Put yourself in his shoes


The saying comes from English and refers to a person being better able to relate to the experience (usually negative) of another if he or she puts themselves in the life situation of that other person. Although this saying is heard more and more in Spanish, there is already the phrase, “Put yourself in the place of another.” This does not imply getting into their shoes or having to put them on, what with styles and sizes so varied.

With the new and growing anti-immigrant wave unleashed by the current occupant of the White House, groups and movements for and against those affected, mostly Latinos and especially Mexicans, have emerged as never before. Although this is not the first time that immigrants have been openly attacked, what is different is the widespread offering of help and advice. This may take the form of legal defense and protection, or “sanctuary” places, such as the City of San Francisco and many other places where immigrants will not be chased and where authorities will not collaborate with ICE, the federal agency that enforces immigration laws.  

Yet ICE continues to seek out and chase those it considers to be in violation of immigration law. So it is common now to see protective citizen groups that will witness ICE raids and arrests, or local authorities that will announce coming ICE actions in their area, maybe allowing those who could be affected to protect themselves. Reactions to the latter situations range from support for sympathizers, authorities and immigrants to criticism from those who wish to avoid unnecessary panic and fear among the undocumented and their families.

Many well-intentioned people cannot comprehend the reality of immigrant life and its always present political component, which now seems largely determined by whether you’re for or against Trump. Their situations, usually confronted alone and in secret in their daily lives, is now on everyone’s lips, though it is unknown territory. Many undocumented immigrants live here in isolation, only nominally part of the community. They are uninformed, with little usable knowledge of the economic, labor, legal, educational, cultural and social systems. They are fearful and unable to meaningfully participate.

On one hand, they appreciate the feelings of sympathy and recognition expressed toward them and their families. On the other, they may prefer to remain in the shadows and not be exposed as undocumented to others, including their bosses to whom they may have lied about their immigrant status in order to obtain work, thus jeopardizing their jobs. The law requires employers to ask for work permits, so they themselves don’t violate the law by hiring them.

Regarding those who suggest stepping into the shoes of immigrants because they sympathize with them for the lives they have lived, their reasons for coming to this country and the suffering and hardship they’ve endured on the way, I wonder whether it’s really possible to wear the shoes of someone from such different experiences and cultural backgrounds.

In addition to admitting the difficulty in reconciling such opposite experiences and perspectives, one must also mention that if the economic system hadn’t needed cheap labor in certain productive areas, these immigrants would not have been able to come here without permission, regardless of the reason. Instead, legal means would have been provided, facilitating their arrival and stay, so they could live free of the yoke of illegality and its anguish. There have been programs such as the bracero program, which, although far from ideal, allowed hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to legally work in U.S. fields.

This civilized, democratic, lawful society receives these immigrants with open arms, and turns a blind eye as they violate the law. And so they work, threatened and fearful, unable or unwilling to protest low wages, poor working conditions and often heavy, dangerous work unwanted by locals. Their life is inevitably “illegal.” They can only drive with a false license or without one, and are at risk of arrest for not being able to meet the various requirements needed to live, work, study or travel. Our society, which trumpets its laws, but for its own benefit encourages others to violate them and then persecutes those who do, is a hypocritical and unjust society.

Within this false dilemma and legal double standard, immigrants are now advised to respect the law when ICE agents come: don’t open the door or let them in without first seeing a court order. Refuse to speak without first consulting a lawyer. And much other “legal” advice about their “rights,” when they commonly live with little legal protection and lack even basic human rights. The immigrants understandably prefer to hide or run in terror when confronted by la migra.

With such differences between undocumented immigrants and the rest of us, let me offer some humble advice: nobody should really want to put themselves in the shoes of any immigrant. Please. We do not fit in them.


Victor Reyes is a writer, translator, resident of Cotati and longtime contributor to the Light.