OP-ED: Latino Immigration and The Concept of Illegality

The current immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border ignited a fierce debate that left the Biden administration unsure of what to do next. After a tense presidential election, voters were hopeful that President Biden would deliver on his promise to aid migrants and asylum seekers at the border. However, after only a few months in office Vice President Kamala Harris addressed potential migrants, saying bluntly, “do not come.” This was a major disappointment to the hundreds of immigrant families stranded at the border during the pandemic. During these uncertain times, it is important to understand the history of Latino immigration and
deconstruct the idea of illegality to address the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

During the last presidential term, anti-immigrant rhetoric was used to villainize not only Latinos already living in the U.S. but also those seeking refuge here. Those who share this anti-immigrant sentiment may argue that another country’s socioeconomic system’s shortcomings are not significant enough to cause a wave of emigration from that country. However, most Latino immigrants leave their home countries fleeing threats of violence and trying to escape poverty in hopes of finding better job opportunities in the U.S. In many of these migrant’s home countries, corrupt leaders can be bribed to govern in the best interest of the wealthy and powerful elite and use their military dictatorship to keep the poor and working class in line.

The prevalence of these governments is largely due to the U.S.’s history of involvement in Latin America. In their book Latinos: Remaking America, authors Mariela Paez and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco state, “In the aftermath of World War II, the Cold War came to drive U.S. intervention in Latin America. Whereas in the earlier era, hemispheric relations were shaped by a U.S. ideology of racism and cultural superiority, by the mid-twentieth century a relentless, at times fanatical, anticommunism dominated U.S. policy toward Latin America”. During the Cold War, the U.S. grew fearful of the spread of communism and
claimed that the extreme measures they took were to ensure democratic governments were preserved, especially those just south of their border. However, it would later be brought to light that U.S. intervention in these countries destabilized them.

The CIA organized military coups to overthrow various Latin American presidents who were accused of being communists for attempting to nationalize land and backing social reform movements that threatened U.S. financial interests. In their place, notorious dictators like Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, were backed by the U.S. as they enforced their authoritarian regimes. Under their control, these countries began to create the conditions that led to future waves of immigration. Gang warfare spread across multiple countries after military training became more important for the youth than an education. The growth of the drug trade turned neighborhood streets into bloody battlefields and a lack of jobs left few opportunities for people to become financial stable.

People continue to live in poverty and fear, and they do the only thing they can think of: leave everything behind in search of a better life. People risk severing their limbs by jumping on a train nicknamed “La Bestia”, or even drowning as they swim across the fierce currents of the Rio Grande. While some are fortunate enough to make it into the U.S., many are caught by border patrol and are either locked up under inhumane conditions in detention centers or dumped in the desert on the Mexico side of the border. People are left stranded with nothing and are too scared to go back to their home country.

On an Alternative Break trip during my freshman year of college, a group of students and I had the opportunity to work with the Kino Border Initiative and learn from migrants and leaders about immigration as a humanitarian issue. We met with volunteers at the aid center and shelter for migrants and discussed the rise of militarization at the border in recent years.

One of the stories that stood out the most was that of a man referred to as Alfonso. He and his family fled their home in Tecpan in Central Mexico after the mafia demanded he pay excessive taxes to keep his business open. When he refused, they burned down his home with his entire family inside and threatened to have him arrested by corrupt police officers. He, like many with similar stories, was left eagerly waiting for an update from the Biden administration regarding the reopening of the border for asylum seekers. This waiting game is stressful, and the fear of deportation is one that lives not only with migrants at the border, but also with people already living in the U.S. that are labeled “illegals”.

For years my family lived in fear of being caught in a country that would not recognize them as legal members of society, even though my parents have both lived in the U.S. for over 30 years. As their oldest child, my Mexican immigrant parents prepared me for the day when immigration would come knocking on our door. By the age of eight, I had learned who to call and where to wait for family who could take care of my siblings and I if our parents were ever taken away. When I asked why they could ever be taken from me, my father said sadly, “porque aunque hemos vivido aquí por más de 30 años, siempre seremos los ilegales para ellos” (Even though we have lived here for more than 30 years, we will always be illegal to them). As a child, I didn’t understand what it meant for a person to be considered “illegal” and even now the social construction of illegality can be difficult to comprehend.

Today, the term “illegals” is used to refer to a wide group of people including refugees fleeing violence and undocumented families that have had to assimilate into a new culture and society. In his book The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, author Leo Chavez explains that “the current opposition to allowing undocumented immigrants to become legal immigrants (the “pathway to citizenship”) begins with the same association of illegal entry with criminality, and Mexicans are still the prototypical ‘illegal aliens.’”. In addition to the already existing racial tension and discrimination in the U.S., the previous president’s encouragement of the demonizing and scapegoating of Latino migrants casted a dark shadow over refugees and asylum seekers. The American public’s lack of understanding of immigration and their fear of the unknown facilitated the dehumanization of immigrants.

Now more than ever, it is important to take action and aid migrants on their journey to a new life by donating to organizations like the Kino Border Initiative or even becoming a pen pal for a migrant in a detention center. We have the right to use our voice to raise awareness around the growing tension around immigration and highlight the failure of the current administration to uphold the promises made to the people who put them in power in the first place. In an interview during his presidential campaign, Joe Biden asserted that his administration would “restore our moral standing in the world, and our historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers and those fleeing violence and persecution”. If U.S. intervention in foreign countries has made problems there worse, the country’s leaders should be better prepared to offer sanctuary to migrants, not hold them hostage in detention centers. The way the U.S. government treats other people is a reflection of how it treats its own citizens, but that is a topic for a different discussion.

Author: Samantha Rodriguez