Anti-immigrant sentiment is running strong in the U.S. these days. Whipped up by nativists and racists, illegal immigration is often depicted as if it were an invasion by an alien force that threatened to destroy the nation, taking jobs away from Americans, depressing wages, polluting the culture and undermining national security. Such views come not only from border vigilantes, but also from distinguished opinion leaders like CNNs Lou Dobbs and Samuel P. Huntington, dean of U. S. political scientists.
What is missing from such rhetoric is the human dimension. In reality, immigrants are human beings, with families, deeply attached to communities, proud of their culture, dreaming of a decent future, but facing desperate economic conditions that give them no alternative but to go to El Norte to work. In a future column we hope to look at the causes of migration, but first we need to humanize the immigrants.
That is something that we norteamericanos living in Mexico are uniquely placed to do. We can speak to our countrymen north of the border about the lives of people we know, the conditions that force them to migrate, and its impact on their families and communities. We can tell their stories in a voice that may be listened to and through that begin to change attitudes that have made them so unwelcome. Perhaps we can help our compatriots understand why they walk through the barren deserts of our southwest and ride in sealed trucks, sometimes left to die in the stifling heat of the middle passage of their Diaspora.
We know some of their families. We see them grieve for their dead. Just recently a young neighbor told Julie about her 17 year old cousin who died in the desert. Apparently he did not carry enough water with him. While in the desert he encountered the vigilantes. He tried to run and kept running until he collapsed dead. He was picked up and his young body was sent back to his mother. Apparently she was depending on the money he hoped to send to her. Now she despairs. He was her only hope. Now she is drinking and selling herself, sometimes she shines shoes outside of the church while her younger children run the streets of a particularly rough neighborhood near us.
But despite the dangers they keep coming in growing numbers. And it is not likely that a “Berlin Wall” will stop them, even though it is known that many will not make it. Meanwhile their anxious families back in Mexico await worriedly for word from their migrating loved ones and the remittances that will support them.
The impact of this migration on family and community life is profound. Let me illustrate with a few examples. In our neighborhood, there is a small store operated by a young woman named Carmen. We seldom went there because her shelves were largely bare. Then a year ago at Christmas her husband returned from working in the States. He brought enough money to stock the shelves and now it is a thriving business. But during his long absence, Carmen had learned to be independent. This raises new questions. Who should manage the family money? Is what the store brings in her money or his? Now their gender roles are being renegotiated. They are not likely to revert to the traditional pattern.
Or another example. Julie teaches English in the local community center. Her classes are filled with children eager to learn to speak the language. Why such interest in English? They are preparing to go to El Norte where they can hope to have a future. Socialization patterns are changing as youth prepare to leave home in a society where traditionally they had never gone far from their family of origin. Now they expect to live far away in a strange land that speaks a foreign language and has very different customs. Youth are now being socialized for the Diaspora.
58% of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. have left their spouses behind. Another 24% have spouses in the US. The sometimes tragic impact of migration is illustrated by the case of Jose and his wife Maria. They live on the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende with their six children. But he spent half their married life in El Norte. He sent a remittance when he could from the $120 he received each week from driving a tractor in Texas. Maria struggled to raise the kids, four of whom died. She worked any kind of job she could: maid, cook, she sold tunas in the street. She almost never saw her husband in most of their 18 years. He came across the river to spend a few weeks with his family and left another baby on the way. Now after 18 years they have completed their humble house. He now is back, but they remain just as poor as they were when he left. It’s hard to imagine the frustration Jose must feel. She also suffered his infidelity while he was gone. He confessed it, but she never forgot. This has put a big distance in their relationship and is reflected in their very premature aging and also in his new hobby: “alcohol.”
Living here in San Miguel de Allende, we are surrounded by such stories of hope and tragedy. Governor Hicks estimates that nearly a third of the citizens of this state of Guanajuato live and work north of the border. Their stories put a human face on the “alien invaders” that some of our countrymen fear. They are just hard working men and women struggling to make a better life for their families under very unfavorable circumstances.
If immigrant’s ties to family are strong, so too are ties to community. In locales across the U.S., you are likely to find immigrants from the same region or even the same town in Mexico. That is because earlier arrivals have sent word back to friends and relatives about available jobs. They may even loan the money needed to pay a coyote to take them through the Middle Passage. As these groups of “home boys” gather, they form hometown associations. Continuing to feel a strong attachment to the communities they had to leave behind, they pool their earnings and send them back to finance civil projects: dig a well, build a soccer stadium, buy an ambulance, equip a kitchen in the local school. It is estimated there are now a thousand such hometown associations across the U.S. with links to every part of Mexico. This little known civic mindedness is depicted in the film “The Sixth Section”, to be shown in the Snowbird Symposium on January 23.
We should emphasize that the economic forces that have so disrupted Mexican society and displaced campesinos are the result of the globalization of Mexico, the result of its attachment to the U.S. economy as a dependent appendage at the behest of U.S. political leaders and the corporations they serve. The immigrants from here (as well as Central America) are not alien invaders. They are victims of globalization and government policies undertaken at the behest of the U.S. And as citizens of the U. S., we have a responsibility for their plight.
One might well wonder what would happen if the safety valve of migration were not available to the Mexican campesinos? Early in the 20 th century similar dire conditions in the campo gave rise to a major peasant revolution. Now migration and the dollars that come home from it have given campesinos another option, another way to survive. Without it, the countryside could explode once again. Migration has been a major factor in political stability. Those nativists in the U. S. who want to end migration should be careful –they might get what they wish … and along with it some unexpected consequences.