La Voz Latina - Su puente a la comunidad Hispana de Georgia y Carolina del sur

Memoirs of an Immigrant

  • Agustin Martinez.
  • (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

“First came the threats,” she (Betty) told her story through tears. “And then they carried out their threats. After my brother was murdered, my life was in danger. So, I fled my country.”
Unfortunately, for many Latin American immigrants, this story is all too familiar– one the average U.S. family cannot begin to fathom.
We live in a country with many privileges, a place where, although we have corruption within some parts of our government, we also have other government agencies, the news media, non-profit groups and ordinary citizens who specialize in holding corrupt officials accountable and bringing their indiscretions to light.
Because we take these privileges for granted, we often assume all other countries enjoy the same privileges. We assume laws are followed and when the police are called, they arrive and help.
We are wrong. I have spent the better part of a month interviewing dozens of immigrants about their journey, why they came to the US, what they experienced in their journey here, and what it is their native country needs and lacks. The results are sobering and quite sad. Please keep in mind that this article represents a month-long series of interviews, not exhaustive research.
The overwhelming reason many fled to the U.S. is two-fold: fear and lack of economic opportunity.
Many come here because of the violence that is occurring where they live. For example, one man, “Bill,” heard a knock at his door one day. When he opened the door a group of armed men came into his home and told him that he and his family were to leave immediately. The armed men were taking control of their house. So he gathered his family and left. The only thing the police were able to do about it was give them a little time to gather a few extra things.
In many cases this story is consistent– the police are impotent and gangs of thugs, typically drug traffickers, hold all the power. The average citizen can either join them or get out of the way.
Indiscriminate violence was a common theme. Whenever I asked what the police did to help them, the response was almost always the same, “They do nothing.” Another frequent answer was “ The police are paid off by these thugs.”
Many immigrants hear about economic opportunities in the U.S. from family members already living here. They come here looking to escape a variety of economic ills– their country’s government steals from its citizens; high taxes along with high fuel and food prices take most of their pay; a bad economy, lack of resources, sexism, and lack of education all contribute to keeping them poor. Thus we have immigrants in the U.S. today who, although highly educated in their home country, are financially better off working here in whatever job they can find than they would be in their native land.
The journey itself was another part of my interview. The results are surprising. People either suffered greatly or the journey was long and uneventful. For those with a work or tourist visa, many simply walked across the border through customs and onto their destination.
There were some who entered the US illegally, had a tiresome journey, but a safe one. But for others who entered unlawfully, the matter was, in some cases, quite harrowing. Some people were kidnapped, raped, robbed, held while their families were threatened and extorted. There were also those who knew of people who were murdered on their journey to the US.
My final question addressed the issues behind the decision to leave the land of their birth. I asked all the people I interviewed, “What needs to change in your country?” Although some details varied, their answers were very similar. The most common answer is the need for a government that protects its people with the rule of law; a country where those who break laws are held accountable; a government that provides economic, educational, and equal opportunity. It was sad to hear most of the respondents say that they do not believe their country will ever change because there is no motivation for corrupt government officials to make any changes.
If we, in the US, really want to assist the people of Latin America, we must begin thinking bigger and dreaming bigger dreams. Latin American countries need to institute radical changes in their domestic policies. As long as our government continues to ignore the plight of our neighbor’s citizens and does not demand substantive change from the governments of Latin America we are really of no help to them.
Real change is needed and needed now.

Issue Month: 
Wednesday, May 3, 2017