Despite Increased Hardship, Immigrants Keep Coming

There are approximately eight million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today. They pay about $80,000 more in taxes in a lifetime than they use in services.

Being an immigrant in the U.S. has never been easy. But since the Sept. 11 attacks, it is harder and more dangerous than ever for undocumented immigrants to get into the country. It is also much more difficult for students and visitors to get visas for legal entry. With an increasingly militarized Mexican border, deaths in the deserts of California, Texas and Arizona -- from heat or cold, exhaustion, and murder by vigilante ranchers -- continue to mount. Those who do make it into the U.S. face a much tougher existence than several years ago: government repression of and everyday discrimination against immigrants has been worse since the attacks, and the slumping economy means that finding work and housing is more of a struggle than ever. Yet they continue to come.

INS figures report that detentions and deportations, the closest thing available to a record of the number of illegal immigrants entering the U.S., are down. But immigrants' rights groups in these regions say that while immigration may have briefly slowed after Sept. 11, today just as many immigrants as ever are risking their lives to make it to the U.S.

"After 9/11 there was probably a decrease for a while, but they're still coming," said Isabel Garcia, co-chair of the Derechos Humanos human rights organization in Tucson. "The situation in Mexico hasn't dramatically improved. People don't just come willy-nilly, they come to survive."

Arnoldo Garcia of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights is among the many immigrants' advocates who say that INS figures showing decreased migrations are likely faulty. "The INS is reporting a 30 percent drop in numbers of apprehensions at the border, but at the same time border deaths aren't dropping," he said. "The INS is trying to say their border strategy is working, which isn't true. At least one migrant dies a day on the border."

Leticia Jimenez, with the American Friends Service Committee's Border Program in San Diego, noted that the bulk of border militarization actually happened before Sept. 11, with the implementation of the billion-dollar plus Operation Gatekeeper operation starting in 1994. The INS has called Gatekeeper a success, but many beg to differ.

In the El Centro border region in California, for example, the INS reported a 27 percent drop in apprehensions during fiscal year 2001, yet deaths at the border were up 22 percent.

"The movement of migrants is all that has changed, not the numbers," she said. "The numbers in California are down but the numbers in Arizona are up. The only thing that is working is they're moving them out of people's backyards and into the desert."

Jimenez thinks that while migrations for work remain as high as ever, people are less likely to cross the border to reunite with or visit their family members. "Before you had a lot of wives and children coming up," she said. "Although that still occurs, now the main motivation is economic. People aren't as willing to risk the lives of their children. It also creates a real heartache because men don't go back to Mexico to visit their families. It's almost like they're undocumented prisoners in the U.S."

Many believe that illegal immigrations from Latin America are increasing and will continue to increase because of the ripple effects of free trade policies that are causing economic woes and displacement for indigenous people and peasants in Latin America. Immigrants' rights groups note that they are serving increasing numbers of migrants from southern Mexico, particularly Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, who they weren't seeing several years ago. Many of these indigenous immigrants don't even speak Spanish, making their prospects in the U.S. even more difficult.

"Migration is always a reflection of other social developments taking place," said Arnoldo Garcia. "Right now farmworkers are being displaced in Mexico, people are losing their jobs and land because of NAFTA."

Allan Gomez, an Ecuadorian immigrant and activist, said that during the anti-globalization protests in Quito this fall, many Latin Americans blamed free trade and U.S. economic policy for desperate conditions in Latin America. And many of these critics of the U.S. also hoped to immigrate to the U.S. for lack of any other options.

"It is still just the best bet for some from an economic standpoint, tightened security or not," he said. "The repercussions of the repression here just exacerbate economic problems throughout America's backyard. I don't think illegal crossings have been reduced, but a lot less tourist visas are being offered which is probably increasing the illegal crossings."

The Mexican government has made token attempts to reduce immigration, a promise that President Vicente Fox made to the U.S. government. This has included beefing up security at the Mexico-Guatemala border to prevent the northward migration of Central American immigrants, as well as attempts to dissuade Mexicans from immigrating.

The government has even funded a Spanish radio telenovela (soap opera) being played on both sides of the border that depicts how hard life is for immigrants in the U.S. The telenovela, called "Tortillas Duras...Ni Pa' Frijoles Alcanza" ("Hard Tortillas...There isn't even enough for beans") shows the risks of buying false papers and the loneliness of immigrant life in L.A. But despite all the attempts on both sides of the border to stem the immigration tide, the fact is that both the U.S. and Mexican economy are dependent on undocumented Latin American labor in the U.S.

"Fox knows he can't stop it, and he doesn't necessarily want to stop it because remittances from the U.S. are such a large part of the country's GNP," said Isabel Garcia. "And he's aware of what's driving them there--economic problems and displacement in Mexico. It's impossible to address immigration if you don't address the root causes."

Meanwhile even legal immigrants, especially from Muslim countries, face a much rougher life post Sept. 11. Reports of job discrimination and harassment against Muslims are rampant, and Muslim immigrants can legally be racially profiled and singled out for search and interrogation at airports, on highways and in other areas of daily life. Since the Aviation and Transportation Security Act mandated that only citizens can work as airport screeners, thousands of legal and undocumented immigrants around the country lost their jobs -- more than 600 in San Francisco alone, the majority of them Filipino.

In December and January all males age 16 to 45 from a list of Muslim countries (and North Korea) are required to register with the government and be fingerprinted. If they don't, they can be deported despite legal status. If they do, they also risk detention and deportation if anything is out of order with their visa or even if they are judged "suspicious."

A Dec. 17 release from the L.A.-based Criminal Defense Weekly described the groundless arrests of scores of Iranians upon reporting for the registration. "These people have nothing to do with terrorism," said attorney Soheila Jonoubi, in the release. "They are all in the country legally. They have been singled out according to gender, ethnicity and religion. I have 16-year-old kids being pulled out of their mothers' arms crying and taken to jail."

Post-Sept. 11 security measures have made getting citizenship or even living in the U.S. temporarily as a student or business person much more difficult for immigrants of all nationalities.

Many Middle Eastern students who had planned to study in the U.S. are now heading to Canada or England instead, not wanting to deal with long waits for U.S. student visas and the discrimination and harassment they are afraid they will face here. This represents both a monetary and cultural loss for U.S. institutions. Foreign students generally pump about $11 billion a year into the U.S. economy, but this number is already dropping. Since it was discovered that a man with ties to the militant Islamic Hezbollah organization was given citizenship, now the FBI must complete a background check on all would-be citizens before they can be naturalized. Immigrants cannot become citizens if they have been arrested or are deemed "suspicious."

The background check requirement has resulted in longer delays in the already hugely backlogged system. In New York on Dec. 12, swearing-in ceremonies for 1,500 immigrants who had already completed all the steps for naturalization were canceled because of background check delays. Similar delays and cancellations all over the country have been reported and are expected to increase. President Bush has mandated a maximum six-month wait for citizenship applicants, but immigration advocacy agencies say the background checks will make this virtually impossible to uphold. And a report just released by the New York Immigration Coalition predicts that the pending breakup of the INS and reorganization of immigration services into the new Department of Homeland Security will result in even more bureaucratic disaster.

"Antiquated technology, poor coordination between functions, and staff and resource shortages within the INS have been exacerbated recently," says the report. "The confluence of these factors combined with the reorganization of the immigration functions into DHS all but guarantee that the situation for immigrants will become much, much worse."

But regardless of all these obstacles, one thing is for certain: as long as there is economic inequality within and between countries, immigrants will keep risking their lives to come to the U.S.

"In third world countries, the image will never cease in people's minds that there is opportunity here," said Jimenez. "Either you starve or cross the border. It's not much of a choice."

Kari Lydersen is a reporter at the Washington Post Midwest Bureau and youth instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program.


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