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Poverty and the Pain of Migration of Undocumented Immigrants

What the Eyes can See

What the eyes see is a journey of dreams: Mountains and pine forests, small herds of goats and cows cared for by women and children, with big eyes and cheeks, red from the cold, the sun, and the dust. Farms that extend from one side to the other of the mountain range of the Nixcongo between the state of Mexico and the state of Morelos. The hidden houses between the cornfields and the foliage of the plum trees can be located by the smoke of the cooking ranges.

On a little hill apart from this shines the white chapel against the blue of the sky. That is where we got together with the women and children on Saturdays to study catechism, pray and try to understand life better.

What the eyes see when they look more closely is land eroded by excessive grazing and deforestation, rivers and wells dry or contaminated by excessive use of pesticides, plums and shawls that go to market without finding a fair price, young people who can’t find work, old people who can’t find medicine, children without school. What the eyes see is extreme poverty that is seen but not understood.

What We Heard

In order to understand poverty, it is not enough to look. One must listen to those who survive it daily, and in order to listen, one must be quiet. This is what we did on one of our visits to the communities. What we listened to were sad stories that we were told, that Mario died, the youngest son of Antonio and Octavia, that he died from bronchitis, he died because the clinic was too far away. When they arrived at the clinic, the doctor wasn’t there and they had to come back the next day. But during the night he got worse and they started out again, riding on the mule, but he died on the way, just like that, having lived fourteen months. He died of bronchitis and poverty.

Another story we listened to was that Maria couldn’t come today to the meeting because her husband had been drunk for three days and yesterday he hit her, and if she goes out he will hit her again. Why is Juan drunk? Because next week he is going to the States to look for work because there is no work here and not enough money. The men always feel like drinking before they go, it gives them courage. But when they are drunk they often beat up their wives and children…then the women and children are shut up in their houses, too scared to leave or come to the meetings in the little church, because they don’t want to leave the house or give fuel to gossip that their husbands might hear when they come back…if they come back.

We listened to the story of young men who risk their lives to help their families survive, men who conquer their fear of the unknown by trying to become hard.

Eighty per cent of the young men go to the U.S. starting in January and don’t come back until July or August, to harvest their cornfields. While they are gone, the load of work multiplies for their wives and older children, who have to take care of the cornfields, fetch the water and the firewood, take care of the animals, take care of the sicknesses, and also live with the anguish of knowing that their husband or father or brother is far away and who knows how they might be doing.

These levels of anguish that challenge the migrants and their families are enormous and have negative effects on their physical and mental health. Many of the migrant workers that I have come to know in this region of Mexico have gastritis and insomnia and return to alcohol in order to get rid of the anxiety that the traumatic situations they go through during their journey and their time in the U. S. provokes in them.

The danger of crossing the border, like the gangs of assailants, the border patrol, the dangerous accidents that take place when they jump onto a moving train, the long walks in desert areas without food or water can turn into real traumas that severely affect the health, mental and physical, of those who suffer them. Also, it is not uncommon for them to develop grave difficulties in adjusting once more to their community, such as violent behavior with their familiy and neighbors. The humiliations, privations and agressions suffered during the experience of migration can turn into agression and violence when they return to their homes and don’t have a chance to “integrate” everything they have experienced. Severe psychological problems, such as deperession and postraumatic stress syndrome will never be recognized by name within a population that barely has access to basic health services and even less to psychiatric services or counseling.

The conflicts that become unleashed during the difficulties of readjustment after migration, the effects of violence on women and children, the men’s bitterness because of the bad treatment they have received from their bosses, or because of being deported, the wounds from the work accidents, all of these “invisible” effects of migration last a long time in the communities, much longer than the money that the worker earns on the “other side.”

Very Little Research

The migratory phenomenon is extremely complex. The lack of studies about the impact of migration on the mental health of this population is also a part of the problem.

In one study recently published by the Department of Social Medicine of the Medical School of Harvard University shows us the importance of the undocumented migrant workers for the North American economy, such as the serious contradictions that exist. Even though they pay taxes, they have no access to health care. The study about mental health on a world level emphasizes the high cost that is paid because of the impact on the mental health of this population:

“Despite strict immigration laws, ‘special provisions’ in the law and the need for seasonal labor have contributed to establishing migrant workers as an integral part of the American workforce. Estimates of undocumented migrant workers in the United States range from 3.5 to 6 million, with about half coming from Mexico. These workers often suffer from feelings of alienation because of language differences, the loss of family and other social support systems, the disorganizing effects of trying to adjust to a new culture, and adhering to health beliefs that differ significantly from American practice. Undocumented workers also have a fear of deportation and legal uncertainty, and so tend to use health care facilities only as a last resort. Undocumented workers frequently work in unsafe or unhealthy environments but are reluctant to ask for safety measures for fear of deportation or fear of losing their jobs. Those who are injured on the job often try to hide the injury and continue to work. They are also less likely to seek preventative care.

“Confusing public policies further complicate the issues and point to a number of pressing questions. Most undocumented workers pay taxes. Should they be eligible for public benefits such as health care? Many employers continue to hire undocumented workers because of the need for seasonal and low-wage labor. What is their responsibility to their workers? Migrant and seasonal farm workers are one of the most underserved and understudied occupational populations in the United States. How can known barriers to care be ameliorated so that their health needs and concerns do not continue to be ignored or detrimentally underserved? Finally, the stress of alienation and dislocation experienced by immigrants and refugees has rarely been addressed in undocumented workers. What are their mental health needs and how can they be met?” (Desjarlais et al. World Mental Health/Problems and Priorities in Low-Income Countries, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 151).

One Last Look

If migration causes so much harm to the migrants, it is a valid question to ask, Why do they keep coming? Are they masochists maybe? Or is it simply because this is a valid way of survival in this complex world at the end of the century in which there are more and more poor people who have less and less?

I don’t know. I do know that they don’t come here because they like it. I do know that in their countries they don’t have opportunities to progress, nor access to work or education, nor fair markets for their products, nor public services that would improve their quality of life. There are many things lacking.

But I also know that they have their faith, a profound faith that helps them carry all their problems and that could also be a great richness and seed of evangelization for the societies that have the good fortune to receive them–if they knew how to listen to them without remaining blind to the challenge and treasure that God has put into their hands. Some groups do it, they have done it for many years and can testify to what God has done in them by way of these, his favorite and smallest children.

This faith in a God of Love that helps the poor to survive, and those who receive them to be open, needs to be complemented by community actions that allows the migrants and their families to integrate all the suffering and anguish that is a part of migration, and also to harvest the positive fruits of being far away from one’s loved ones and encountering them again.

The development of strategies that help to open the possibilities of integration in the migratory experience is today one of the biggest pastoral challenges for parishes and dioceses on both sides of the border.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, January 1998.