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Are We Actually a Nation of Unified Americans?

Books to Help You Put the CARES Act in the Context of Undocumented Immigrants

In late March, the federal government announced passage of a $2 trillion stimulus plan known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act to revitalize the ailing economy during the COVID-19 crisis. Specific details from the GOP-backed economic plan, which received bipartisan support, outline economic rescue for small businesses to the tune of $367 billion and extend unemployment benefits up to as much as $600, in addition to the state unemployment funds a worker may garner. With the economy in a downward spiral—the Dow Jones experienced the worse one-day decline on March 12 since Black Monday in 1987—it would appear that this stimulus package is a much-needed shot in the arm. Or is it? To be honest, the CARES Act seem to care little about those it should be helping the most—undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

The undocumented population in the U.S., estimated at 10.5 million according to the Pew Research Center, is generally one of the most vulnerable populations. The COVID-19 pandemic puts undocumented populations in an even tougher position, foremost because the CARES Act fails them. Beyond the economic exclusion, there are very real social conditions that put this population at risk. As outlined in The Nation, undocumented populations can be vulnerable because of preexisting health conditions, overcrowded living spaces, and a communication gap in seeking information related to the current pandemic. Those factors impact the overall health crisis.

The CARES Act disregards undocumented immigrants, or as both Karla Cornejo Villavicencio and Jose Antonio Vargas refer to this population as “undocumented Americans” or “undocumented citizens,” respectively. After all, how is working in such areas as the Ground Zero cleanup following 9/11 or working to rebuild New Orleans in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina considered anything less than an American job? It may be mere semantics to argue that undocumented populations are “Americans” but it is an important point. When lines are drawn among citizen and non-citizen, American and immigrant, it becomes easier to ‘other’ a population, easier to disregard whole swaths of our population.

The CARES Act has ignored undocumented immigrants in several significant ways. Some undocumented may avoid seeking out medical care in hospitals for fear that their immigration status may put them in jeopardy. Despite the current pandemic, ICE is still visible in full force. The recent passage of the immigration provision excluding immigrants as “public charges” in place since February 2020 works to create more fear for undocumented immigrants. Under the Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds, individuals who receive such benefits as Medicaid, housing assistance, and food stamps may be ineligible in the future for green cards or visas. This may also open up individuals to deportation, according to The Hill.

This reminded me of the incident in August 2019 when the Trump administration sought to revise the popular poem “The New Colossus” that appears on the base of the Statue of Liberty. The famous quote by Lazarus published in 1883 states:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

But in August 2019, the BBC reports that the Trump administration’s acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, doctored up the lines of the poem to support its position on the ‘public charge’ immigration policy. According to that article, the line "who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge” was added to the second line above. Cucinelli stated, “No one has a right to become an American who isn’t born here as an America.” When asked what America stands for, Cuccinelli continued: “Of course that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe - where they had class-based societies where people were considering wretched if they weren't in the right class.” Within the backdrop of this policy that impacts those seeking to apply for visas and green cards, is the fear that receiving public assistance will negatively impact future status.

The proposed stimulus checks issued to “all Americans” who earn below $75, 000 as single taxpayers or $150,000 as married joint taxpayers that are reported to be issued in the coming weeks should be steroid for the debilitated economy. Yet why is it that more than 10.5 million Americans will be excluded as the stimulus checks will not be issued to undocumented immigrants? The premise for this exclusion appears to hinge on the notion that undocumented immigrants lack social security numbers, therefore they must not pay taxes. Ignored by the CARES Act is the estimated 50% of undocumented households who file taxes using Individual Tax Identification Numbers (ITIN) according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. But the misnomer that undocumented immigrants do not pay taxes has grown exponentially under the current administration.

Another way in which undocumented immigrants are being raked over the coals under the COVID-19 stimulus is by making them ineligible for unemployment benefits. At least an estimated two million undocumented immigrants workers will be ineligible for unemployment-related stimulus funds (state unemployment and the $600 per week of federal monies) because they lack work authorization. Thus individuals who may work cleaning houses or as domestic help have no unemployment benefits to rely on in this time of crisis. In California, the California Latino Legislative Caucus is working to create a Disaster Relief Fund for undocumented immigrants and California governor Gavin Newsom has at least had assistance for undocumented on his radar.

To say that I’m worried about the vulnerability of undocumented populations in the U.S. is an understatement. Situations like these, especially the economics of the pandemic, remind me of how our nation treated the most vulnerable generations earlier. With the outbreak of the Great Depression in October 1929, it did not take long for economic scapegoating to occur. One of the recipients of harsh scapegoating was Mexican labor in such fields as agriculture and transportation (streetcars). Though California seems poised to keep undocumented workers centered in evolving discussions (and policies??) of economic recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic, the same cannot be said for our state during the Great Depression. At that time, California enacted the Alien Labor Act in 1930 prohibiting undocumented—but clearly aimed at Mexican laborers—from working jobs connected to public works projects such as construction, schools, and government office buildings.

This was actually the beginning of the end for Mexican and Mexican American laborers. Scholars such as Francisco Balderrama and George J. Sanchez have illuminated the torrid period in U.S. history when Mexicans and Mexican Americans were sent to Mexico as a solution to the problems stemming from the Great Depression, notably joblessness. Historian Francisco Balderrama has called the 1930s the “decade of betrayal” owing to the fact that as many as 600,000 Mexicans were repatriated or deported between 1931-1936. Economic pressures spurred by the Great Depression lead to the massive deportation and repatriation of as much as one-third of the Mexican population in the United States. These efforts ushered in under the Hoover administration split families, or often sent U.S.-born Mexican American children to an unfamiliar country, in order that they remain with their immigrant parents. The insecurity of the current roughly 10.5 million undocumented immigrants is not to be missed. I hope (and pray) that this parallel to the 1930s does not bear fruit.

The books that follow may help put the current coronavirus pandemic in perspective one of the groups hardest hit—undocumented immigrants. Each of the first four books seeks to offer through memoir, poetry, or fiction the lives of undocumented with respect to work, politics, and migration. The last two books on the list seek to help you understand the parallels between the current economic downturn and how Latinos were treated during the Great Depression.

Dear America:

Notes on an Undocumented Citizen

by Jose Antonio Vargas

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has written a poignant memoir, Dear America: Notes on an Undocumented Citizen, that recounts his migration to the U.S. as a 12-year old from Zambales, a small agricultural province in the Philippine Islands to his groundbreaking career as a journalist for the Washington Post. This riveting book runs a gamut of experience from the hilarity of Vargas believing that those Americans he encounters will all look like Julia Roberts or Macaulay Culkin, to the heartbreaking moment he discovers that his paperwork, including passport and green card, was fraudulent. Despite that reality, Vargas goes on to graduate from San Francisco State University and garner coveted journalistic posts at the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and TheNew Yorker. He has made his life’s work Define American, a nonprofit organization aimed at undocumented immigrant advocacy. Or as Vargas eloquently puts it of Define American, “we believe that you cannot change the politics of immigration until you change the culture in which immigrants are seen.” I appreciate the insightful, brilliant writing and also the background information Vargas provides on immigrant workers and historic immigration laws.

Buy it here.


The Undocumented Americans

by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Latinx writer, translator, and Ecuadorian Harvard graduate Karla Cornejo Villavicencio has written a powerhouse book on the quotidian lives of undocumented Latinx immigrants in the United States aptly titled The Undocumented Americans. The shared experience of immigration has shaped the author’s life, as she writes eloquently:

“I attempt to write from a place of shared memories and shared pain. This is a snapshot in time, a high-energy imaging of a trauma brain.”

That powerful statement provides the guidepost to the entire book—as much as the mainstream tends to focus on the physically oppressive circumstances evoked by immigration, there is irreparable damage done psychologically, as well.

The “snapshot in time” that the author describes is one that runs the gamut from differing work environments and geographic locales, including Staten Island, Ground Zero (Manhattan), Miami, Flint, Cleveland, and New Haven. We meet day laborers on Staten Island struggling to eke out a living but assisted by growing workers’ advocacy groups. One of the most heartbreaking chapters (in a series of chapters that sadden and then make you seethe with anger) is coverage on Ground Zero clean-up workers who are predominantly Latinx immigrants. As a result of this work, there are vast numbers of individuals who have succumbed to cancers and other illness-induced disease and that does not include those suffering from “trauma brain”—those experiencing anxiety, depression, and PTSD is staggering.

Now, more than ever we need this astonishing book. I ran a gamut of emotions when reading this one from disgust to anger, sadness to frustration, but I also saw a glint of hope. In refusing to write from detached observation, Karla Cornejo Villavicienco succeeds in drawing the reader in.

Buy it here.


Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora

Unaccompanied is a slim volume of poetry written by Salvadoran poet Javier Zamora who migrated unaccompanied at age nine from La Herradura, El Salvador. This astonishing debut collection is a powerful testament to the resiliency of migrants’ journey north and also to the immense talent of Zamora. The poems cover a range of topics from his brief life in La Herradura under the care of his abuelita to his reunion with his parents in the U.S. replete with the myriad challenges wrought by living as a new immigrant such as deportation hearings, PTSD, and well-meaning but naive school personnel helping him “adapt.” What Zamora beautifully renders is the treacherous migrant’s journey, especially inherent to youth traveling alone and the emotional wreckage left behind in its wake.

Buy it here.


The Book of Unknown Americans

by Cristina Henríquez

The Book of Unknown Americans skillfully written by Cristina Henríquez is the kind of story that quietly draws you in to the primary characters then leaves you utterly shattered by the unexpected chain of events in the closing chapters. Through lyrical, spare prose, Henríquez depicts a slice of life of two Latinx families—the Panamanian Toros and the recently arrived Riveras hailing from Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico—who all reside in Newark, Delaware. The Toros, led by patriarch Rafael; his wife, Celia; and two sons Enrique, a college student, and Mayor, a sensitive high schooler; and the Riveras, comprised of Arturo, Alma, and their daughter, Maribel, all seek existence as “Americans” in a world that proves to be, at turns, both chaotic and tranquil.

The title itself is derived from a line from a secondary character, Micho Alvarez, a local immigrant activist and neighbor to the main characters, who quips, in conveying his feelings about being reduced to a facile stereotype,

“We're the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they've been told they're supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we're not that bad, maybe even that we're a lot like them. And who would they hate then?”

In this respect, the book is prescient—the Toros, Riveras, Zafons, and Solises are all simply eking out an existence in a nation that all too often shuts the door on them. Those fortunate enough to make it here often live shadowy existences, but it is authors like Henríquez who shine a bright light on their stories.

Buy it here.


Decade of Betrayal:

Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s

by Francisco Balderrama

One of the best books I have ever read on this unfortunate chapter of undocumented immigrant scapegoating in U.S. history is Francisco Balderrama’s Decade of Betrayal. Through engaging chapters, Balderrrama outlines the governmental rationale for this “decade of betrayal” in the 1930s. He shows how the laws first began to push undocumented Mexicans from all sorts of necessary occupations, and when that did not prove to have the muscular impetus desired by the federal and state governments, the joint U.S.-Mexico repatriation movement was put in place. This book is dense with information and also includes a section of primary sources such as letters and government documents on repatriation.

Buy it here.


Becoming Mexican American:

Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945

by George J. Sanchez

USC historian George J. Sanchez’s Becoming Mexican American is a phenomenal work in Chicanx history which depicts the Los Angeles Mexican American community in the first half of the 20th century. This book covers this period as Sanchez contends it is the period when generations of Mexicans moored themselves to Los Angeles catalyzed by the tumultuous Mexican Revolution. The central premise of his work is that cultural adaptation occurred during the Great Depression despite the absence of economic and social mobility. In other words, the community anchored around the Plaza and the Boyle Heights-Belvedere corridor is a “fascinating story of cultural invention.” Despite bearing witness to such harsh historical realities as the repatriation movement of the 1930s and the Zoot Suit Riots during World War II, a unique Mexican American culture developed characterized by a brand of ambivalent Americanism. Particular attention might be paid to the meticulously researched chapter on repatriation.

Buy it here.


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