Latino immigrants generally come to the U.S. driven by a strong desire to provide a better life for their family. Their drive is not that different from the motivating factors that impelled the ancestors of almost everyone in this country. The strength of the immigrants’ spirit helps them combat what amounts to insurmountable odds against them. Immigrants are faced with an incredible emotional turmoil that stems from being separated from their family, friends, culture, and heritage. This separation anxiety is always difficult, and it is often hard to understand by those who have not experienced it first hand. Immigrants endure the turmoil and forge ahead in pursuit of the American Dream. For new American immigrants the anxiety feelings are compounded by the fact that the immigration laws in the U.S. no longer have an open door policy. And even when Latinos come in with a legal immigration status, they still have to endure the overwhelming negative social pressure that surrounds the subject of immigration in the 21st Century.
The pursuit of happiness and a new life in the United States has defined this country since its inception. Seeking the so called American Dream is what being American is all about. Immigration defines our American culture. It has shaped the American way of life and has created the unique diversity that is so highly cherished in the United States. Even our country’s motto, “e pluribus unum” (Out of many, one) symbolizes the importance we place in coming together from different places to form one country. Yet; immigration is no longer popular with many Americans; and the thought of people coming to the U.S. “illegally” infuriates the masses.
Latinos are often attacked just because they are perceived as criminals from an immigration standpoint. Never before in this country have immigrants who lacked the appropriate immigration documentation been commonly referred to as “illegals.” The strong feelings harbored against “illegal aliens” (a truly horrendous term) have become so pervasive that some people who are otherwise very inclusive and welcoming towards others become quickly enraged when I bring up the subject of immigration. The rage is not always rational; in fact, most of what infuriates people (like the so-called negative effect on the U.S. economy) is simply not true (see an earlier post here). But I’m not trying to generate more hate mail on this subject (I get enough of that); my intention is to show how all of the negativity surrounding immigration is really counterproductive and ends up hurting us all.
Yesterday I was driving and almost got into an accident. I became very enraged at a driver who was clearly doing something illegal. I was livid! But my thoughts against this person were irrational; in retrospect I realize that he was only trying to circumvent a truck that was blocking the intersection. If I knew the person driving that car I would not have even gotten upset. Car rage happens because it is easy to disconnect from the person driving the other car. I find that when I make eye contact with another driver they are more likely to be nice and become human again. Why am I talking about this? Because car rage creates a very serious problem on the roads; and I feel that the illegal immigration rage is often just as irrational and is creating a very serious problem in our society.
It is easy for people to believe the negative buzz regarding immigration and become enraged; but like it is with car rage, I find that people react very differently when they personally know an undocumented immigrant or family. It is easy to support immediate deportation and harsh laws against undocumented immigrants when you are not connected to them; in fact, it is easy to think of them as criminals. But it is much more difficult to do so when it affects someone who you personally know and/or care about. In my work I interview many undocumented Latinos and have heard many immigration horror stories. Try explaining to a child why their parents were taken away from him because they were here illegally. In a recent interview, a U.S. born Latino teenager with a severe medical condition told me about how his mother had to go back to Colombia. In tears he said: “I had to stay because I would die in Colombia… my mother is not a criminal, she was just trying to be here for me.” I can fill the pages of many books with similar stories. As a country we need to realize that these immigrants are no different in their motivation to be here as any other prior immigration group. If we are able to see past the immigration rage we will realize that these people are not “criminals” at all; they are hard working families trying to become American like all other immigrants did.
The negativity towards immigration, be it warranted or not, is not good for our country. It fuels segregation, racism, prejudice, and discrimination. It affects everyone and does nothing to resolve the issues at hand. Like it is with car rage, we need to take a moment to make eye contact and become human again.