“My story is their story”: A Latina Student Activist Deconstructs Stereotypes About Immigrants in the United States

Líderes Avanzando Through College Fellow shakes hands with US Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee. Photo Courtesy of Allie Garcia.

Author Allie Garcia was a 2019-2020 fellow with the UnidosUS Líderes Avanzando Through College program. 

Every weekday morning in the summer of 2019, my heels would clang against a grey marble floor causing an echo against the halls and ceiling of an underground tunnel. At just 8:55 a.m., I could already feel the skin on my feet blistering. People would pass me in silence, their own dress shoes and heels clanging as they rushed to their own office. I’d arrive at the elevator and press floor seven, ascending to the heights of the capitol—the United States Capitol.

The blisters were a reminder not of my own struggles, but those of my parents back home, those who came before me and that worked hard for me to get here. They were a reminder of the blisters I would feel on my parent’s hands when they got home after a long day of work in the sun, and a reminder that I am privileged to be among the next generation that pushes my community forward to a standard of equality and recognition.

My story is their story. The story of the only brown undocumented girl in my middle school in rural Tennessee. My status kept me humble—even working as a cashier in a store seemed like a dream to me. Last summer however, I was chosen from 300 applicants to research, analyze, and interpret policy on Capitol Hill. I had the skills, the passion, and the grit to make it all the way to the office of Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) as a congressional intern, and it was thrilling but also daunting. The climate of fear and intolerance in America—often stoked by government officials and the media—has created persistent negative stereotypes of immigrants, especially those who are Latino and undocumented. As a result, I spent much of my time looking for ways to counter those narratives with well-researched, data-driven arguments.

That mission hasn’t stopped during the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, it feels as urgent as ever, because every day, thousands of undocumented people across the country are out picking the food we eat, processing meat, cleaning our hospitals, and more. Yet these so-called “essential workers” aren’t getting any stimulus checks or support from the federal government. On the contrary, too many people support the efforts to build a wall aimed at keeping out people just like them. Others believe a false narrative for these undocumented individuals who only seek the American Dream. Many times, immigrants are characterized as terrorists, job thieves, and criminals. Of course, not all Americans believe this false narrative, and there certainly is a growing resistance, but that resistance needs to come armed with a far more constructive, and truthful counter-narrative.

Here are some of the stereotypes I have been working to counter during my fellowship with the UnidosUS college policy and advocacy program Líderes Avanzando Through College:

“Immigrants are taking our jobs.” 

This highly repeated phrase represents one of the greatest misunderstandings about immigrants in America. Many Americans may feel alarmed as they may mistake the idea that an increase in immigrants means a decrease in jobs for them. However, 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Labor actually reveals that foreign-born immigrants are more likely than citizens to work in “natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations; and production, transportation, and material moving occupations.”

As far as higher paying jobs, the U.S. The Department of Labor reveals that “foreign-born workers were less likely than native-born workers to be employed in management, professional, and related occupations and in sales and office occupations.” This means that American citizens have no threat to losing jobs in which they may actually work. Undocumented immigrants work more laborious and lower paying jobs.

In addition to the differences between foreign-born and native-born employees, there is also a difference in wages. The U.S Department of Labor states, “the median usual weekly earnings of foreign-born full-time wage and salary workers were $800 in 2019, compared with $941 for their native-born counterparts.” These data, however, may not take into consideration undocumented immigrants who may not be able to work legally and make a full salary. In fact, undocumented immigrants work strenuous jobs for very poor pay.

Many times, undocumented immigrants pay taxes but don’t receive any benefits from their employer. In fact, while many people may be concerned or worried about immigrants taking their job, undocumented immigrants may face repercussions at work and many times get paid small wages. Using pre-existing databases and “a series of demographic and socioeconomic characteristics” Econofact found “that, on average, the hourly wages of undocumented workers are 42 percent lower than the wages of U.S.-born workers and legal immigrants. “It is also fair to note that at times, undocumented immigrants may face unfair pay or treatment by their employers and feel reluctant to report due to their status. These undocumented immigrants may in return become a victim of discrimination and feel unable to defend themselves.

Líderes Avanzando Through College Fellow Allie Garcia. Photo Courtesy of Allie Garcia.

“Immigrants are criminals.” 

In using terms like “bad hombres” or referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegal” President Trump and his supporters have fanned the flames of hatred, fear, and xenophobia, leading many to stereotype immigrants as criminals. This is hardly the case.

The American Immigration Council found data from the 2010American Community Survey (ACS) that revealed “roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males ages 18-39 are incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born. This disparity in incarceration rates has existed for decades, as evidenced by data from the 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses.” In these years, data shows that “native-born were anywhere from two to five times higher than that of immigrants.”

In fact, immigrant communities tend to be safer than their counterparts. Reports conducted by the American Immigration Council show that:

“Between 1990 and 2013, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population grew from 7.9 percent to 13.1 percent and the number of unauthorized immigrants more than tripled from 3.5 million to 11.2 million. During the same period, FBI data indicate that the violent crime rate declined 48 percent—which included falling rates of aggravated assault, robbery, rape, and murder. Likewise, the property crime rate fell 41 percent, including declining rates of motor vehicle theft, larceny/robbery, and burglary.” 

Due to their status, undocumented immigrants tend to take more precaution and be more aware of their surroundings. In truth, this data shows us that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are not engaging in criminal activity, and what with the prospect of deportation to politically and economically unstable countries, there’s little incentive for them to do so.

“Immigrants don’t pay taxes.” 

Many individuals feel strongly about the idea that undocumented immigrants are not paying taxes due to their status. The reality is that, although undocumented immigrants are unable to obtain a social security card, they are still able to pay taxes. In 1996, the IRS created an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). This allows individuals who are not eligible to obtain a social security number to still pay and process their taxes.

Furthermore, The Social Security Administration found that “while unauthorized immigrants worked and contributed as much as $13 billion in payroll taxes in 2010, only about $1 billion in benefit payments during 2010 are attributable to unauthorized work.” Thus, this data shows that not only are undocumented immigrants paying in billions more into the government, they are receiving little if any benefits. Additionally, it should be noted that undocumented immigrants do not qualify for most federal public benefits. This means that while undocumented immigrants pay into the system they do not receive most, if any government benefits, nor do they obtain social security funding. Alas, these individuals work to contribute to a society without seeking or obtaining any aid in return.

“Immigrants don’t learn English.”

Many American citizens may feel concerned about immigrants in their hometown who are not fluent in English and notice that immigrant children are often tasked with translating for their parents. Older immigrants may not have the time and logistics to study English, and it’s always easier to learn a second language when one is still acquiring a first one.

However, data from Public Institute of California shows that more and more immigrants are learning English as they get settled into American life.  “In 2000, 30% of immigrants who had arrived in the last 10 years and spoke Spanish at home reported that they did not speak English at all. Nine years later, only 20% of Spanish-speaking immigrants who had arrived 9 to 19 years earlier reported that they still did not speak English,” the report states.

From my desk on the seventh floor of the U.S. Capitol Building last summer, I often thought about that younger version of myself back in McMinnville, Tennessee, and how she couldn’t have imagined all that I would become.

Líderes Avanzando Through College Fellow Allie Garcia. Photo Courtesy of Allie Garcia.

Today, I work at a law firm that represents undocumented immigrants and helps them seek legal status. Every day, I wake up eager to hear every individual’s story and understand the reasons they migrated. People do not just choose to wake up one day and drop everything they know to immigrate to a new country. There is always a story. These individuals have stories, just as I have a story. There are many reasons why it was so much safer to come into a country where they did not belong and foster a new life. They deserve to have their story shared, correctly. These individuals are not criminals, they do not come here to commit heinous sanctions and take from America. I encourage you to learn about their stories and not be blinded by the stereotypes social media showcases them as.

The story does not stop there. The present-day COVID-19 epidemic has heavily affected undocumented immigrants. While many of their jobs are considered essential, they have been given no benefits. While they contribute and pay taxes through their ITINs number, they do not have a social security card, which is a requirement for receiving benefits through the CARES Act.

The American Immigration Council reports that, “approximately $2 trillion in new spending to provide emergency assistance—including direct payments—for individuals, families, and businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.” However, not a cent of this relief has been directed toward this tax-paying population. Thus, the CARES Act failed to recognize or authorize any benefits to undocumented immigrants although they paid taxes and contributed to the economy. Many mixed-status families were also left absent from these benefits, some who are parents of United States citizens and have been neglected government aid. The government has a responsibility to help its own citizens, including those who are part of mixed-status families.

The House of Representatives has since recognized this and passed The Heroes Act that makes significant additions to the CARES Act that would in fact include undocumented immigrants. These additions would provide stimulus payments to “taxpayers with a taxpayer identification number (rather than requiring a social security number), including many immigrants and their families who were excluded in the last bill. “ 

I implore you to not only share the importance of recognizing the false narrative of undocumented immigrants, but to help in support The Heroes bill. We now wait for the Senate approval for the Heroes Act, but it is just as important to be informed over current policy that affects a large contributing and working population. A population who seeks nothing but to have the opportunity to contribute to a better America.

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