While the good life made possible by inequality continues in this country, here in our West Marin of artists, intellectuals, environmentalists and liberals the most talked-about concerns range from the controversial and interminable closure of Drakes Bay Oyster Company to the high cost and low availability of housing, the protection and conservation of nature and the promotion of healthy food, etc. However, almost three generations of Latinos live here, relatively integrated into the system but nearly oblivious to worries that don’t have to do with work, housing, education and, especially, their immigrant status. Obviously, Americans are also concerned with housing, work and education, since they are the suppliers; the Latino presence also makes these subjects interdependent.
Americans need the cheap, available and unconditioned Latino labor, for reasons that include this: by maintaining or increasing the number of Latino children in the schools, many teachers and administrators can keep their jobs as a result of the funds available for student assistance while at the same time educating those children on par with the other students despite the cultural and educational differences of their parents and the dearth of adequate programs that together present a double challenge for school administrators. They are doing the best they can.
The immigrant drama, with all its ramifications, seems to go on forever. In 2001, the new presidents of Mexico and the United States, Vicente Fox and George Bush, almost reached a wide-ranging immigration agreement that would have given legal status to millions of undocumented Mexicans. Chancellor Jorge Castañeda jokingly called it “enchilada completa,” Latinizing the very American expression, because the agreement also contemplated a path to citizenship.
But what happened on September 11 of that year changed our national and international policy, burying Castañeda’s enchilada along with the Twin Towers. Those immigrants, and the millions who came later, have postponed their dreams as political gaming increases in this country. During every election, Latinos and immigration problems are subjects of obligatory discussion—as they are in Congress, state assemblies and labor and commercial associations—but neither President Obama nor any important political group has been able to come up with solutions. Other involved countries, with Mexico leading the way, seem only to observe from afar what is happening here in the United States: there might be the occasional speech or agreement, but it is promptly forgotten. In general, these countries go along with what the U.S. does and says. And although the number of Mexicans emigrating to the U.S. has stabilized, Central America is responsible for more and more immigrants who cross Mexico on a train called “The Beast” on their way to this country; they suffer all kinds of extreme violence and abuses during the passage, far greater than that suffered at the hands of the U.S. Border Patrol. The largely complicit Mexican officials do nothing about it.
We are now seeing a new wave of underage immigrants. Since last October, 47,000 unaccompanied children were detained by the border patrol, 34,600 from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and the rest from Mexico. This represents a 92 percent increase from 2013, and the number is expected to rise to 90,000 by year’s end. This unprecedented number has taken authorities by surprise and, since the government is unable to promptly process their deportation, the new immigrants have been housed in military facilities.
This situation, along with the excessive deportations of the Obama administration, has divided families and created an atmosphere of fear in immigrant communities all over the country. Lack of political leadership and the apparent immobility of the American political establishment are generating a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions, affecting millions. Protests, direct actions, petitions and marches by groups of immigrants and their advocates seem to have little effect; immigration reform never arrives and nobody seems to be seriously interested in the subject.
The Obama administration has instructed the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Department of Homeland Security to confront the situation. Hundreds of young people have been moved to shelters and military bases in Oklahoma, California and other states. Authorities are investigating the possibility of housing some in foster homes. They will be processed and then lodged with relatives or approved hosts. The Department of Justice has allocated $2 million to enable some 100 lawyers and paralegals to assist these youths in their appearances in immigration court.
President Obama provoked widespread disappointment among immigrants when he postponed his promised reevaluation of deportations, which have exceeded two million cases during his tenure, more than any previous administration. This delay was purportedly meant to give Congress a last chance to advance immigration reform this summer, but immigration advocates say it will merely allow the deportation of more than 1,000 individuals a day to continue. The reluctance of politicians to resolve this crisis does not reflect popular opinion in this country: 62 percent of Americans favor immigration reform with a path to citizenship for our more than 11.5 million undocumented immigrants (more than six million are Mexican), according to the latest poll.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, writer and native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to the Light. The Spanish version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.