In 2014, there were 42.4 million documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States (1). Today, the spotlight on immigration reveals a controversial debate. On one side, people believe immigrants are helpful to the country and simply want greater economic and social freedom (2). On the other side, people believe immigrants are “criminals who menace American neighborhoods, take American jobs, sap American resources, and exploit American generosity” (3). However, the advocates of immigration policies which support struggling immigrants in the United States are morally correct. Behind the debate, real people are suffering as a result of poor immigration policies (4). Exploring both realistic and true stories of immigrants may help to show why immigrants struggle to survive in America and should thus be assisted. Structural barriers such as the English requirement and the difficulty in finding safe housing, work, and American services place immigrants at a disadvantage when assimilating safely into American life (5).

Drown, a collection of essays written by Junot Diaz, describes a Dominican family’s difficult migration to the United States. The stories explore many of said structural barriers. In the final essay, Diaz writes of Ramon de las Casas’s struggle to acclimate when he first arrives in the United States of America (6). He leaves the Dominican Republic after promising his family he will find money, a home, and a stable job. Soon he realizes that the jobs he is hired for will barely cover rent. He decides to look for better opportunities in New York City, but must walk from Miami to Virginia to save money (7). “Better to walk 380 miles than to arrive completely broke” (8). After great struggle to arrive in the city, he must work for twenty hours most days and can barely keep his eyes open during shifts (9). These issues mirror those of real immigrants in the U.S. He is an undocumented immigrant whose native tongue is Spanish. This makes it difficult to find stable work, affordable housing, and transportation (10). To gain these basic necessities he must work exhaustingly long hours (11). There are structural obstacles that must be addressed today, twenty-two hours after Drown was first published.

Understanding English is typically the greatest issue for immigrants (12). Everyday situations such as going to the store, receiving a speeding ticket from an officer, or filling out basic forms become more difficult (13). The above tasks of finding a job, housing, and access to American services are challenging without the ability to communicate clearly. Some immigrants may take English as a Second Language classes, but caring for children and working can make it nearly impossible to find time (14). It becomes even more “difficult if you [were not] literate in your native tongue to begin with” (15). This is a structural barrier. The English requirement immediately places migrants at a disadvantage (16). The United States possesses the second greatest number of Spanish speakers in the world, yet every newcomer must learn English to thrive (17).

An article published by the Los Angeles Times tells of a woman’s struggle to work in an English-dominated country (18). Irais Flores fled Mexico with a plan to support her family by caring for children or cleaning homes in California. After two years, she knows how difficult it can be for non-English speakers to find work (19). Now, she earns her “daily living from selling pumpkin seeds, hair ribbons, and yo-yos to passerby in a grocery store parking lot” (20). She claims that the long hours required to work and care for her two children prevent her from taking English classes (21). This story is not unique. Migrants from all over the world hope to find a job, work hard, and save money when arriving in America. But, when the they are unable to solve the initial and most problematic issue, the spiral of disadvantage is triggered (22).

Basic necessities such as safe and affordable housing are difficult to reach for those unfamiliar with their environment and its native language (22). For immigrants across the country, a comfortable place to live is scarce. With urban areas’ “rising rents and low apartment vacancy rates, just settling down can be difficult for our region’s most vulnerable recent arrivals” (23). Foreigners with low starting incomes must either share their living spaces or tolerate landlord exploitation (24). Unfortunately, owners of affordable housing will take advantage of the language barrier (25). Immigrants are at times forced to live in horrible conditions or pay for upkeep themselves. They feel they have no power or rights to challenge this injustice (26). Migrant communities lack the basic human dignity of safe and healthy living spaces.

In Seattle, Washington, refugee communities have shed light on the issue of housing stability typical of urban communities across America (27). A few members of Seattle’s Somali refugee community live in shared apartments with the help of their local placement organizations. One single mother struggling with her housing situation after a recent surgery is Kos Mohamed (28). She is trying to apply for new, affordable housing in Seattle. Homelessness is a possibility amid the challenge “to navigate through complex paperwork with limited English skills” (29). Muslim Housing Services, a non-profit dedicated to finding temporary housing for many Muslim refugees, provided her with housing after she received heart surgery (30). She now senses an end to their help. She was unable to work during the recovery months and now must find a way to afford expensive Seattle housing without help from the program or the government. Mohamed fears for her family’s future (31).

Immigrants also struggle to find safe and healthy working conditions (32). Not speaking English makes it difficult enough to find positions in manual labor, such as construction or farming. But, even with education or valuable work experience, an immigrant may not immediately find work they are trained in (33). American employers “prefer work experience within the US, and certifications outside of the US usually [do not] transfer” (34). Employers may also exploit immigrant workers. Many undocumented workers feel they do not have workers’ rights, and will thus agree to do unpleasant or even dangerous work (35). The language barrier results in immigrants more inclined to accept any task (36). The challenge to find meaningful, safe work is another of the structural barriers facing immigrants in the United States.

Many immigrants have struggled for years with the inability to find safe and rewarding work (37). Forty-two year old Benjamin has helped to fix hydraulic trucks on a sugar cane-cutting farm in Florida for decades (38). When he first applied for the position, he used a fraudulent Social Security number (39). His wife reveals he “has always worked and has always had a fake Social Security card. That is the way you get a job” (40). Migrant workers legally cannot be hired in the U.S. without this form of identification. Benjamin performs back-breaking work seventeen hours a day (41). The average American works about seven hours a day (42). As an undocumented worker, he obeys the law, pays his taxes, and works these excessively long hours in order to survive and support his family (43). Finding false identification and safe work are enormous obstacles unique to the American immigrant worker.

Accessing services such as medical or legal advice is central to remaining safe and healthy, and should thus be attainable for all people living in the U.S. But, whether an immigrant is documented or not, discovering how to utilize American welfare programs is made more challenging (44). An undocumented immigrant may choose not to reach out to legal professionals for fear of deportation. But, even legal immigrants must deal with “difficulty speaking English, trouble taking off work, and limited transportation” (45). Simply filling out unemployment benefit forms or tax return forms can prove impossible for immigrants unfamiliar with English (46). The language barrier can result in misunderstanding when immigrants do reach out for professional advice. Immigrants do not receive the same help and support that born Americans would receive (47). This is yet another structural barrier placed on immigrants in this country.

Maluki is an uninsured, undocumented immigrant living in the United States with her husband and two American children (48). When she felt pain in her chest, she treated it with pain relief tablets. There was no “community clinic where she might have seen a doctor with no questions asked; no one in her suburban family had heard that such things exist” (49). Maluki lost her ability to walk without severe pain. Finally, she was brought to the hospital after losing consciousness. She underwent two surgeries that could have been prevented if she were cared for earlier. Now she will be out of work, while her disabled husband and children will be required to support the family financially (50). It is extremely easy to describe immigrants within the confines of statistics. The danger is when news on the immigration debate centers on politics and legislators, not on the true people who are suffering. The truth is that poor immigration policy is destroying families such as Maluki’s (51). There are real, breathing people in this country who require the same human dignities as born Americans. They require the right to a healthy space and body (52).

American politics describes the two extreme sides on the immigration debate. But, there are stories behind the debate (53). Human beings’ entire lives depend on immigration legislation in Washington (54). When politicians ignore the needs of immigrants, thousands of stories like Kos Mohamed’s and Maluki’s will surface. Whether documented or not, migrant communities are at a great disadvantage when forced to deal with communication in a language they find unfamiliar. The struggle to find safe housing, a stable job, or even medical attention exacerbates bad situations of people simply looking for a better life (55). The moral standpoint on this debate is simple. Finding a way to help this disadvantaged minority in the United States is one of the most important things Washington can accomplish in today’s political climate.

 

Chicago Citations

  1. Steven A Camarota and Karen Zeigler. “Immigrants in the United States.” CIS.org, 3 Oct. 2016.
  2. Vivian Yee, et al. “Here’s the Reality About Illegal Immigrants in the United States.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Mar. 2017.
  3. See note 2.
  4. Christina Nuñez. “The 7 Biggest Challenges Facing Refugees and Immigrants in the US.” Global Citizen, Global Poverty Project, 12 Dec. 2014.
  5. See note 4.
  6. Junot Diaz. Drown. Riverhead Books, 1996.
  7. See note 6.
  8. See note 6.
  9. See note 6.
  10. Christina Nuñez. “The 7 Biggest Challenges Facing Refugees and Immigrants in the US.” Global Citizen, Global Poverty Project, 12 Dec. 2014.
  11. See note 10.
  12. See note 10.
  13. See note 10.
  14. See note 10.
  15. See note 10.
  16. “Immigrants Face Struggle to Live Without English.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 11 May 1992.
  17. Chris Perez. “US Has More Spanish Speakers than Spain.” New York Post, New York Post, 30 June 2015.
  18. “Immigrants Face Struggle to Live Without English.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 11 May 1992.
  19. See note 18.
  20. See note 18.
  21. See note 18.
  22. Christina Nuñez. “The 7 Biggest Challenges Facing Refugees and Immigrants in the US.” Global Citizen, Global Poverty Project, 12 Dec. 2014.
  23. Erika Schultz. “Behind the Byline: Immigrants and Refugees Struggle with Housing.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 3 June 2017.
  24. Christina Nuñez. “The 7 Biggest Challenges Facing Refugees and Immigrants in the US.” Global Citizen, Global Poverty Project, 12 Dec. 2014.
  25. See note 24.
  26. See note 24.
  27. Erika Schultz. “Behind the Byline: Immigrants and Refugees Struggle with Housing.” The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, 3 June 2017.
  28. See note 27.
  29. See note 27.
  30. See note 27.
  31. See note 27.
  32. Christina Nuñez. “The 7 Biggest Challenges Facing Refugees and Immigrants in the US.” Global Citizen, Global Poverty Project, 12 Dec. 2014.
  33. See note 32.
  34. See note 32.
  35. See note 32.
  36. See note 32.
  37. Vivian Yee, et al. “Here’s the Reality About Illegal Immigrants in the United States.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Mar. 2017.
  38. See note 37.
  39. See note 37.
  40. See note 37.
  41. See note 37.
  42. Chris Isidore and Tami Luhby. “Turns out Americans Work Really Hard…but Some Want to Work Harder.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network, 9 July 2015, 5:01 EST.
  43. Vivian Yee, et al. “Here’s the Reality About Illegal Immigrants in the United States.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Mar. 2017.
  44. Christina Nuñez. “The 7 Biggest Challenges Facing Refugees and Immigrants in the US.” Global Citizen, Global Poverty Project, 12 Dec. 2014.
  45. See note 44.
  46. See note 44.
  47. See note 44.
  48. Fran Moreland Johns. “Immigration: Three Families, Three Stories.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 7 Dec. 2017.
  49. See note 48.
  50. See note 48.
  51. Christina Nuñez. “The 7 Biggest Challenges Facing Refugees and Immigrants in the US.” Global Citizen, Global Poverty Project, 12 Dec. 2014.
  52. See note 51.
  53. Vivian Yee, et al. “Here’s the Reality About Illegal Immigrants in the United States.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Mar. 2017.
  54. See note 53.
  55. Christina Nuñez. “The 7 Biggest Challenges Facing Refugees and Immigrants in the US.” Global Citizen, Global Poverty Project, 12 Dec. 2014.

April 26, 2018

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