Home for the Holidays: a Reflection on Immigration Reform

This semester I challenged students in my upper division Immigration class and lower division Introduction to Sociology course to reflect on the idea of ‘home.” During this time of the year, we focus on ‘going home for the holidays.” We wax nostalgic about our traditions and proclaim that ‘home is where the heart is.” These sentiments give meaning to our social lives and remind us of the importance of family and friends. It’s my belief that special occasions,–whether religious holidays, birthdays, or cultural celebrations are moments that remind us of who we are and where we come from. What most of us forget, is that the ability to come together in community and communion is a privilege that not everyone is privy to because of poverty, illness, homelessness, or as I note to students their immigration status.

Immigrant rights activists, and immigration scholars constantly remind those around us that the border wall not only keeps people out, but also traps individuals within. Historically, immigration to the United States ebbed and flowed. Migrants came to work in the U.S. during peak seasons, and returned home afterwards. Today, when immigrants leave their country in search of better opportunity, they do so knowing that returning home may not be an option. Migrants are now separated from their families for five, ten, fifteen years or longer. For those who pay attention to pundits rather than facts, they believe immigrants come to “Take American Jobs.” If we look beyond vitriolic argumentation and focus on facts we find that immigrants are often forced to leave their home country because multinational corporations with the help of US government sanction economic agreements such as NAFTA, destroyed the infrastructure and economies of sending countries. We are complicit in the collapse but fail to take responsibility for creating the poverty-stricken conditions immigrants need to leave from in order for their families to survive. Furthermore, US corporations actively recruit undocumented workers because they need immigrant labor to survive. As we’ve seen in the most recent Alabama Anti-Immigration debacle –they’ve created an untenable situation for their agricultural industry because immigrant workers left the state. If immigrants were in fact taking ‘American’s jobs’ wouldn’t it logically follow that out of work American’s would be streaming in force to the fields?

These social and political conditions further exacerbate separations, and force migrants to reimagine and reconfigure home. In her book, Borderlands, Gloria Anzuldua says, “ I am a turtle, wherever I go I carry “home’ on my back.” This is a candid reminder that in the absence of their physical and geographic home, migrants develop strategies for celebrating and honoring home even while they’re away. Ketu Katrak notes that migrants constantly think about “the possibility of living here in body and elsewhere in mind and imagination.” These memories are strong and provide a foundation for immigrants to maintain a sense of belonging and power in a world that so often casts them aside. Furthermore, as Maura Toro Morn and Marixsa Alicea remind us –these memories inform how 2nd and 3rd generation migrants construct understandings of home and homeland. These narratives of transnational lives are powerful and remind us that immigrants (documented or not) create the same emotive, imaginative, and cultural ties to home that we do.

For me, the irony –and really the great tragedy, is that we’ve created a system in the United States that forces undocumented immigrants to choose between the economic survival of their families, and their desire to be present. We’ve created a situation in which they are an invisible but necessary workforce in the United States. They’ve also become ghosts in the lives of their sons and daughters. Their children can feel that they are present, and even know who their parents are, but their parents remain just a spiritual presence who can be felt and heard, but not often seen.

Immigration reform should provide all migrants with the ability to acquire timely visas. Currently, the average wait for Mexican’s and Filipino’s to sponsor siblings or other loved ones legally is more than 15 years. This is created by the severe understaffing of visa processors in the Department of Homeland security and an antiquated quota system. Policy has not kept up with economic demands –and while many complain we must acknowledge that our economic livelihood depends on immigrant workers.

So as you sit down to break bread with your loved ones for Thanksgiving, please pause for a moment and thank the immigrants who work in the meat packing industries, agriculture, and garment work. If it weren’t for them, there would be no turkey on the table, certainly no fruit, vegetables, or grain. And, the fact that we’re all able to dress to impress is because immigrant workers stitched together the garments you’re wearing. The time is now to create an immigration policy that allows migrants to work, and to be home for the holidays.

Sending all of you blessings and joy this holiday season.