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A New Mandate for Immigration Reform

As a social scientist by trade, my tendency to categorize human behavior carries over to my work as a Catholic Worker. I have noticed that there are basically two different types of guests that receive care, support and hospitality at Casa Juan Diego: those newly arrived, and those that have been in the United States for a while, sometimes for decades. They have very different problems.

Those newly arrived are, almost always, afraid. Usually they are injured by their journey, physically, psychologically, or both. Knowing little about the complexities of this country or how to survive here, they are stunned, almost awe-struck, at the differences between life in rural Latin America and the ways of a big American city. Behavior patterns that worked well in the fields of Oaxaca or the shanty-towns surrounding Mexico City are not effective here, not at all. The United States is not a nation where politeness, humility and submission to male authority get you very far. About the only thing that does carry over from their old lives to the new is the importance of hard work as the only way to survive. They are driven, and I don’t use the word lightly, by a mission to work . Everything, literally everything, relies upon that magic word.

I have lived in Mexico, and I’ve been working at Casa Juan Diego for almost two years now, but I still consistently misunderstand situations because I fail to take into account how different the world looks to the newly arrived. For example, one very young woman from rural Central America, I’ll call her Angela , arrived at Casa Juan Diego pregnant. She had been raped on her journey to the US by a man that was supposed to help, not hurt her. On the way back from her first prenatal visit (in her third trimester) we saw a woman pushing a baby in a stroller. This sight seemed to shock and upset Angela very much. I thought she was crying about not having one, so I tried to console her. I told her that it wasn’t a problem, that we could find a stroller for her.

But after much confusion, I realized that she wasn’t upset about that at all, she simply had never seen a baby stroller and did not understand the concept of such a device. Women and men carried their babies in her country. Why would anyone put a child into such a weird machine? How could she learn to live in a country where people do such strange and inexplicable things?

Or the man last summer that I am embarrassed to say was driving me crazy for days, ringing the door bell every hour, vexing the staff, asking for bus tickets, food, clothes, whatever. Clearly something was wrong with the man. I suspected mental illness.

Later I found out that his wife and daughter were being held hostage at the border by theircoyote . The man was, understandably, desperate to raise the suddenly increased price for their release, and he was raising money the fastest way he could, selling whatever he could beg for in the streets.

We couldn’t have helped him anyway; any participation in the horrible system by which human beings are smuggled into this country is both illegal and morally wrong. But I still wonder if he raised the money, or if his family had to pay the very high price for his inability to come up with the ransom.

While these incidents of violence are cruel realities for the newly arrived, undocumented immigrants here for longer periods of time bear a different type of burden, experience a different kind of violence.

We are taught in this nation to see violence as an individual experience. An individual or a group of individuals inflict harm on another person or persons: perpetrator and victim. It is easy to see this type of violence and the destruction it creates. It is easy to sympathize with the victims and condemn the perpetrators.

However, there is another type of violence that we are not trained to see, or more accurately, trained not to see. Structural violence is when the injury comes from the very way a social system is designed, when the economic and political systems that are set up and operate for the benefit of a privileged group or groups makes it difficult for individuals who are not in those privileged groups to meet their basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and health care. When poor people starve in a rich country, when they are homeless is a land that has more houses than families, when their children die of easily preventable and curable diseases because they have limited access to health care, they are the victims of violence more pervasive and more damaging than any individual act could be. And, while there is recourse available for migrants when they are victims of individual crime, there is none for the structural violence they experience.

After working a while at Casa Juan Diego, you start to understand violence in this way, as a heavy weight upon a group of people, a burden that cannot be overcome individually, no matter how hard they are willing to work. And the longer the person is exposed to such a system, the greater the damage.

This is perhaps most obvious in the health of our guests and of the other poor people living in the neighborhoods we serve. I can almost guess how long an undocumented worker has been in this country by how sick they are, by how much older they look than their date of birth would indicate. They work unsafe jobs, no health insurance of course, typically paid a less than minimum wage, under the table. Those who are not paid under the table pay into social security, but they are not eligible for benefits. When they get sick or injured on the job, their “employers” deny all knowledge of them. Their whole lives are lived upon a foundation of fear. Fear of exploitation, of the legal system, of the fragility of everyone they love creates a corrosive toxin for which the body often responds by getting sicker.

Those unsympathetic to the precarious lives of workers without documents argue that they have brought their troubles upon themselves, that they should not have come to the United States without documents, what about “illegal” don’t they understand? And from an individual point of view, there is a lot of truth to this; of course people should obey the law.

A structural analysis is harder, but we can start with the fact that laws which clearly are not going to be obeyed often benefit those with power. That is why such laws exist.

The immigration laws on the books are designed to fail. That is their purpose. Making it virtually impossible for most workers to be admitted legally, in the face of both a tremendous need for their labor in this country and the difficulty or impossibility of their getting a job in their own country, means that they are going to come here illegally. Bet on it. How could it be otherwise?

If the purpose of the system, from the point of view of those in power, is to maintain an underclass of workers that can be exploited, it is working very, very well. If it were not working for those with political power, they would change it. Would they not?

The laws are so dysfunctional that if we ever seriously enforced them, whole industries would be ruined. The fact is that the leaders of industry and agriculture need workers, they just don’t want to pay them. The current system of laws that make it impossible for most migrants to ever be legalized suits them just fine; the undocumented, who we all know are going to continue to come as long as they cannot survive in their own countries, can stay in the shadows here, working for peanuts. We can toss them away when they get sick or injured or old.

There is one area, though, in which the individual analysis (people should not break the law) and the structural (these laws are purposely designed to be broken) lead to the same conclusion: the undocumented who were brought here by their parents when they were infants or young children. They had no say in the matter. They broke no laws. But they are paying the price for our hypocrisy.

Last year I helped a bright young woman, Mari apply for college. She graduated at the top of her high school class and was easily accepted into an advanced program for students interested in the physical sciences. She wants desperately to become a doctor, and works harder than any student I have ever known.

She did remarkably well in her freshman year and applied for a program that helps students get accepted into medical school. But the program requires proof of citizenship for the perfectly logical reason that acceptance into medical school requires legal documents, something that Mari does not have.

More than a decade ago, Mari’s father, at the time a young day laborer, was hit by a hit and run driver, abandoned, and left paralyzed. He could not lift a finger. He had intended to return to his home country when he had made enough money to feed his family, but now, instead of providing help to his family, he needed help from them. Mari and her mother moved here to care for him when Mari was just 9 years old.

Those early years of helping to care for her father led to her interest in medicine. I have promised her that we will find a way for her to go to medical school, but sometimes I wake up terrified that I can’t keep that promise. After all, the laws currently in force require Marito be deported to her home country, a country she only vaguely remembers. She could, theoretically, apply for a visa after her deportation, but there is no visa category for which she is eligible. So, for the “crime” of being brought here by her parents, she is punished by losing her future and we are punished by losing a promising doctor.

This is so patently cruel and counter-productive that a law called the Dream Act has been introduced into Congress designed to apply to a narrow class of situations such as Marifaces. The thinking behind the Dream Act seems to be that broader immigration reforms are politically difficult right now, so let’s get something passed that almost everyone would agree with.

Well, that hasn’t happened. Pundits say it probably won’t be passed, that it’s too politically difficult right now, that we don’t have the political will to do it, maybe after the next election.

Now, I will admit that I am less than objective on immigration issues, but I stare at this spectacle, not just the failure of the Dream Act, but at our immigration policy in general, stunned, almost awe-struck. I feel more and more like Angela looking at that stroller. How could anybody put a child into such a weird machine? How can I learn to live in a country where people do such strange and inexplicable things?
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, June-August, 2011.