By Molly Illes
First-hand accounts like Enrique's story, told in There's No Jose Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants (Nation Books 2006), by journalist Gabriel Thompson, can humanize the issue of immigration for legislators and the broader community.
There's No Jose Here follows the harrowing experience of one Mexican immigrant family living in New York City. Forced to live in a dilapidated apartment overrun by rats and roaches, while working multiple jobs at sub-minimum wages in order to pay even for such abysmal conditions, Enrique's family is hardly living the American Dream.
Enrique, the main character, was born in Cuicatlan, Mexico. His father left to work in the US when Enrique was just two years old. Enrique suffered the abandonment of his father, yet followed in his footsteps, arriving undocumented in 1986. Enrique and his father became citizens through amnesty in the late 1980s.
Life in the US was anything but easy for Enrique and his family. Enrique's first daughter suffered from lead poisoning, leaving her mentally challenged and eventually pregnant at 14. The substandard living conditions in which they are forced to live inspires Enrique to become an activist; his persistence leads to passage of a tenant protection law to abolish lead paint in New York City apartments.
Enrique directly addresses the issue of undocumented immigrants several times in the book. He and second generation Mexican-American, Manuel, are arguing over the issue when Enrique asks, "What do you think your parents did? If they hadn't crossed, you would be the same as me... What are people supposed to do to survive? Hay que comer (p. 134)."
There are many statistics about immigrants--especially undocumented immigrants--in the US today. But if legislators do not take stories such as this one into account, immigration policy will continue to breed exploitation of undocumented immigrants. It will not address the life-threatening journey Mexicans are forced to take so they can feed their children. Without putting a face to the crisis, how can legislators truly create policies to give everyone--citizens and newly arrived--the opportunity to thrive in the United States?
By Molly Illes, MPA Candidate, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.
From mid-April to mid-May 2010, selected students from Professor Katherine Fennelly's course "PA5452: Immigration and Public Policy" are sharing thoughts on their readings with IHRC readers.