Sarah DeVries
Migrants cross the Rio Grande from Texas back into Mexico to get food and other supplies. Migrants cross the Rio Grande from Texas back into Mexico to get food and other supplies. Cuartoscuro

Why does the American dream live on in the hearts of migrants?

The combination of exhausted officials and despairing migrants is a recipe for disaster

What do people want? Opportunity.

To thrive, not just survive. It’s what all of us want.

And if you are guaranteed, or at least very likely, not to thrive where you are — if, even more painfully, your children are guaranteed not to thrive where you are — then chances are you will try to do something about it.

The other day I read an article in the New York Times (I know, I mention it a lot. I have a subscription!) about Haitian would-be immigrants in the United States being deported back to Haiti, some who hadn’t been back to their country for many years. The people profiled in the article had been living in other Latin American countries and had made lives for themselves there before entering the U.S.

But they still wanted to give things a try in the United States, which I think may always be seen as “the land of opportunity,” no matter what the reality may be for most.

Many people in the comments section were confused about why they had gone to the U.S. if they already had good, stable lives in their current host countries. The people quoted in the article talked of owning homes and cars, having jobs, having their children in school.

I was also confused. More than anything, I’m confused by the enduring belief that “anyone can make it” in the U.S. with enough gumption. With so many people suffering there — from homelessness, from perpetual and impossible mountains of debt, from the absence of a significant social safety net, not to mention all the people who can carry loaded weapons around with them — why is arriving there still the dream of so many?

If I were desperate for a better life, I’d try to move some place like Denmark or New Zealand, or even Canada. Granted, those places are quite a bit farther away, but I think the United States doesn’t hold a candle to them when it comes to taking care of its people in a way that affords them a relatively peaceful and secure life.

The mostly Haitian immigrants that were the focus of the story claimed that they’d been told that the U.S. was accepting Haitians as refugees and that they would be processed by immigration and then released.

It’s frustrating for everyone that they would have thought so, and I have my suspicions about how they might have received that message — most of them political.

After all, in the U.S., Republicans benefit from absolute immigration chaos when Democrats are in power, since they can point to their political opponents as the very definition of ineptitude. From their behavior of late, it’s obvious to me that sabotaging an entire institution is obviously not considered a price too high to pay.

Whatever the means through which these migrants felt assured of their safe passage to the U.S., the point is, they thought they’d count as “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Instead, a great number of them have been deported, after having been rounded up cowboy-style, straight back to Haiti, a country where many have not lived for years and which is probably the country least able to accommodate an influx of people in the wake of the pandemic, political turmoil, and a recent earthquake that seemed to want to finish the job of the nation’s total destruction.

What a bitterly disappointing despair-filled experience that must be for those being returned.

This paper is called Mexico News Daily, and so far, I have not mentioned Mexico at all. Do not fret! I promise it’s coming.

Ever since President Trump essentially bullied Mexico into becoming the wall, this country has taken on an outsized role in trying to control the flow of would-be immigrants to the southern U.S. border. It hasn’t been easy.

And though the U.S. administration has changed, the general panic about what to do about such large swaths of people showing up every day has meant that those mitigating measures will remain indefinitely in place.

My adopted home is trying to make progress. After flowery talk about what a great country Mexico would be as a final stop for those on their way to the U.S., the sheer number of people trying to make their way across seems to have overwhelmed and exhausted the government’s goodwill. The same is true for the communities suddenly seeing thousands of desperate people showing up who don’t plan to hang around and eventually contribute to those communities.

It’s now become a perfect storm: the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (Comar), the immigration branch responsible for processing them, has seen their budget cut as the influx of migrants has increased to numbers never before seen in this country’s modern era.

The migrants themselves are losing patience as well, stranded in places like Tapachula, Chiapas, without the ability to work or to keep pressing ahead as their immigration applications take a year to be processed even though they’re required to be processed within three months. They’re tired and want to keep going.

Some have given up on a system that’s essentially broken under its own weight, and there have been violent clashes as they’ve tried to defy the rules since the rule makers haven’t been able to keep their end of the deal. Human patience has its limits, after all, especially when the ones in power, for whatever reason, keep moving the finish line farther and farther away.

I do think Mexico — and the U.S., for that matter — are trying their best to find solutions. But the sheer number of people has put immediate deportation of immigrants back on the table. Mexico has said it will start deporting Haitians as well, and I fear that exhausted officials and bitterly disappointed and despairing people will wind up being an explosive combination.

The United States and Mexico have agreed to cooperate on extending Mexico’s Sembrando Vida tree-planting scheme and paid apprenticeship programs for young people to other countries of Central America (but not Haiti) as a way to create opportunity in would-be immigrants’ home countries. While I truly want to be optimistic about these, if they’ve been mired in corruption here in Mexico, it’s hard to see how they might avoid the same fate in even less-stable countries.

Another suggestion President López Obrador has made to help stem the tide is to offer would-be immigrants temporary work visas to the United States. On this point, I agree with him that a chance to legally go would likely help a bit.

The U.S. government has not responded positively to this suggestion, and how could it, I suppose, in the current political climate? President Biden can likely already hear the “and what will get them to go back once they’re here, eh?” shouts from those who like to frame immigrants as undeserving invaders. So even though the U.S. could no doubt use the influx of workers for all those jobs they say they’re unable to fill, my guess is that it will not happen.

When I expressed to another foreign friend my confusion about why the idea that the United States was the promised land is so persistent, he immediately said: “Things work in the U.S. They work the way they’re supposed to, and that’s not true in most of the world.”

Well, he’s got a point.

However, things work in lots of other places too. But if emigrating on foot is your only option and you want safety, opportunity and the chance to earn the kind of money that would make the difference between poverty and prosperity back home, then a dangerous and unguaranteed journey is a sacrifice that many are willing to make.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and her Patreon page.

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