Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Human Faces of Migration

By: Rebecca Rathjen
St. Olaf College

Students preparing to listen to the stories of migrants
*Please note: names have been changed to protect the privacy of those described

This week all the students of CGE had the opportunity to live in  a rural indigenous town for four days. Divided into pairs of students we lived with generous host families who provided us with a home, food, and great conversation.

For me, the most impacting experience was listening to the stories of two men, Pedro and Victor* of the town who had migrated illegally to the United States to pursue work. Although we had read books about the lives of migrant workers, hearing the stories first hand was much more impacting. Further, I was living with Victor’s family and had met his wife, twin sons, parents, aunts, uncles, and brothers- the people for whom Victor was working to provide.

Victor described his experience of migration as good and bad, but mostly bad. Motivated by the prospect of work in the United States and the lack of opportunities in Mexico, Victor first migrated to California in 1996, he worked for 2.5 years.

Victor then returned to Mexico, got married, and a year and a half later his wife became pregnant. Victor, always determined to provide the best for his family, decided with his wife that he would return to the US to find work despite knowing that he would miss the birth of his first children-twins. Unfortunately, in the US Victor was approached and humiliated by immigration officials and then deported. He returned home to his wife, defeated and depressed.

Despite this road block, months later Victor again made his way to the United States crossing the Altar desert in May facing dangerously hot temperatures and dehydration. In Colorado Victor worked for a chain café he had previously worked for and moved his way up in the kitchen to head chef. He worked for three years.

Victor, now living in back in his town with his wife and nine-year old twins, expressed to us the simple desire of migrant workers to work and earn money for their families. It was clear to me that he strives to provide stability and security for his family, the same dreams of families across the world. Victor hopes that his sons can attend university and increase their opportunities.

Most importantly migrant workers are human beings, with families, friends, and communities who put themselves in very vulnerable positions during migration, as workers, as illegal citizens living in crowded conditions in unsafe neighborhoods. Meeting Victor and hearing his story first hand has changed my opinion about migrant workers and has helped me to see the human aspect of migration, that all people are doing their best to provide for their families, even if that means breaking the law.

What stereotypes do US citizens hold about Mexican migrant workers? What would it take to change these stereotypes?
Colorful streets of the town


  1. Hi Rebecca!

    What a great experience you had with your host family! You were able to learn first hand on an emotional level about migrant workers and understand the challenge from another perspective.

    The topic of migrant workers brings up many emotions and opinions from everyone with no real sense of the people behind the issue. Victor was able to offer you real insight into what the goals and desires were for him wanting to work in the US. As a citizen, it is easy to sit back and place judgment on others who are here in our country illegally and then get deported like Victor. What we don't realize is the story behind the person and the meaning of that job to that individual.

    Your post made Victor and his story heartfelt. To read about his struggles and his willingness to leave while missing the birth of his twins, shows the tenacity of Victor and the importance of family. Victor just wants a chance to provide for his family like everyone here in the U.S. He is no different than you or I except for the fact that his opportunities at home are so limited that he will risk his life in the desert to get to the U.S.

    Your comment about the migrant workers being human beings, with families and friends made an impact on me. These are not just illegal immigrants as we like to label them. These are individuals who live in dangerous communities, working jobs most of us wouldn't or don't want. Victor is a human being, just like all of us who wants the best he can give to his loved ones. The hard part is how as a country do we let in all the Victors and take care of our own?

    The reason why this topic is such a hot button issue is because it deals with real people like Victor who just want a chance at something better, something we have here in our country that he can't get in his own. How do we find the happy medium to keep our citizens employed and secure while helping the Victors of the world as well? That is the tough part, or the so called happy medium that continues to be the struggle.

    Maybe if everyone had the opportunity that you had, personal opinions and judgments would help to connect the illegal immigrant to a real person like Victor. A real person, not just an immigrant who like all of us wants a life, an education, and a chance for a better future. Thank you for introducing Victor to me.

    Traci Singher

  2. Rebecca! Thank you so much for sharing this experience with the blog world and community.
    I don't think there was a dry eye in the circle after hearing these men share their emotional stories with us.
    I feel incredibly humbled by the fact that these wonderful people opened up their doors and homes to us even after what our country put them through.
    The economic reasons behind Mexican citizens moving to the US or Canada to work are incredible. In 3 months of working in Canada my host father during the rural homestay was able to make what it would take him 3 years to make in rural Mexico. It becomes a matter of survival for some.
    Our challenge is to bring these stories and emotions home with us in order to help to eliminate the sterotypes and discriminations that some in our society may hold about the immigrants living in our country!
    Not to mention.... to continue to fight for their rights of access to education, health, and of course legal documents.

    Thank you so much dearie!

  3. That is an extremely interesting experience; I have had a similar experience here that has solidified my opinions on immigrants from Mexico. My boyfriend’s father is from Mexico and he immigrated to the United States illegally; he had to go through a very complex process in order to become a permanent resident that included being deported once. I think it is an amazing example of contact theory at work to see how meeting people and learning about their experiences, like we have, can change a person’s opinions on a certain group. I think it is so important to learn about the actual experiences of immigrant, especially immigrants from Latin America, because there are so many negative stereotypes about them in American society. From my experience with my boyfriend’s father I have learned that immigrants are in no way the “lazy job-sealers” that people label them; I have learned that they are extremely hard working, determined, and family oriented. From reading your blog it sounds like you have learned the same things. I think you bring up really important points in stating that people have very set in stone stereotypes about migrant workers and I think it will take more people having personal experiences like ours to change the stereotypes that people hold.

    Amanda Bruemmer

  4. Rebecca,

    I definitely agree that the experience in Amatlan really put a human face to issues that are often discussed with abstract and often dehumanizing lenses. The experiences of the men reflected the real, tangible impacts immigration policy has on the lives of real families we came to know personally. Beyond their powerful stories and their often traumatic and degrading experiences both crossing the border and in the United States, by living with families within a community so affected by overwhelming poverty and marginalization we were able to actually see the faces and daily lives of some of Mexico´s indigenous communities. While statistics clearly reflect the poverty and disparity in Mexico between indigenous and non-indigenous communities numerically, to see it first hand was an entirely different reality. Moreover, our trip to the health clinic shed light on the institutionalized marginalization of such people—there is only one young doctor with limited staff and equipment to serve an entire community. When a patient is seriously ill and requires hospitalization, the doctor commented that the patients often face discrimination in the larger city hospitals and are often flatly turned away at the hospital doors. Thus, overall, I couldn´t agree more with what Rebecca said in regards to both the people of Amatlan and those who seek work in the US-- ¨migrant workers are human beings, with families, friends, and communities who put themselves in very vulnerable positions.¨

  5. Hi Rebecca!

    Wow what a exciting thing you got to experience, being able to live with a host family in a rural indigenous town! I can’t imagine the emotions I would experience if I was told that I would be living with a family for four days. I think that it’s really great that all of you students were able to have this amazing learning experience! I would agree with you that having the opportunity to listen to the stories of these individuals would be very moving. It was awful to hear that Victor had a bad experience when coming to the U.S to find work. It made me sad that he had dropped everything back home and was willing to come to the U.S to find work all so he can provide the best for his family. It made me so mad to hear that immigration officials had humiliated Victor before deporting him. Now I don’t exactly know how Victor was humiliated but I can only imagine, I feel a lot of people don’t stop to remember that these immigrants are human too and they have feelings and families that they are wanting to support. What makes us different from them? A lot of us were born with the privilege of living in the United States; we didn’t do anything to earn that right. So I get very upset when I hear that people who aren’t yet a “citizen” in the U.S get mistreated just because of their immigration status.
    I can’t imagine how hard it must be for these families who have to be apart for such a long period of time while the husband is away trying to make money to bring back home. I couldn’t imagine how Victor’s wife and sons felt by his absent in the household. My dad had to be gone for work training in Washington for three months and even that what now seems like a short period of time compared to Victor’s had a huge impact on my family. My mom had a lot more stress on her trying to work and take care of my two brothers and I. So I have all the respect in the world for families go through with any kind of separation in hopes of getting a better way of life.
    Thank you so much for sharing!
    -Katie Lamirande

  6. Rebecca,

    I first off want to express how jealous I am that you are able to experience things like this first hand. By living with a host family in an rural indigenous town is one you will hold with you throughout your life. The story you explained was truly moving but I can't even begin to think about hearing about it first hand from someone who went through it was like.

    What broke my heart about the story you shared is how Victor* left his family, not once, but twice, in order to help support them. He is an individual that obviously has an undying love for his family and will truly go any distance in order to find them stability. What I hope is that more people will be able to read stories such as Victors* and be able to see that immigration is not neccesarily someone's choice, but rather their duty to their loved ones back home.

    With being in the Social Work program at Augsburg I have learned so much about migrant workers and the struggles they endure. It's stories like the one you shared that motivate me to want to help each individual client I will have. I hope you never lose the emotions you felt while hearing Victors* story-- I believe it will be a motiviation throughout your life.

    Thanks so much for sharing!
    Sarah Amato

  7. Rebecca,
    I come from the Red River Valley, an area that hosts a large population of migrant workers. When I think about it my life has changed a lot since grade school and my ideas on immigration have changed tremendously from how I was raised. One of my closest friends is a migrant worker that was married to an illegal immigrant. Two winters ago I watched the INS deport his wife right before Christmas. During the time that this happened I saw first hand how this pulls apart the family as he was placed in the position to either go to Mexico or stay here working at a decent job. The family fell apart his two boys ended up in prison for committing violent crimes and he was left in custody of his grand children. His boys were not involved into criminal activity until their mother was deported and in speaking with him there is a correlation between her deportation and their lashing out. Since I am very close to the Hispanic community in my hometown I have been made aware of many of the things that go on and have learned to see people and not a threat. As a social worker in the U.S. this poses a difficult task in a number of service areas as there is an overall distrust of any government system. This distrust is transferred to the children and makes it beyond difficult to offer effective services.

  8. First, I would like to say I enjoyed reading your post. Very nice work!

    I think that immigration is such a hot topic. It's a very controversial subject that even Obama promised to work on during the election, but no progress has been made. I personally have family that migrated north due to mere survivial. Moving to southern California was the only way that my family knew how to stay on their feet due to job opportunities. All the oppresion and hatred is angering especailly when people don't take the time to really learn about what's actually going on.
    Furthermore, social movements are necessary and happening all the time. Growing up in America, it's sometimes hard to see our democracy as a blessing. When people join forces, powerful things happen. Once again, very nice posting!

    (PS, Natalie KRO) 2 in class, don't want to confuse

  9. Victor's story is similar to the millions of undocumented people living in the United States. I think every immigrant has a unique story to share. My family is from Mexico. My grandfather was the first one in the family to immigrate to the United States. My dad came to the United States undocumented, this was in the time where crossing the border was easy since there weren’t any restrictions. People could go back and forth with just an ID. It wasn’t necessary to cross by breaking the law that is implemented right now. Years later he became a U.S. permanent resident along with my mom. When I hear stories in the news about immigrants crossing the border it reminds me about my family of why my parents did it also. They came here in search for work in order to provide a better life for their families and children. I’m first generation Mexican-American/Chicana.
    My uncles and aunts later followed my dad’s path to come here. Now most of them have become U.S. citizens or residents. As I mentioned earlier, back then there were no harsh laws like today. They weren’t necessary. The reason why they are there right now is an entire long story. Personally I think it’s all an injustice because the people currently crossing the border are humble people pursuing a better future for themselves and their families. Though the U.S. government tries to make it seem that these people are criminals, but if you think about it the border has become a dangerous place all due to the corrupted money that goes into Mexico from the U.S., creating violence through organized crime. Sadly this is a cycle that continues on and I’m afraid it won’t stop due to ignorance or the fact of being afraid for one day that there would be equal justice and there won’t be no more white superiority. I have the privilege to be born in United States and be part of a family were most of us having the opportunity to leave and enter this country freely. I wish it would be the same for all my friends that I grew up with. Status shouldn’t matter in order to have a better quality of life.
    Thank you for sharing Victor’s story. I founded very similar to my family story and what I have experienced in that situation in general.
    Marisol Campusano