06 December 2013

Los Otros Dreamers and the fight for immigration reform

One of the most profound changes that is being wrought by the Obama administration's immigration policy is that an enormous amount of young people are being deported.  This uptick has changed the fabric of Mexico's society.

In the 1980s and 1990s, an unprecedented amount of families made the trek from Mexico to the United States in order to escape a period of time known as "La Decada Perdida," or The Lost Decade.  It was actually more than a decade, perhaps 15 or 20 years, which struck many countries throughout Latin America, which had borrowed enormous sums internationally to kick-start industrialization.  The loans, made by oil-rich countries, quickly skyrocketed exponentially in value; in 1982, Mexico announced that it had to default on its debt, which of  course ended loans to the country and caused an immediate financial crisis as infrastructure crumbled and social safety nets disintegrated.

The effects on Mexico's middle class (and the country in general) in particular was nothing short of catastrophic.  Wages dropped, unemployment skyrocketed, crime rates went up, and the very young and very old were left to fend for themselves without much, if any, state help.

By contrast, the United States was doing quite well in the Roaring `80s.  Many people in Mexico had started families thinking they would be able to provide for their children, and now were living in Depression-era conditions.  They looked around, looked at their young children, looked northward, and packed their bags and began the long trek back to the middle class and economic opportunities. Some stuck it out longer than others, hoping that perhaps signing NAFTA might help them individually.  When it became clear that it would likely not, they, too, went north.

At this time, the border was much more porous.  "Border security," as it is understood today, barely existed until the middle or later 1990s.  So these middle-class families settled into their new homes, raised their children, taught them the value of a good education and hard work, and went about trying to become Americans.

Some, the lucky ones, succeeded.  President Reagan's amnesty, in exchange for tougher immigration laws, helped those who were in the United States before 1986.  Others were caught between the cracks of bureaucracy.  They began to treat their undocumented status as a shameful issue, a kind of public nudity that could only be discussed in whispers.

Their children grew up American.  They knew nothing but American individualism, the entrepreneurial spirit and vibrant hopefulness that characterizes the United States at its best. They worked hard. They got educated.  They graduated from college.  They spoke Spanish at home but English everywhere else. Some of them knew they were undocumented; some didn't. Those who did know worked as hard as they could to file their papers and pay their fees to become citizens, but often were once again tied up in immigration bureaucracy. Some people have been waiting 25 years for an answer.

Now they are adults, ranging in age from 20 to about 40, and they are being deported in record numbers.  After they are "sent back" to a country of which they have very few memories, if indeed any at all, they have to deal with a whole new set of problems.  In border cities such as Tijuana, saying you are a deportee can cost you a job.  Their college degrees also need to be recertified, a process that takes time, costs money that people who have been deported don't have (being deported means you are only allowed to take whatever you have with you when you are processed and sent out of the country, which sometimes means no phone, no cash, nothing but the clothes on your back) and is incredibly frustrating (sometimes college graduates need to re-take up to 75 percent of their classes.)

Some, however, have prevailed, and are continuing to work for both immigration reform on the United States' side of the border and for a better infrastructure and more help for those who have already been deported, as there are very few social services for people in their position.  While the young and undocumented in the United States refer to themselves as DREAMers, after the DREAM Act, which would have offered them a clear path to citizenship, the deported people call themselves "Los Otros Dreamers" -- The Other Dreamers.  Their story, which I wrote for NPR's Latino USA, is here. 

You can also find more information on life as one of the Otros Dreamers at Nancy Landa's website, Mundo Citizen (she is one of the people featured in my story) or in the book Dreamers: One Generation's Struggle for the American Dream, by Eileen Truax, or in the upcoming photobook by Nin Solis and Jill Anderson, Los Otros Dreamers.