Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Illegal Immigration

There’s a new fancy house being built on the next block, someone is adding a few bedrooms onto their existing home, my neighbors have bought a new pick-up truck, a new restaurant is being constructed, and my friend Alba just started classes this year at a nearby private university. What do all of these events have in common? They are all being funded by remittances: money sent back to Nicaragua by relatives living abroad, mainly in the United States, Spain and Costa Rica.

This money is a type of “unofficial development assistance,” that the U.S. inadvertently gives to hundreds of countries around the world. According to a book I’m currently reading, Forgotten Continent: The battle for Latin America’s soul by Michael Reid, more than 25 million Latin Americans are thought to live outside their own country. “People have become an important export for some Latin American countries: remittances totaled some $62 billion in 2006…This figure exceeded the combined flows of foreign direct investment and official development aid to the region.” I’ve observed that most Nicaraguan families who are well off, own businesses, have nice homes, or own vehicles, have a family member sending them money from a developed country.
Above: a typical Nicaraguan home in the country.
Below: a home being constructed by a family with remittances from the U.S. Notice a difference??

Husbands and brothers usually make the journey abroad to work for a few years; leaving wives, girlfriends and/or children behind while they go mojado (illegally) - (literally, mojado means “wet.” The saying come from the idea that when clandestinely crossing a border made by a river or other body of water, you would get wet). They work in whatever they can; cleaning boats in Louisiana, milking cows in Michigan, childcare in Florida, waiting tables in California, cleaning office buildings in New York… I hear the stories of these illegal immigrants from their family members as I talk with my neighbors. It seems surprisingly easy to get into the States illegally, and once there, they will work in anything for very little money. Going legally is often out of the question; the time consuming, confusing and competitive American visa application process deters many Nicaraguans who barely have enough money for the bus ride to Managua to visit the U.S. Embassy.

Most people go abroad for 2-5 years without any visits home. In my community, I see children growing up without fathers or mothers, only recognizing the face on the web camera when they video chat with their parent at the internet café once a month. The wives men leave behind usually remain faithful; overseeing construction of the new house they will share when their husband returns, and taking care of the children. These men, on the other hand, usually find girlfriends abroad and when they return, may bring back an STD or HIV/AIDS – if they return at all. During their stay in the States, they rarely learn English, choosing not to enroll in classes or socialize with Americans to avoid risk of deportation. They live in constant fear of being caught and their lives consist of little more than work and sleep. While it may be surprisingly easy for them to get to the States, once there, the policies are not in place to help integrate them in to American society: teach them English, give them temporary work Visas (most only want to work for a few years to build up money to build a house and then go back to their native land), and make them taxpayers or even American citizens.

While the Nicaraguan leftist President Daniel Ortega warns against the ills of capitalism and the United States’ evil ways (most recently criticizing Arizona’s infamous immigration reform and the BP oil leak), paradoxically, thousands of Nicaragua’s residents flee their native land in search of economic prosperity in capitalistic, democratic countries. Even loyal socialist Sandinistas will gladly accept money sent from relatives in the States.

Growing up in Alaska, I saw little of the volatile immigration debate that is currently gripping the U.S. Immigrants in my community mainly came from the Philippines and were there legally. I can’t imagine how some illegal immigrants must live and the prejudice they must put up with in order to give their family a better chance. The money they send back funds university educations, better homes, and food for their families. I live comfortably in this country for about U$250/month, so it doesn’t take much. Many Americans are willing to donate money to non-profit and relief organizations to aid developing countries, but when that “aid” comes from illegal workers in the U.S., the attitude suddenly changes. It seems like an odd situation: we can either give a developing country money with no real payment in return through “official development assistance,” or we can give people from these countries temporary work visas and at least get something out of our economic exchange – their work.

Everyone wants to ignore the fact that immigration exists: that the leftist government of Nicaragua is still highly critical of capitalism, and the U.S. refuses to reform immigration and acknowledge the existence of these illegal immigrants, many of whom fill important roles in our economy, all without paying taxes.

I know I’m not an expert in immigration policy, I only know what I see on a daily basis and what I read in the headlines while I’m at the internet café. I hope that future U.S. immigration reform, if it comes to pass, will take into account the opinions of both American citizens as well as legal and illegal immigrants. Here in Nicaragua, I see the families on the other side of many of those illegal immigrants – the human side of those dark-skinned men and women you see doing yard work, cleaning homes and washing dishes. They have families to care for just like everyone in the U.S., and they are searching for the American dream just like our ancestors did.

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