Panel refutes misconceptions about immigration

Speakers counter media-fed misconceptions about immigrants’ impacts

Antonio Arreguín-Bermudez came to the United States without money or the ability to speak English. Today, he has a doctorate and is a foreign-languages professor at Chico State.

Antonio Arreguín-Bermudez came to the United States without money or the ability to speak English. Today, he has a doctorate and is a foreign-languages professor at Chico State.

Photo By Stacey kennelly

Antonio Arreguín-Bermudez was just 16 years old when he crossed the border illegally from Mexico to the United States. He clearly remembers a moment when he stood on a mountaintop near the border, looking down at the invisible line beneath him.

“I stepped over the line, but I felt the same,” he said articulately with a Mexican accent. “I remember thinking, ‘Why do I want to go over there if they don’t want me?’ And then I remembered, it’s because I want to prove myself, I want to educate myself.”

Nearly 30 years later, Arreguín-Bermudez, who holds a doctorate in Hispanic literature, is a Chico State professor. He told that story during a symposium in the Bell Memorial Union on Tuesday (Feb. 15) titled “Immigration Myths and Misconceptions.” The forum was organized by the campus’ Community Legal Information Center and the American Civil Liberties Union Chico chapter and is the first of three events intended to educate the public about immigration.

Laurel Yorks, a paralegal and public-benefits specialist, kicked off the forum by discussing the myth that undocumented immigrants are a drain on the public-benefit system. She explained how the media have fed untrue information about immigration to the public, including the misconception that illegal immigrants are a strain on the welfare system.

“It’s so easy to spread lies, and so difficult to undo them,” said Yorks, who in fact is explicitly forbidden by federal law from helping undocumented immigrants acquire the financial help they need. “We often use immigrants as scapegoats during tough financial times.”

Contrary to popular belief, she said, most illegal immigrants are not eligible for welfare and other public-benefit programs, including SSI (supplemental-security income), CalFresh (formerly Food Stamps) and Medi-Cal.

Professor Paul Lopez took the podium next to discuss the myth that undocumented citizens take jobs away from U.S. citizens. He cited his extensive research that shows a historical legacy of migration from Mexico to the United States that began during the Mexican Revolution and intensified after the Bracero Program ended in 1965, when temporary-contract laborers and their friends had learned how to dodge immigration obstacles.

Lopez showed a slide featuring an image of Mexicans marching across the border with jugs of water. He noted that while many pioneer migrants (both documented and undocumented) fit this stereotype, other theoretical approaches about migration should be considered, such as the fact that when one member of a family or community migrates, others tend to follow.

“They may come for jobs initially, but as time builds they must ultimately decide if they want to settle their family in the U.S.,” he said.

Sacramento immigration attorney Bethania Maria discussed the ideal that undocumented immigrants should simply come to America legally. She noted why that ideal is almost impossible to achieve, including that immigration laws are contradictory.

She described a number of laws that make it difficult to come to the U.S. legally, and used the example that many laws are intended to help families to reunite, but it can take decades to get permission to bring a relative to the U.S.

“Not many people can stand that wait,” Maria said. “Some parents die in the process.”

She noted other extreme requirements for gaining citizenship easily, such as having an unusual talent or needing refuge from a home country.

Master’s candidate Rocio Guido-Ferns wrapped up the list of speakers with her story about crossing the Mexico-U.S. border in an old Cadillac in the ’80s, with only a suitcase and her 3-year-old son in tow. (For her story, see “Immigration, cross the great divide,” cover story by Jaime O’Neill, June 26, 2008).

She eventually taught herself English, but her story of survival is one marked by an abusive American husband and instances of racial and sexual discrimination.

She said immigrating taught her to reaffirm her love for her culture, but her experiences have changed her perception of America.

“I used to think [America] was a place of people with a government that protected civil rights, where hard work gets recognized,” she said. “So that everyone, whether they had an education or not, could come here and become something.

“Today, I’ve gone from wanting the American dream to a dream of America that respects its immigrants’ heritage.”