved in the education of their children. There they discover new challenges in adapting and learning local systems and customs, with few successes and many mixed results, in spite of the frequent goodwill of teachers and administrators who do the impossible in adapting a school system not designed for immigrants and who may face serious questions of feasibility in trying to implement bilingual programs, such as here at Shoreline.

The high number of immigrants living in this country might make some believe they have decisive political power. In fact, disconnected as they are from the prevailing local systems, they participate little in the decision-making process, the results of which can be very important to them. Immigration reform is the best example of this, but education runs a close second. They have little representation in the halls of political, economic, educational or social power. Their major strength, almost involuntary, is economic: they are the labor force, but above all they are consumers integral to the growth and development of industries and services, such as Spanish language radio and television.

The consequences, good and bad, come as a result of ignoring a serious situation for decades. We have pretended not to notice their arrival, or their growth and development under irregular conditions, and we offer them very few ways in which they can truly adapt and integrate; for all practical purposes we have created a social subclass distant and separate from the rest of the population, while the country benefits from their economic contributions.

Politicians of both parties have profited as a result of the inequality and lack of full rights under which Latino immigrants live. These conditions are created in part by the immigrants’ “illegality” and are used by politicians for their own ends and to win elections. Now that Latinos voters have become an important factor, these same politicians would like to buy their votes with crumbs and deceit, like that surrounding the vaunted immigration reform. This is especially true of Republicans, those promoters of hatred and rancor and ignorance. 

Obama reaffirmed in his recent speech to the nation that he wants to sign immigration reform. But, cautious politician that he is, he didn’t mention the enormous shortcomings of the legislation proposed by both parties, which will result in more deportations and sealed borders. No one talks about the human cost of this reform or its consequences: further separation of families and the uncertainty of the millions who don’t qualify, even though they are family members of those who do. 

And no one mentions those who continue to arrive in this country. All these ineligible immigrants confront a situation much more severe than those who preceded them: a nearly impassable border guaranteed to pose dangers, including death; fewer sources of “undocumented” work, opening the door to increased exploitation; growing limitations on participation in educational and social endeavors due to tightened control over services offered to undocumented people; the enormous amount of time the legalization process will take (not less than 10 years, by some accounts); and the monetary costs. Ah yes, and more imprisoned for the “crime” of being illegal, with raids, arrests and mass deportations.

 

Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher and writer, and a native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to the Light. The Spanish language version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.