The story begins in a poor town, a farm or an abandoned suburb of the city and its terrible realities. The crop was ruined, there is no work or the work pays little, the children are hungry, the house is falling down, the services are poor or non-existent. There are robberies, assaults, threats and kidnappings. Political violence as well as violence from local bosses, narcos who threaten and kill for no reason, police and soldiers who say they are pursuing narcos but who make no distinction between people and the everlasting economic crisis is increasing. Living is impossible and awful. God is no help. The solution is to become part of the corruption and violence or to make the traditional escape: “Let’s go to el Norte!”
The dream of a better life can lead to decisions that appear irrational to people of higher economic classes: to leave with nothing, paying a stranger thousands of dollars, either borrowed or obtained by selling everything, to take you through unforgiving terrain and dangerous situations. To expose oneself to mistreatment, extortion, harassment, abuse or even death; then, with luck, to arrive at an uncertain and unknown destination not knowing what to expect, starting from scratch with only one’s hands as tools for whatever kind of work might come.
Is it worth the effort and sacrifice? It depends on whom you ask and when. Some immigrants are satisfied after a while, others never. Almost all feel a permanent homesickness. The majority never fit in or adapt, and all suffer the consequences and stigma of illegality, that trauma that falsely makes them criminals, hiding from the police and social workers, not answering the census, pretending and saying yes or no depending on which seems less risky, and accepting without complaint the most wretched employment, treatment and services.
To be “undocumented,” “illegal,” “wetback,” “paperless” or whatever terms are used is a cruel condition that is both discriminatory and exclusionary. One lives with a permanent fear of deportation and in conditions of extreme inequality, without rights and with profound differences because one is ignorant of customs, laws and language. You live excluded as a rule. It might take generations to arrive at that dreamed-of equality, that American Dream which promises so much.
The situation is further complicated by the misguided actions—albeit well-intentioned—and a general lack of comprehension by the citizens of this country: politicians, police, judges, public servants and many school personnel. They neither know nor attempt to understand the immigrants’ reality, their origins and customs, their thoughts and feelings. To make matters worse, new immigrants suffer the negative reactions of other minorities or immigrants who have been here longer, who are already “legal” or who ironically feel that they deserve an advantage over newcomers and should not suffer discrimination.
Without understanding the political, economic and social reality of this country, and dreaming constantly of immigration reform—which never covers everybody—these immigrants live in perpetual anxiety and desire for “proper papers.” They want the same rights as everyone else in a country said to be democratic and free. Sadly, the reality is otherwise. The desire to be legal leads these desperate people to do almost anything to get rid of the stigma. They become victims of bureaucracy and the long and costly process of legalization. Lawyers, notaries and other persons offer to help them and often wind up extorting them or charging them excessively.
The new immigration reform promises some improvement, thanks to the already intense and clamorous pressure of millions of Latinos who live and work in the country and despite the tangled answers from politicians. No one knows how many of the supposed 11 million undocumented immigrants qualify by having lived here at least five years, or will satisfy other requirements and pay fines or “wait their turn” for ten years or more, thus risking being rejected and deported in the interim. They will each deal with a surreal and Kafkaesque bureaucracy, unknown to almost all Americans.
The new reform must try to avoid what is considered the failure of the immigration amnesty of 1986, when several million filled out applications, obtained necessary proofs and papers—authentic or false—and put themselves in the hands of the bureaucracy and its sharks, for whom it was a windfall. That is now seen as having been an invitation for many more undocumented immigrants. Now the plan is to seal the border and the ports of entry in an attempt to bar those who arrive on tourist visas and then remain to live and work “illegally.” Nothing is said of other millions who don’t qualify or who will not attempt to legalize themselves for fear of being deported, or of those who will find a way in through the cracks that still exist, risking more suffering, since the dangers and costs for them will only increase.
The original Spanish-language version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.