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Immigration: the elephant in the room

By Alvaro Huerta

Where's Barak Obama's speech on immigration? Not that I want to place one more burden on the Illinois senator and presidential candidate — he's already been unjustifiably challenged to account for the remnants of racism in the United States. But is there no one else with or without a Spanish surname to deliver an equally powerful discourse about the positive contributions immigrants make to this country?

There's nothing like a presidential election to raise the volume on the xenophobic rhetoric of anti-immigration diehards. Television talk-show hosts and politicians quickly jump at the opportunity to bash Mexican immigrants like a piƱata at a kid's birthday party. These same voices suffer from selective amnesia, purposely forgetting the immense contributions of Mexican immigrants, focusing instead on the "costs" associated with our presence here.

As a son of Mexican immigrants who lacked formal education, I often ask myself, "What about the costs that immigrants incur to come here?" I have been pondering this question a lot since my recent migration from UCLA (M.A., 2006) to UC Berkeley to pursue my doctoral studies in the Department of City and Regional Planning.

In temporarily leaving my wife, Antonia, and 8-year-old son Joaquin behind in Los Angeles, I can't help but feel I'm following in the footsteps of my immigrant father, who came to El Norte more than half-a-century ago to pick fruits and vegetables as part of the U.S.-Mexico guest-worker plan, the Bracero Program.

Although being a doctoral student at a prestigious university cannot compare with being a farm worker — or, indeed, a domestic worker like my mother — it gives me some idea of how my father felt. The sacrifices I'm now making, while temporary, seem very real to me.

I worry about how my wife will manage to keep her teaching job while attending graduate school and caring for our son. Will she be able to take him to his piano lessons or chess tournaments? Will I be able to make his third-grade parent conference? How can I focus on Foucault while my son cries himself to sleep because I'm not there to kiss him goodnight?

And yet I want to be careful not to overstate the similarities, given that immigrants like my parents faced much harsher challenges. After all, between 1942 and 1964, the Bracero Program provided jobs to hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers, including my grandfather, father and uncles, most of whom lived in substandard housing, worked long hours under terrible conditions for poor wages, and experienced racism and abuse from American employers and local citizens.

Unlike them, however, I know that my son will have infinite opportunities in his life. What troubles me is the fate of the 12 million-plus undocumented immigrants and their children who are in this country.

Will their hard labor and daily sacrifice produce long-term payoffs for themselves and their offspring? Will mowing lawns, taking care of other people's children, picking fruit and hand-washing SUVs in West L.A. help them accumulate enough wealth to get ahead? Will they be able to purchase a home some day on (sub)minimum wages or establish enough financial and human capital to send their children to the world's top public universities?

Huerta, a doctoral student and community activist, is a graduate associate and 2008-09 visiting scholar at UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center.