A chill reception for Latino immigrants

By Emily Ostertag – eosterta@unca.edu – Staff Writer | Feb. 11, 2015 |

On a subway train in Mexico City, Evelyn Alarcón, then 19, traveled to meet her friend at a library just outside of town. She was not accustomed to traveling on the subway. As she stood in the crowd, she felt an arm wrap around her waist and a voice whisper, ‘Don’t move, don’t do anything’ in her ear. He had a gun.

“After that I was like, you know, it’s dangerous for a woman — young women — living there. Plus, I didn’t have many opportunities and financially we were not in the best situation at that time. So, that was one of the main reasons why I came here,” said Alarcón, now 32 years old and working as co-director at the Latino Advocacy Coalition in Hendersonville.

For Alarcón, Mexico had become an unsafe place. This, along with inopportunity in a devitalized economy, prompted her to immigrate to the U.S.

Like many Latino immigrants, Alarcón already had family living in the U.S. and even though she was undocumented, their experience in the country made her want a better life for herself — an American dream.

“When I was home I heard all these great things about the United States, especially from my sister. She was like, ‘You should come here. It is beautiful.’ It sounded very easy just to come and have money to go to college,” Alarcón said. “When I decided to move here I realized that nothing was very easy. It was very difficult.”

From economically depressed countries destroyed by free trade agreements and industrial agriculture, immigrants coming to the U.S. escape desperation only to face inordinately unaffordable naturalization costs, according to officials.

Carolina McCready, Alarcón’s co-director at the Latino Advocacy Coalition, said an overwhelming amount of new or recent immigrants in the U.S. live in abject poverty while paying into a system from which they get no help.

“People spend frugally, go without, live under one roof and work many, many jobs. Kids are expected to work at an early age and education isn’t pushed,” McCready said.

According to McCready, the idea of immigrants surviving on government subsidy “is a myth,” because not having a Social Security number makes all government assistance unavailable.

“They’re paying taxes whether or not they file. Think about jobs that you’ve had where they give you your paycheck and everything is already taken out of it. It’s the same thing. They are paying into a system that will never benefit them. They are paying Social Security and those taxes automatically, but they’re never going to see those benefits,” McCready said.

Waiting for citizenship

Even though Patricia Hoyos Aguilera, an industrial engineering student in UNC Asheville and North Carolina State’s 2+2 program, recently emigrated from Zarate, a district of Lima, Peru, and married a U.S. citizen, she said strict application policies still worry her.

Because Aguilera’s husband, Chris, has U.S. citizenship, she said she must only wait three years until she can apply for citizenship. Those who immigrate on their own must wait five or more years to start the application process.

“I feel really fortunate because everything turned out fine for me and I’m doing all of these things to have a better life with Chris, but there are a lot of people that it’s not the same for them,” Aguilera said.

While Aguilera’s family was financially able to support her move to the U.S. by paying for her residency, she admits it was extremely expensive. The majority of immigrants to the U.S., Aguilera said, do not have financial stability and come simply for the opportunity to obtain it.

Paying for residency, even temporary residency, is generally not an option for them, explained McCready.

“The whole thing was around $1,800 because they ask you for a medical examination, that was $700, and then I think it was around $100 for the finger prints and the other form was around $600-$700. It starts adding up,” Aguilera said.

Cost of residency

Combatting the harsh cultural expectations of the “machismo” male at the age of 18 was hard, said Christian Muñoz, a cellular and molecular biology student at UNCA who decided to leave Pereira, Colombia, because of ongoing prejudice.

“Well, the first thing that I looked at was myself, me as a gay person. Even though Colombia has a lot of laws for gay people like you can adopt, you can get married, like that, the culture hasn’t caught up with the political advances,” said Muñoz, now 24.

Predominant Catholicism, Muñoz said, lends to the discrimination and conservatism, but the “macho,” or patriarchal aspect of Colombia’s culture particularly threatened him.

“Males are the dominant species there. They are the main providers. They are the ones who support the family,” Muñoz said. “So, it’s going to take a while to see the change and I wasn’t willing to wait that long, because I wanted to be who I am and be with the person I want to be with. I mean, I just wanted to be able to go outside and hold that person’s hand without having my life threatened or being bullied.”

Muñoz said he sought a more whole and free life in America, where his dad lived as a citizen in Asheville, but his immigration process was not easy.

“I went to the U.S. Embassy, which was a whole ordeal because they treat you very bad,” Muñoz said. “You have to wait in these long lines, and show many papers and if they like you, and everything, then it’s OK and they’ll grant you access to the U.S.”

Once Muñoz gained the ability to have temporary residency, he said it cost about $400 for each renewal until he became eligible for citizenship, which took five years.

Living as a migrant farm worker

Many immigrants come to the mountains of Western North Carolina to find work in the agricultural business, said Amy Schmidt, executive director of Vecinos Inc, a non-profit that works to improve the lives of migrant and seasonal farm workers in Western North Carolina

The majority of these farm workers leave their countries, their cultures, their families and their lives behind simply to make a living, explained Schmidt.

“They are here, they live in a house with 50 guys and a lot of them are family members, but they have wives, they have children, they have homes, they have lives in Mexico and they come here and they may spend eight or nine months. It is a very disconnected way of life, and when they are here they work sun-up to sun-down, seven days a week,” Schmidt said.

The non-profit organization sees how relentless vulnerability and isolation plague these groups of immigrants.

“It’s very isolated socially, it’s very isolated geographically because they are in these labor camps that are often very rural and they don’t have any transportation or choice over their transportation,” Schmidt said. “With the migrants who are undocumented and travelling around, I’d say that their depression is due to such an uncertain lifestyle. They’re always uncertain of where their next home is going to be, where their next meal is going to come from, if they are going to get paid at all or what they should get paid.”

Schmidt said discrimination seriously affects these farm workers. Discrimination comes not only from the community, but from their employers and crew leaders.

“They get paid by weight, so, how much they pick. If they don’t make weight then they don’t keep working,” Schmidt said. “We come and we give them all this health education information and we’re like, ‘You have to take breaks, you need to sit down in the shade, you need to drink water or you’re going to have heatstroke,’ but they can’t or they won’t because if they don’t make weight then they don’t have a job.”

Adjusting to life in the U.S.

Alongside the seemingly insurmountable challenges many immigrants face when trying to make the U.S. their new home, everyday cultural idiosyncrasies such as language and dietary differences also take some getting used to.

Ellen Bailey, a foreign language and health and wellness lecturer at UNCA, worked with several health promotions for Latino families. She said she found some interesting data from surveying.

“In 2006, I worked with several community partners to do a survey of Latino families, of doctors and of organizations to find out what the organization were offering in terms of services and then what Latino families needed or wanted,” Bailey said. “We found that one of the things that families wanted was nutrition and physical activity opportunities, like nutrition advice or information.”

Responding to the survey, Bailey said there was a grant-funded program called “Salsa, Sabor y Salud,” a Spanish nutrition and physical activity program between UNCA and the YWCA for Latino families.

“Another thing about moving here was the food was a big shocking thing. The people there eat healthy because it is cheaper. To go to a fast food place there it is kind of like, almost a luxury because it’s really expensive,” Aguilera said. “The things here, I was trying to eat healthy and it was so expensive.”

Many immigrant families find it challenging to establish healthy yet affordable eating habits. They fall victim to fatty, sugary convenience foods because of price, which renders them more susceptible to health problems like diabetes, Bailey said.

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