Humans have left their places of origin to live in other places from time immemorial. Though the original nomads demonstrate our proclivity for the process, a sedentary lifestyle has almost come to define humanity. One of our identifying characteristics is to belong to a place, and be part of the creation of our own homeland and culture.
As they have throughout history, however, migrations continue today, more than ever. These are brought about by internal and external wars, invasions, conquests, persecution, trafficking and slavery, abuse and poverty; by natural catastrophes, such as floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, droughts and disease; and even by “divine decisions.” In our modern and sophisticated world, with the possibility of wealth, satisfaction and a good life for everyone, the differences between the haves and have-nots—be they countries or social groups—generate wealth, poverty and the enormous gap in between that prompts economic migrations.
Large groups of humans move like ants facing death in order to arrive at a place where they can find work, food, housing, a decent life and some dignity. To reach Europe, sub-Saharan Africans board unsafe boats to drown in the Mediterranean; others perish in the desert. En route to the United States, thousands of Central Americans suffer every kind of abuse—rape, robbery, kidnapping, mutilation and death—as they cross Mexico, often alongside Mexican migrants, with whom they drown in the Rio Bravo or die by the dozens in the Arizona desert. If they make it to their destination, many are jailed or deported. Cubans, Caribbeans, South Americans, Asians and even Europeans suffer the indescribable. And still they come.
Poor and undeveloped nations provide rich, advanced nations or regions with these immigrants, who are willing to offer their cheap manual labor in return for what may be in store, thus benefiting local economies. The equation is simple: without a strong economy that can absorb them, immigrants would not come. Before the recession of 2007, the number of Mexican immigrants had averaged more than 500,000 a year; that number was reduced to zero in 2010, meaning the number of those arriving equaled the number who returned or were deported to Mexico.
The United States receives the majority of these immigrants, and though the benefits derived are thought by many to be mutual—such as the money sent home as remittances—the reality is that most of them pay dearly for their audacity of living and working without permission, and the consequences can last for several generations. In a confusing and contradictory maneuver, they are permitted to come and work but are still declared illegal or undocumented and are persecuted at will. It is calculated that there are some 11 million in this condition, and though they are mentioned daily in the news, almost nobody acknowledges their existence.
These immigrants are invisible, prohibited beings, living without rights in the shadows of society, threatened with deportation or imprisonment. They become elusive, frightened, timid and discreet. They cannot visit their children, spouses or relatives in their home countries, take advantage of social services, drive cars (despite the new changes in some states), vote to elect representatives or live a normal life. In fact, they live a double life. They are often confused with the fortunate ones who were legalized or born here. They are marginalized and victimized by every kind of abuse, because they accept almost anything in order to live an unnoticed and unremarkable life. It is difficult to obtain jobs, so they tend to stay longer in whatever job they can get. In places like West Marin, people say they treat immigrants as equals, when it is obvious that immigrants neither feel nor live this pretended equality.
And they are trapped in a dream of a legalization that appears to be obtainable but is virtually impossible to realize. This country, its politicians and its citizens play an enormously hypocritical game with these immigrants, grateful that they labor in jobs almost no one else would take while at the same time reviling and criticizing them for their origin and status; they deny them rights, including the ability to live a tranquil, honest and productive life without the constant threat of jail or deportation.
In recent decades, demonstrations and avowals of support have availed the people very little. Republicans and Democrats have used them as pawns in their perverse game of political power. Given the Republican anti-anything-Obama campaign, the President relied on executive action to initiate measures that would have benefitted some five million undocumented immigrants. The enthusiasm and joy of those millions went by the board when a federal judge in Texas blocked the initiative, setting them back in legal limbo in this country of schizoid dreams.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, writer and native of Puebla, Mexico. The Spanish version of this column is available online.