Fruitvale undocumented workers share their stories at community forum

For event attendees, a small donation to Peralta Hacienda Park got you a glass of wine and a tamale. Photo by Ashvini Malshe.

For event attendees, a small donation to Peralta Hacienda Park got you a glass of wine and a tamale. Photo by Ashvini Malshe.

On a Saturday evening, the staff at the Peralta Hacienda Historical Park hosted a two-hour community forum titled “What Drives The Crisis? Exploring Undocumented Immigration.” The small activities room behind the park’s history museum was at occupancy, and the concrete pavilion next door buzzed with chatter and music. Staff sold water bottles and glasses of wine and accepted donations for the museum while they happily greeted newcomers and friends alike.

The forum was organized by park’s executive director Holly Alonso, and featured local scholars Adriana Martinez, a Ph.D. student in sociology at UC Berkeley, and Dr. Linda Ivey, a historian and professor at Cal State East Bay. The event also highlighted speeches from a few undocumented day laborers from the Fruitvale area who shared their experiences of immigrating to the United States and detailed what it is like to be undocumented in this country.

Peralta Hacienda is located in the Fruitvale neighborhood, on a preserved 45,000 acres of land that was established by the Peralta Land Grant, 150 to 200 years ago before the Gold Rush, according to Alonso, who’s worked at the park for almost 18 years. When she began working in the area, she saw day laborers waiting at corners near the Home Depot or Walgreens to be picked up for odd jobs. Alonso asked herself: “What have they lived through? What brought them to that street corner? You know, what happened to them?” The desire to answer these questions inspired her to host the event.

One of the undocumented people who spoke was Mario, a father, husband and day laborer. (The undocumented speakers did not give their last names.) Mario said he left Mexico in 2003 for the US, leaving his family behind and hoping to gain financial security.

He told a story of his first job in California, saying in Spanish, “When I finished the day of work, the foreman didn’t pay us. He abandoned us there in Pleasanton.” But, he said, his experience in California has been mostly positive. “In California, it’s as if you are in Mexico,” he said. “You’re with your same race, speaking in the same language. They understand you in hospitals and in public institutions. There’s no problem.” Leaving his family was hard for him, he said, but he “saw the fruit of sacrifice, of having left my family and my customs, my roots,” because today, “my sons are professionals.”

Mario also spoke about how undocumented immigrants are often discriminated against. But, he said, “The only crime we committed is to search for work in this country, and to take our families with us.”

Maria, who emigrated from Mexico over 30 years ago, also spoke about her experiences. As an artist, mother and grandmother, she spoke to the audience about her family and background, saying in Spanish, “We are all natives, we are all campesinos (peasant farmers), we are of the old Indians.” She, too, said that today her children are professionals, and criticized Trump. “We have to support each other,” she said. “The world needs to change.”

Mario and Maria both spoke about their children being professionals to drive home their feelings that there are positive outcomes after enduring uncertainty and fear as undocumented people.

Before the two storytellers spoke, Alonso and Martínez overviewed a long period of Central American and Mexican history, from before 1500 until 2018, to tell the audience about the Spanish colonization of Central America, modern immigration policy and the forces driving immigration from Central America and Mexico. Their effort was to not only educate the listeners, but to give context to Mario and Maria’s stories. They said that there is no single factor that has contributed to the rise of undocumented immigration, but it is instead a combination of factors, like the decrease in the number of immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua who are allowed to enter the US legally.

People who emigrate from these countries are often facing violence from the adverse effects of drug cartels smuggling their products through Central America and over the US-Mexico border. Martínez said, “The cartels, the MS-13 gang, government corruption and the consequences of natural disasters, like earthquakes and hurricanes, have created instability in these countries. And that’s a really hard task to tackle for the governments, or anyone interested in actually creating a sustainable government there.”

According to Martínez, while there is no clear answer as to what exactly drove mass migration in recent years, there has still been an outpouring of media attention to the issue since 2014, when then-President Barack Obama “declared a crisis at the border,” Martínez said, due to a large uptick in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing it. This term refers to children who cross the border without a parent or guardian.

Martínez made a point to mention the Secure Communities Deportation Program, which works at the local, state and federal levels to identify undocumented immigrants based on local authorities’ judgments of who poses a threat to their communities. It was piloted by former President George W. Bush in 2008 and expanded under Obama through 2011. It was later halted due to a change in US immigration policy, and then restarted by President Donald Trump in 2017 by executive order.

“All these agencies work together to stay here in the communities and deport undocumented immigrants that pose a threat to the community. Of course, that definition of who poses a threat to the community depends on who the officers are,” Martínez said. “So, I’ve heard stories of someone forgetting to turn on their [turn] signal and being stopped for that. And being deported for that.”

She expressed her concern that because of the violence in Central America and Mexico, US immigration officials who deport people under this program are sending “hundreds of thousands of people to their death.”

“What is going to happen to all of these people that are going to be sent back? And how are these countries going to deal with that return?” she asked.

Throughout the event, Alonso fielded questions from the crowd: some from people who had little understanding of undocumented immigration, some from experts on the topic like an immigration lawyer, and some from the now-adult children of undocumented immigrants. Attention was rapt, and there was some debate between members of the audience. Through mediation from Alonso, these interactions concentrated mostly on how to ensure the safety of undocumented immigrants from Central America and Mexico.

“All of us, or the decisions that we make, determine the course of history,” Alonso said. “And the more we know that consciously, and really own it and take responsibility, the better things get.”

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