Like other immigrants who have come to this country, their goal is to work at whatever job is available: in agriculture, manufacturing, ranching, restaurant work, sales, house or business cleaning, childcare, gardening, construction or repairing houses or other buildings, or any other unspecialized job. They live where they can: under bridges; with relatives, countrymen, or friends in corners or rooms in houses or apartments; or on the job at ranches. As they progress, they find their own place in a group or alone, and then perhaps with family who join them later. The latter are immigrants who come primarily as spouses, children, or parents, and not necessarily to work.
The migration of Mexican-born immigrants has changed over time. In 1970 there were a million immigrants, today there are 11.4 million, although because of the economic crises of 2007 and 2008 the rate of arrival has slowed.
Indeed, with the growing number of deportations, the number of arrivals roughly equals that of departures. The demographic effect is important: of almost 52 million Latinos in this county, 66 percent, or 33.7 million, are Mexican. Most of this change has occurred in the last 20 years, although no one seems to have noticed it.
In West Marin, immigrants initially came in the late 60’s and early 70’s to work on ranches. Now their children cram the schools, and most immigrants can be seen in the lower echelons of service work. Those working in banks or other businesses were either born or educated here, and they speak English. Few of them hold managerial positions or have their own businesses, but they continue to advance. Nearly every business benefits from their labor—which is simple, efficient and cheap. They tend to be loyal workers who neither complain nor assert their rights.
This is not necessarily because they are satisfied with their conditions. They might stay at these jobs a long time, but after a while, conflicts, misunderstandings and cultural contradictions may arise, such as a resentment of their own servile attitude, as well as an inability to complain or understand local laws and systems. I have translated conversations between employees and employers and have personally witnessed many of these situations.
Some immigrants acheived permanent residency during the amnesty of 1985 and 1986. Others, who were born in Mexico or who arrived later, are anxiously awaiting a very nebulous immigration reform. Even among the amnesty beneficiaries, less than half have become citizens. They are in a delicate situation, because permanent residency can be revoked at any time for violations of law or for other reasons, and can result in deportation.
Without a permit to live and work here—or even with it—the fear of deportation and a divided family is the major concern of these immigrants. Despite the advice of immigration lawyers and experts featured on television and radio programs, they are still vastly uninformed and uncertain.
Few immigrants know what is happening in Washington or Sacramento; instead they are bombarded by rumors of every sort, from the likelihood of imminent immigration reform to the wholesale deportation of all immigrants.
The situation in Congress and the political weakness of the Obama administration and his party does little to lend certitude to a situation that becomes more complicated with the passing of months and years. The attitude of supporters and pro-immigrant groups favoring the reform, and that of some immigration lawyers, ranges from wary to skeptical; immigrants are advised to be cautious and calm and to continue working, while avoiding the use of false documents, driving without a license or doing anything that could put their future legalization at risk, although such legalization now seems uncertain.
To top it off, during the ongoing economic crisis, Latinos are suffering the highest unemployment rates of all ethnic minorities. Their education level is among the lowest and the prospect of individual and group advancement is poor.
Conservative politicians and groups all over the country continue to hold immigrants responsible for our collective travail, and places like Arizona promulgate populist laws that limit or abolish the right to live and work here for these men, women and their families, ignoring the fact that a good part of the reason for the economic growth of this country is due to their labor.
It doesn’t look as though things are going to change much in 2014 with respect to politicians in Washington, much less those in Mexico. It seems not to matter which party is in power there, because with the exception of the “double citizenship” opportunity granted in 1998, that government has done little to help its citizens here in the United States. It seems to prefer that they continue to flee the growing poverty and violence, and send home remittances that benefit the economy. And it is the fate of those same immigrants to be marginalized upon their return home.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher and writer, and a native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to the Light. The original Spanish language version of this column is available, along with archives, at www.ptreyeslight.com.