One thing I tend to encounter is stories of how we become American.
I met a Lyft driver recently named Aldo. He’s from Guatemala and came here 30 years ago, at 14, escaping civil war.
He doesn’t want anything to do with Guatemala, he told me.
He went back for the first time not long ago, and couldn’t stand it. There’s no rule of law. “Nobody follows the rules,” he said. “You can’t just drive along peacefully like this. You gotta be aware of these other drivers running redlights. Motorcyclists coming up to rob you.”
I’ve heard the greatest stories from Lyft drivers. I met the brother of the champion of Mongolian BMX racing one time. Another was a Vietnamese screenwriter. A third was a Dreamer.
As Aldo and I drove along, he extolled the virtues of the Kia Optima hybrid, how he’d lived peacefully with his family in South Gate for eight years until his landlord married a Colombian woman and she started causing problems.
He told me he’d adopted his wife’s children — she was legally changing her name from Maria de la Luz to Lucy — raised them and they are now grown or growing. That he contracted polio when he was born and walks with crutches.
In Guatemalan, he couldn’t go back to his old neighborhood because he might not be able to leave it. He also couldn’t stand the smells in the outdoor markets.
So he came back from his visit home, and is getting his U.S. citizenship next year. And when he does he’ll change his name to Batman’s alter ego.
“I’m American,” he told me. “Everybody knows him.”
I have no doubt that (yet another) wall between the United States and Mexico would be a disaster. The biggest reason: it would provide Mexico’s elite with some distracting issue to point to to avoid having to address all that has made it a country that people risk death to leave.
The other day I was in Tijuana working on another story about the deportees who have congregated in that city.
I was hanging out in the Zona Norte, a neighborhood right at the border where I suspect 90 percent of the residents have been deported. I was in a humble, cramped one-story apartment complex, where many men have rented cheap rooms – the kind of place that dots this neighborhood. (Btw, this neighborhood is a hundred yards from not one, but two walls separating the country.)
I was interviewing one of these guys, when another came to his door and said the police were there. After the interview, I went outside to the patio to find heavily armed police menacing the guys in the apartment. One had teeth clenched, right up in the face of one man whose hands were cuffed.
I don’t know the whole story here. There are a lot of good reasons why these guys were deported: DUIs, drug use, etc. Some may have been selling drugs. I don’t know. The neighborhood is full of problems, and I would understand a police officer’s frustration with it.
But I do know that to a man, every deportee I’ve interviewed has stories (plural) of cops beaten him, taking his money, insulting him for speaking English, for being a deportee, and in general using their power in a manner that would seem to have little to do with combating crime or drugs in the area. On the contrary, it does a lot to keep poor men down.
I suspect these men, while they were working in the United States and part of that workforce sending money home to Mexico, were applauded. Now they’re deported and it’s a different story.
What I saw that day was minor, really. But this minor experience gets to the bigger issue of what Mexico must do to become a place that people don’t want to leave.
Mexico is bereft of institutions that common Mexicans can have faith in. Mexico’s economy has been doing well, but the day prior I met two groups of people – one from Michoacan, the other from Guerrero – that had traveled up from Mexico’s interior to ask for political asylum, so scary was the violence that surrounded them.
So there’s two Mexico’s: one reflected in the (real) statistics of economic growth; the other in the (also very real) experience on the ground in many Mexican states of complete disintegration of the basic institutions of civil society.
I have seen good Mexican cops, but there aren’t enough of them. Political parties have become the new dictatorship. City government is so lacking in funding and civil service that it – the most effective level of government in attacking poverty – is completely incompetent, and too often unaccountable. Meanwhile, Mexico seems always ready to shoot itself in the foot – to wit, the recent release of drug cartel leader and killer Rafael Caro Quintero, now marshaling forces to go to war with El Chapo Guzman in various parts of the country, including in Cd. Juarez.
(Read two related stories in the latest edition of America’s Quarterly with the views of Mexico’s central banker Agustin Carstens and its former ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukahn.)
So if Mexico is inflamed at the demagoguery of one of our presidential candidates, I don’t blame it. That demagoguery – yet another wall along with it — poses real threats to the United States and its standing in the world. It would also poison relations between the two countries, thus removing an important lever with which the United States can push Mexico to change, and closing off the ways in which the countries currently and beneficially work together.
Mexico ought to strongly note its disapproval. Then it ought to turn inward and begin examining why for decades it has been a country so many poor people have risked death to leave.
In 1970-71, my family lived in the Bronx – the Norwood Heights section – on a street called Bainbridge Avenue. I attended sixth grade at a school named P.S. 56 (Public School) – in a class taught by Mrs. Tinkelman. My father was teaching at City College of New York and my mother was completing her masters at Fordham.
It was a remarkable change for a kid from the bleached L.A. suburb of Claremont, where everything was sunny, non-ethnic, where migrants from across America had landed and left a lot of who they were back home.
My PS 56 classmates were Jews, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, a Ukrainian, a Puerto Rican, and about 10 black kids bussed in from South Bronx. It was the first time I’d known any kids you could describe in those ways. It was nothing like I had ever experienced back in suburban L.A. I loved the time. Their accents seemed to come from mafia movies. I learned to play stickball. The Jewish boys I knew all wore ties to school every day. A few of the black kids talked back to the teacher constantly, which amazed me, but they always did their homework.
On Wednesdays, for the weekly assembly, the school required the girls to wear white dresses, and we boys to wear white shirts and ties, which in time I grew to like.
At school was the first I heard the term “high waters” – this in reference to pants I was wearing. I had no idea what people were talking about at first, then I did and insisted my mom buy me better-fitting jeans. I also spent the entire year thinking “Ho” was a reference to a garden tool but didn’t understand why the tool would be so often mentioned.
I bought my first 45s – “Let It Be,” the song that most reminds me of the Bronx, and “I’ll Be There,” which is the second-most. My parents enrolled my brother, Nate, and me in an “ecology” class at the Natural History Museum in Manhattan. Every Saturday for eight weeks, we’d march to the elevated train on Jerome Avenue and take the subway into town – two boys alone, ages 11 and 9. Never had a problem.
That year, the World Trade towers were completed, Frank Serpico was in the news, and the bank robbery happened that was later made into the movie “Dog Day Afternoon.” Times Square did not look like corporate Disneyland – but in fact looked quite the opposite.
In the Bronx, I met the first two kids I’d ever known with my last name. Puerto Rican brothers. We played basketball together at the Mosholu-Montefiore Community Center, where I also took a pottery class. I had my first girlfriend at PS 56, though I was terrified to talk to her. Her name was Linda Neihardt.
At school, I was milk monitor, distributing milk to the other classes, along with Frankie Campbell, Salvatore, and Terry – whose last names I’ve long forgotten. We spent time around Joe the Janitor, who had a heavy New York accent. I always wondered what became of them. Frankie and Terry were from South Bronx and were growing up to reach young adulthood as the Bronx famously became a war zone.
When Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier for the first time in the Fight of the Century, which it probably was, I was the only kid in my class rooting for Ali. I found this strange, for to me Muhammad Ali was the only reason to care about the sport of boxing, and I haven’t since he retired. Several kids asked me why I had moved from California to New York as so many folks were headed the other direction.
Yesterday, I was invited to speak about my book at the nearby Montefiore Hospital’s psychiatry department. Afterward, my daughter and I walked down a transformed Bainbridge Avenue. The house where I lived for a year is now home to the hospital’s Children’s Psychiatry unit. The Bainbridge Pizzeria, which served still the best pizza I’ve ever had, is now the Norwood Grocery. Bainbridge is dotted with 99-cents stores, small Chinese and Latin restaurants, cellphone shops and beauty parlors.
P.S. 56 when I went there was woefully under serviced, with ancient plumbing and only a small patch of fenced-off grass. Now it is under complete reconstruction. A worker told me they were adding new classrooms, a new gym, and a playground. It’s due to open in September.
The area is now home to mainly Dominicans, but also Muslims (judging from women in shador dress), Pakistanis, some Mexicans (judging from a store or two), and blacks. No white people at all.
This change probably came many years ago, and I found it fascinating because I had not heard in the news that it had happened. I found that encouraging.
In the countries where many of these immigrants, and those with whom I lived, are from, the concept of “holy land” and who it belongs to seems part of the history of life. Ancient battles, purges and pogroms, bitter feuds tenderly nurtured over generations divide one ethnic or religious group from another and keep neighborhoods, villages, static and unchanging.
(In the years after I left, the neighborhood became a refuge for folks from Northern Ireland escaping the violence there, was known as Little Belfast and was a hotbed of support for the IRA. Norwood spawned one Irish band, Black 47. The Irish influence waned after peace came to Northern Ireland and folks returned.)
This concept is foreign to anyone from Southern California, with its rambunctious real estate market that shapes neighborhoods, then reshapes them again 25 years later, and aggressive sunshine I’ve always felt helps people leave the Old World behind.
True, it has had its eruptions in the form of gang feuds and violence, but they have subsided to the point where they almost don’t exist any more.
I don’t know how well folks in the neighborhood get along today. It wasn’t perfect back when I was living there.
But in Norwood Heights, a massive demographic transformation took place twice in the space of 40 years and it happened quietly, organically and without the kind of eruptions that might attract national, much less worldwide, attention.
I just sat through a meeting of a Mexican immigration attorney in Tijuana at a shelter for recently deported men, as she explained President Obama’s recent remaking of immigration policy.
At the Casa del Migrante in east Tijuana, Esmeralda Flores wound her way through the intricacies of US immigration law. But the cold hard facts were, she said, “that none of you are eligible” for the temporary reprieve in deportations that the president announced.
Even if you crossed again tonight, it wouldn’t make any difference, she said.
About 30 men, rough and worn out, listened as she spoke. All had to be living in the U.S. as of November 20 – ironically Mexico’s Revolution Day holiday – to be eligible; and they weren’t.
Most of the men had lived for years in the United States. Most had learned to co-exist with their illegal status.
One I met was Filiberto Ruiz, who crossed at 15, and got his first job washing dishes in Oceanside without papers. He showed me, nevertheless, his real Social Security card and California driver’s license, all obtained without legal papers.
“For years, I didn’t need a green card,” he told me. “I preferred not to have one. I knew that sooner or later I’d be going to prison and then I’d lose all that money I’d spent getting a green card.”
Ruiz, now 50, was one of those who took advantage. He got involved in drugs, was deported several times, walking back in at the border crossing in each time. Then things got rough after 9/11 and he was caught one more time and sentenced to eight years in federal prison for illegal re-entry.
All of this – Ruiz, the men at the meeting, and the hundreds of thousands just like them, the president’s speech – are the fruit of Americans’ schizophrenia and double standards when it comes to immigration, particularly the low-wage sort from Mexico.
We have spent all our time enforcing immigration law at the border, where it’s politically sexy to do so. We’ve not enforced the law on Americans – people who hire illegal immigrants, from housewives to factory owners to sandwich shops and homeowners with pools that need cleaning.
So every working-class Mexican learned this fact: Cross the border and you could live and work without too much trouble; even brushes with the law were sometimes not enough to disqualify you from living and working illegally in America.
Father Pat Murphy, who runs the Casa del Migrante, told me of a family in San Diego who own a pool-cleaning business, a house, with kids in school, and 25 years in America – and are illegal.
But these days all that led to that appears to have changed. Tonight it fell to Esmeralda Flores to explain the truth to the 30 or so men who sat with her.
On a related note, Tijuana is a town of deportees: My taxi driver this evening was a deportee; so was the guy who changed the shower head in my hotel room.
These men are everywhere in the city. You see them wandering, with ball caps and small backpacks. Most are undocumented in the country of their birth, as they’ve lost, or never had, birth certificates, Social Security cards and the like.
For Tijuana, though, the question is, how does a town that lived from the energy of people passing through to a better life absorb tens of thousands of men returning traumatized, depressed, beaten.
A timely topic given the president’s speech last night.
The piece contains fabulous photographs by Eros Hoagland. (The shots on this post are mine.)
The headline: The numbers of detained unaccompanied children dropped in half, to 5,500 in July.
Also fascinating in the DHS report: The monthly apprehension numbers show a huge leap in March and April, up to 7,000+ and reaching 10,000+ in each of May and June.
So most of those 57,000 kids that were reported detained since October actually came since March.
The suddenness of that surge reflected in the DHS figures adds credence to the idea that this was the result of rumors – spread by a Honduran television reporter, according a US official I spoke with – that the time to leave was now or never given pending legal changes in the U.S. So people began bolting.
But it’s remarkable that the situation on the ground – both harrowing violence and civic disintegration in Central America, dependence on jobs in the U.S., and the huge numbers of immigrants here — is such that rumors would spark a migration fever like that.
I find the whole furor to be surreal in another way. The surge in apprehended minors is really a sign of how well the immigration system is working. Certainly, total apprehensions, which are barometers of the the size of the flow of people trying to cross, are well down these days.
Years ago, when total apprehensions were always over a million annually, thousands of kids — most of them teenagers between 13 and 17 – came to the United States illegally and many of them were alone. But they were lost in the hundreds of thousands of adults who were also crossing.
But with those numbers down (well below 500,000 a year), the kids stand out more. It’s possible too that coyotes are seeing these kids as their last, or maybe a far more important, revenue stream and spreading rumors too. Desperate measures, perhaps reflecting a serious crisis among our friends in the human-smuggling industry.
Not to say that it’s a good thing that thousands of kids are streaming north, but it helps to keep some perspective.
Here are the DHS apprehension figures since January, 2014:
This month marks the signing of the Bracero Treaty between the U.S. and Mexico.
The 72nd anniversary – not a sexy number, I guess. But the moment seems relevant given the crisis of unaccompanied kids flowing up from Central America, in especially large numbers over the last couple months.
The furor, the appearance of the kids themselves, are part of the complicated perversity that now surrounds the immigration issue, where Americans want and don’t want immigrant laborers. It all began with the Bracero Treaty.
The treaty was signed in 1942, allowing Mexican guest workers to be contracted to work the fields of the United States, harvesting the food that the country and its military needed while men were fighting World War II.
But the important thing here is that the treaty began the transformation of America in many ways. First, it began the transition of agriculture, particularly in California, away from white, native-born labor to eventually an entirely Mexican, and then Mexican Indian, labor force today.
(In the early 1960s, Cesar Chavez, just then organizing farmworkers, was a main opponent of the treaty, and lobbied hard to end it. He was equally a fierce opponent of illegal Mexican labor.)
Our desire for cheap, plentiful labor trumped our dedication to the rule of law – a recurring theme through the next decades. So, crucially, the first large flows of illegal immigrants came at the same time as the two million legal laborers contracted under the treaty over its 22 years.
That, in turn, began the custom of migrating illegally that took hold in many Mexican states – Jalisco, Zacatecas, Michoacan and others – and has become a business for many.
The Bracero Treaty also began turning many parts of Mexico (and later Central America) into dependents of the U.S. economy. The first channels of immigration from certain villages to towns in the U.S. began with the treaty. That continues today. Some Mexican towns eventually just emptied almost entirely, a collection now of large, beautiful, unused houses built with immigrant dollars.
So moderate and upper-class Republicans and liberals join together. Working-class Democrats and working-class Republican often band together in opposition, joining many of those who live in the area most impacted by the smuggling of illegal immigration — Arizona of late.
It’s all about who is harmed and who is hurt by immigration, seems to me.
I know that it’s fashionable to call those opposed to immigration reform racists or bigots. I don’t see that. I think that’s specious, bogus and facile — an ad hominem attack that mostly reflects someone wanting to silence someone else, not address a point of view.
I’m quite sure there are some racists out there. But really, your feeling on immigration reform corresponds most strongly to whether you perceive yourself bearing costs or reaping benefits from immigration.
Working-class black Americans seem, from my vantage point, particularly opposed to more immigration from Mexico and Central America. That’s not surprising, as those immigrants take jobs that those black Americans might well have had — and I’m not referring to fast food work, but to jobs in other, slightly higher paid sectors: truck driving, for example. Construction and landscaping are others.
Another group with some opposition to Mexican and Central American immigration — and for the same reason — are working-class Mexican-Americans. I’ve had fascinating conversations with some Mexican-Americans, whose relatives came here in the 1920s, about what they termed the “invasion” of Mexican immigrants who took the jobs in their neighborhoods (restaurant, car wash) that Mexican-American kids usually considered theirs.
When the LA Times publishes an immigration story (of any kind) the comment section quickly fills with illiterate, trashy, bickering comments. This one is interesting, though:
“I am a working class democrat.
I have wanted less immigration for years. Immigrtaion hurts the environment. depresses wages, steals job opportunities, reduces civic involvement, and creates divisions where none existed before to create a distraction from the rich at the top pitting black against brown against white, and left against right while those globalists Americans in name only at the top plunder the country.
For wanting less immigration I am called a racist,xenophobic,nativist, anti immigrant white supremacist bigot in order to shut me up.
The author of this article says it is an odd alliance pushing this new immigration bill . It is not odd that the elites want to import a new electorate more easily duped and more compliant and cheaper and younger workers for the open border cheap labor anti American worker lobby . It is merely a word the author is afraid to say if he has actually studied the situation and been able to put two and two together. It is simply called TREASON.”
I’ve long thought that in Southern California, the best stories come from the small suburbs — particularly those just to the southeast of Los Angeles, which have become a vast Mexican-immigrant suburbia.
Their names belie a wild and wholly politics: Maywood, Huntington Park, South Gate, Bell, Bell Gardens, Hawaiian Gardens.
These towns are unprecedented in American immigration history. Other immigrant groups advanced politically and economically into America at the same time, and almost always in big cities, where their numbers were large but not dominant: New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami and others.
Mexicans long ago put down economic roots here in Southern California, usually when most were living in Los Angeles. But politically they are neophytes. However, they now live in these small suburbs I mentioned above, where they make up the vast majority of the population. (More on why that is later….) I don’t believe this is true of any other major immigrant group in American history.
But this is why these towns have produced such astonishing and bizarre stories of municipal governance.
As it happens, Compton (pop. 97,000) is one of them and varies from the others only in the fact that the population being slowly displaced is black and not white.
Former mayor Omar Bradley, under whose administration the $4999 city expense check was notoriously invented (look that one up), is running against a young woman, Aja Jones, with serious municipal credentials but not the emotional connection to black voters. So somehow Omar Bradley is again a political force in Compton.
Almost always, the reason these towns turn out such remarkable stories has to do with Mexican immigration.
In this case, Compton, the town where gangsta rap was born, is now 70 percent Hispanic, but both mayor candidates are black.
That’s because Mexican immigrants cannot, or choose not to, vote. So a very small percentage of the population has any say over who runs the town. Were there more Mexican immigrant civic participation, these two candidates likely wouldn’t even be in the running.
Very similar to what the other towns went through in the 1990s, which were once white but then transformed into almost entirely Mexican-immigrant suburbs.
Great story by Hector Becerra in the LAT today about “RJ Brewer,” a bad guy pro wrestler who claims to be the son of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, wears shorts emblazoned with SB1070 (the bill denying immigrants services in AZ), and mocks his opponents from Mexico.