Culture

Sociology of Family: Immigration and Diversity in the Latino Family

“The immigration debate is usually framed as though there were a clear demarcation between legal residents and illegal aliens who live “in the shadows.” But reality is far messier. Palacios’s clan—six siblings and their spouses and kids—includes Americans by birth, naturalized citizens, permanent residents and undocumented immigrants.”

Regarding family and diversity, I reviewed the article “America’s Divide” which appeared in the April 10th, 2006 issue of Newsweek Magazine: Illegal’s Under Fire. This article was written by Arian Campo-Flores. This article tells the story of immigrant families and the diversity of the immigrant experience inside the family, or ‘clan’.

First there’s Irma. She’s my age, 29, and college educated. She bears a scar on her arm from 20 years earlier when she first came into the country. I’m struck – 20 years earlier makes her just 9 years old. At 9 years old she was scarred working picking fruit as an undocumented worker. No, this isn’t Mexico we’re talking about here – this is America and life for those who are ‘illegal’s’. Irma’s dad abandoned her and her family, leaving her mom Maria to raise six kids on her own. That’s when Maria took matters into her own hands by crossing the Rio Grande and crossed the border. Maria’s mother immediately started working and over the next two years brought her children over one-by-one.

Thanks to the 1986 amnesty law she was able to convert the legal status of her three oldest children. However, not all the children were given legal status, and opportunities and benefits that were available to some weren’t available to the others. It was heart wrenching for the family as they watched one sister leave the house bound for air conditioned secretarial work wearing a suit while the other was forced to go work in a vegetable-packing plant in awful conditions.

We also hear of Sandra who was unable to qualify for financial aid as an illegal immigrant. As she said in her own words: “I felt like I was handicapped,” she says. “I had a lot of potential to be whatever I wanted to be, and I just couldn’t.” Sandra’s potential isn’t just a simple dream of someone with higher aspirations than brain power. Rather we see that her sister Irma graduated high school 11th out of 500 with a GPA of 4.2. These kids really did have potential.

Thankfully we’re told that the rest of the kids achieved legal status and the immediate family no longer was split between those who had, and those who had not. Both Sandra and Irma went to college and earned degrees.

Then there’s Raymundo – Isela is the youngest sister of the six kids, and she’s married to Raymundo who is illegal. Raymundo lives each day in fear of being caught, even to the extent of breaking out in hives.

This story brings to life much of what was taught in this lesson as well as previous ones. I am struck by just how familiar it is to the readings…

First I’ll note that Maria and her six children were in dire straits because the husband abandoned the family. Like the women we read about, Maria found herself being the primary caregiver and breadwinner with her economic resources devastated. In these instances children are left to suffer the consequences and the increased difficulty in reaching their fullest potential. The Hernandez children were certainly subject to that burden as illegal immigrants, with one brother nearly dying in the process of trying to join his family.

Then we’ve read about poor families and their kinship networks which allow the family to survive and support one another. Though it was no explicitly stated, you can sense that this family is no exception to that social ‘rule’ of the low-income and working classes. Indirectly we can see that it would be the case when you see that Irma is still around helping to protect Raymundo. We also hear that other family members are joining in the greater fight with activities at the school.

Most of all I was struck by how disadvantaged the younger siblings were. By mere coincidence they failed to become legal with the rest of the kids, and that had a tremendous impact on their lives. As mentioned earlier, the older kids were able to obtain employment at ‘lawful’ jobs, while they were stuck in work offered only to undocumented workers.

Before reflection on this family’s story I suppose I might have thought once they (illegal immigrants) made it to America, they were in the clear. Of course, they couldn’t get caught, but I’ve never even heard of anyone getting deported. But really you were nearly guaranteed to be stuck in the low-income class all your life, and for that of your children as well. Without the opportunity of being able to get a ‘decent’ job, your options are severely limited. To underscore the point we hear the sister relate that as a step up from her job at the plant, she could now (that she was legal) get a job at the Publix Supermarket.

It is just very sad how limited opportunities limit your potential. Just think if Sandra and Irma had never been able to attend college. If like many other illegal immigrants, they always remained so. These girls now have good jobs and good educations. They can be what they want to be, and they are productive members of our society.

As lessons from our text, this story ties together the concept of a bi-national family, one which has multiple national citizenships living under one household. It reiterates the strong kinship ties found in Latino, and as a subgroup, Mexican families. However, though this may be a unique case, it defies the norm in that this family beat the odds and became an upwardly mobile family.

More importantly, I realized after completing the reading that one of my acquaintances just became a citizen. She had a party to celebrate the occasion and I remember thinking that it was cool, but what difference did it make? Was it such a big thing that you would have a party for it? Maybe it helps if I note that she is the only Mexican American in the group. However, now I realize how she too is an incredible statistic against the norm. As is Richard Rodriguez. (Editors note: you should read the book “Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez”, I’m sure you’d find it compelling and relevant to this portion of the course – I read it for another class.)

Compelling policy will need to be formulated to make it possible for other Irma’s, Sandra’s and Richard’s to exist. We as a country need to figure out how to satisfy the plight of the desperate immigrant family and make benefits and opportunities more available. Sure this applies to the poor African American family too, but at least they have the right to live here. At least they qualify as a real citizen.

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