No matter how sensitive, the earth sensors placed in the desert to detect human footsteps cannot shake the imagination of Latin American immigrants.
"In the life of their families, America stands for reinvention and prosperity," said Héctor Tobar, a second-generation Guatemalan immigrant and Mexico City bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
Tobar spoke as part of a Nov. 10 community dialogue in Chatham County on Latino issues. Presented by the Hispanic Liaison, a nonprofit group based in Siler City, the two-day event featured Tobar, documentary photographer José Galvez, a Tucson, Ariz., native now living in Durham and several other Latino leaders. They described the socio-economic and cultural factors that drive immigrants to risk their lives to come to America—and North Carolina.
"North Carolina exists now in the Latin American imagination," Tobar said. "You drive through the heart of Mexico and you see pickup trucks with 'First in Flight' license plates."
Latinos, undocumented and those here legally, make up 7 percent of the state's population, largely attracted by agricultural and service jobs. And they often start their own businesses that contribute to the local economy: the panadería in North Raleigh, the makeshift tamale stand in East Durham, the carnicería in Carrboro.
"They are the classic American dreamers," added Galvez, whose photographs depict a range of Latino workers—women cleaning shrimp, farmworkers in the fields. "I shoot them with dignity and a lot of heart. They don't have bad intentions. They are proud and they are helping our country."
While immigrants' wages are low by American standards, they can earn more in an hour than what they would be paid daily in Mexico. There, the minimum wage is $4.67—a day.
"When someone in Mexico hears that, they start multiplying the numbers," Tobar said. "People get an adrenaline rush when they hear about the wages. His wealth is his labor, and it's going from survival to bringing prosperity to his family."
Social mobility, virtually unknown in Mexico and many Latin American countries, makes life in the United States even more attractive. "It is difficult to dream big in Mexico," Tobar said. "Those avenues are shut off."
Shutting off the border has proved futile. Although no one on the panel advocated for open immigration, it is clear that a lack of a federal immigration policy—and a flawed foreign policy—has created not only a crisis in America over health care and education for undocumented immigrants, but also fostered intense hostility toward them.
According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan have seized the opportunity to ramp up hatred against immigrants. And new anti-immigrant groups have proliferated, although they often couch their language to say they oppose only illegal immigration. Using the Web and conservative (and some mainstream) radio and television media, their leaders, including William Gheen, the head of North Carolina's ALI-PAC, proselytize that immigrants are disease-ridden criminal invaders responsible for everything from bedbugs to ethnic cleansing.
Similar sentiments have also pitted African Americans and Latinos against each other, particularly over economic opportunities; Choose Black America's slogan is "defending our country, our rights, our families, our jobs."
Yet, there are indications that "black-brown" alliances are at least starting to find common ground. Latinos and African Americans have banded together for labor rights at the Smithfield Packing Plant in Tar Heel. And, noted Ilana Dubester, interim executive director of the Hispanic Liaison, the state NAACP, led by the Rev. William Barber, has "united all people of color under a common cause. The NACCP is embracing immigration as an issue."
Crossing the border, once a mere step over a snow fence, is now a death-defying journey as the line between the United States and Mexico has become militarized—by American immigration officials and renegade civilian groups like the Minutemen.
"It's an assault on the psyche," Tobar said. "You have to enter a criminal enterprise. You have to pay people—they're [who take people across the border] ruthless. The American experience begins with this violation."
The cruel irony is that once in America, undocumented immigrants are unlikely to attain the social mobility that originally captured their imagination. They live under the radar, and without an education—laws in many states prohibit undocumented immigrants from paying cheaper in-state tuition rates—they are bound to the lowest economic rungs.
"If we don't come up with a way for orderly migration, America will become more like a Latin American country, with the same caste system," Tobar said. "People will be born into their fate as an undocumented immigrant laboring caste. That debate that is going to define America in the 21st century."