The Way of the Crossing: Immigrants Today Experience Economic, Social, Legal, and Pyschological Crucifixions. (the Examinated Life)

Article excerpt

LAST APRIL I WAS WORKING ON A VIDEO DOCUMENtary on the U.S.-Mexican border. It was Holy Week. Each day I talked with undocumented immigrants, church workers, coyote smugglers, and border patrol agents, trying to capture something of the complex and painful drama of illegal immigration.

On one occasion in southern California near the border, I came upon two agents parked in their Ford Bronco trucks. They seemed ready to trounce on any trespassing immigrants like lions waiting for their prey. I asked if I could take a few camera shots. A bit surprised, one agent replied, "And who are you?"

I said, "I teach at a university and am a Catholic priest."

"A priest?" he sneered. "My, you certainly have had a field day in the news recently."

I shot back, "Well, your group hasn't been doing too badly either. You just granted visas to the two terrorists who slammed planes into the World Trade Center--six months after the event!" I resisted being boxed into his stereotypes, but our exchange also made me reflect on how quickly we typecast others based on the mistakes of a few.

Undocumented Latino immigrants, perhaps more than any other group in the United States today, feel the acute sting of dehumanizing stereotypes. They are often labeled as illegal aliens, wetbacks, spics, drug dealers, gang leaders, or even terrorists (although most of the terrorists, ironically, have come in through legal visas). While some regard immigrants as a threat, the U.S. economy would simply shut down without them. They are often the ones who wash dishes, cut grass, build houses, serve in hotels, harvest crops, and work in factories.

"I didn't want to come to the United States," says Maria Jimenez from Jalisco, Mexico. "I simply got to the point where my family struggled to buy sugar, eggs, and tortillas. When we could no longer afford even these, I had to leave home." Her journey, like that of many other immigrants, starts with poverty. Her search for basic human necessities landed her in an immigration detention center, far removed from her family. Typecast now as an "illegal alien" and a "criminal," she experiences cultural displacement compounded by the searing loneliness that goes with living as a stranger in a foreign land and leaving family behind. …