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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Latin Americanisms: Immigrant Story

The immigrant experience is difficult to sum up in a way that would be apt for the reader. It might very well be a failure on my part, in my own narrative skills, that keeps me from communicating the thoughts and emotions that have seen me through the years. It’s hard to describe the experience of living and growing in a country which did not see my birth, and yet has seen fit to grant me the privilege of permanent resident status (a bit of a scary proposition — permanency is not something I take kindly to).

It is because of this that I’ve opted for a general survey of the issue rather than a personal narrative, but with the steadfast belief that our stories are what make us, and what we make of the world.

The politics of immigration are by their very nature transitory, beholden to social moods and the overall national atmosphere. Some years back in 1986 the United States underwent its last major immigration reform known — fittingly enough — as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The run up to its passage prompted a national reaction which bordered on the obscene, with critics of the Reagan amnesty (not something you would think to associate “the Gipper” with right?) lamenting its immediate failure to stem the tide of Aliens (I think I would have been a great Martian in a different life and dimension) beaming across the border.

Communities across the U.S. were socialized in a way that, for many, didn’t seem possible until the instant it happened. Overnight, millions were given the proverbial key to the so-called American dream, or so it seemed. The tangible benefits were apparent, namely a recognition of basic social existence for those who qualified for the legalization program (the requirements were a presence in the country prior to 1982, among others), and a dispelling of the once constant fear of deportation and familial breakdown. But the legislation’s passage did little to address the primary drivers of immigration and the ongoing plight of entire U.S. communities living in fear.

Of course there was the Control bit of the act which also ran its course — a general maligning of the immigrant population as something to be controlled and maneuvered any which way as long as it stayed within its boundaries and served its purpose as an economically viable source of cheap labor and political scapegoating. All in all, the country got what it wanted: some three million hereto un-American lawbreakers (as some are so quick to paint us as) were on their way to legal status, its politicians allowed themselves a pat on the back and the issue of immigration was once again shelved and forgotten as it had been before.

And now we find ourselves in 2014 mulling over the exact same problems as before. Only this time the number of irregular immigrants stands at 11 million, and wouldn’t you know it, some among us are making their voices heard loud and clear. The battles being waged by activists across the country for the passage of legislation like the DREAM Act and an immediate end to mass deportations is something that should make any civic-minded United Statesian (if you’ll indulge me and my language crusade) proud of what can be accomplished in our much touted system of democracy and citizen action.

However the question ultimately rests not solely on political maneuvering in Congress, or the much desired process of comprehensive reform (with a path towards legalization as a core policy) and through it a hoped-for legitimization. It is a question which will find its true answer in the social realm in a process that goes beyond the traditionally-assumed paradigm of the melting pot narrative or government provided legitimacy, to the critical openings of societal acceptance and cultural understanding.

JORGE JUAREZ, jnjuarez@ucdavis.edu, would like to share some truth from the poet Beau Sia: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the immigrant experience, is that a silenced heart is one that never loves.” So speak always.

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