In a recent post, I described how economic tensions seem to be making many Americans not just more stressed out, but also more likely to lash out against those around them, particularly if they are immigrants. While that post focused on individual-level tensions and hostility, a recent Time magazine article discusses the case of Cirila Baltazar Cruz, a Mexican from an indigenous background, who recently had her daughter taken away from her because she does not speak English, a case that unfortunately highlights this same kind of anti-immigrant sentiment on the institutional level:

Cirila Baltazar Cruz comes from the mountainous southern state of Oaxaca, a region of Mexico that makes Appalachia look affluent. To escape the destitution in her village of 1,500 mostly Chatino Indians, Baltazar Cruz, 34, migrated earlier this decade to the U.S., hoping to send money back to two children she’d left in her mother’s care. She found work at a Chinese restaurant on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

But Baltazar Cruz speaks only Chatino, barely any Spanish and no English. Last November, she went to Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula, Miss., where she lives, to give birth to a baby girl, Rubí. According to documents obtained by the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, the hospital called the state Department of Human Services (DHS), which ruled that Baltazar Cruz was an unfit mother in part because her lack of English “placed her unborn child in danger and will place the baby in danger in the future.”

Rubí was taken from Baltazar Cruz, who now faces deportation. . . . [A]dvocates for Baltazar Cruz had charged that the problems sprang from faulty translation at Singing River. Baltazar Cruz was later joined [at the hospital] by a Chatino-speaking relative but the hospital declined his services and instead used a translator from state social services, an American of Puerto Rican descent who spoke no Chatino and whose Spanish was significantly different from that spoken in Mexico.

According to the Clarion-Ledger, the state report portrayed Baltazar Cruz as virtually a prostitute, claiming she was “exchanging living arrangements for sex” in Pascagoula and planned to put the child up for adoption. Through her advocates, Baltazar Cruz adamantly denied those claims. . . .

The social-services translator also reported that Baltazar Cruz had put Rubí in danger because she “had not brought a cradle, clothes or baby formula.” But indigenous Oaxacan mothers traditionally breast feed their babies for a year and rarely use bassinets, carrying their infants instead in a rebozo, a type of sling. . . .

In such cases, says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Bauer, a lack of interpreters is a key factor. When a mother can’t follow the proceedings, “she looks unresponsive, and that conveys to a judge a lack of interest in the child, which is clearly not the case,” she says.

The article goes on to note that Cruz’s advocates also argue that for several centuries now, new immigrants to the U.S. who were not fluent in English have safely and successfully raised their children. So the question becomes, why is this case different and why is Cruz in danger of losing her own child now?

Unfortunately the answer is, because American society’s level of acceptance and even tolerance of new immigrants — particularly if they are unauthorized and lack English fluency — is basically at an all-time low. On top of this general sentiment and as I noted earlier, the economic recession makes Americans much more economically (and therefore emotionally) defensive, insecure, and threatened.

In this particular case, we also have another sociological dynamic — the retrenchment of a “traditional” American identity. In other words, the reality has been that in the past, in order to be considered an American, you basically had to be White, plain and simple. Non-Whites weren’t even given the opportunity to become accepted as American and this country’s history is littered with examples of systematic exclusion — the Cherokee Nation, Chinese exclusion, Jim Crow segregation, etc.

But in the last few decades and as American society has become more demographically diverse and multicultural, the definition of what it means to be an American was gradually expanding to become more inclusive such non-White and immigrant groups. However, it was also inevitable that such a change would be subtly and explicitly opposed by “traditional” Americans.

Even in the past year or so, we have seen numerous examples of this backlash, including racist reactions to Barack Obama’s election and the upsurge in threats against him, the resurgent popularity of the confederate flag, and the return of anti-minority segregation in public facilities.

As such, we can see that in this particular case, the mother’s lack of English fluency implicitly violated the authorities’ code of “Americanness” and was enough to disqualify her from not just remaining in the country, but from raising her own child as well. An equally tragic part of this episode is our society’s misguided and naive attempt to be colorblind and to ignore and in fact, deny that these racial dynamics even exist.

Unfortunately it looks like things will get worse before they get better for many immigrants in this country.

Most of the news these days is on the economy — the recent financial institution crisis and how it will affect the presidential elections and American society going forward. But as an example of interconnections between social issues, as CBS News reports, the number of immigrants coming into the U.S. (both legal and unauthorized), significantly declined in the past year, with the economy being a big reason:

The wave of immigrants entering the United States slowed dramatically last year as the economy faltered and the government stepped up enforcement of immigration laws. The nation added about a half million immigrants in 2007, down from more than 1.8 million the year before. . . .

The Census Bureau’s’ estimates for immigrants include those in the country legally and illegally because the agency does not ask about legal status. . . .

One other obstacle could be the 69 percent increase last summer in citizenship fees, about 281,000 immigrants applied to become U.S. citizens in the first half of 2008 – less than half the number of applicants in the same period last year. . . .

Much of the nation experienced a housing boom in the first half of the decade, providing jobs that attracted immigrants. The housing bubble burst last year, sending housing markets tumbling and contributing to a slumping economy that some economists believe is in recession.

It should not come as a surprise that with the economy slumping that there are fewer economic opportunities for immigrants (both legal and unauthorized), so that the numbers of immigrants entering the U.S. has declined significantly in the past year.

Of course, the political controversy over unauthorized immigration and high-profile efforts to round up and deport undocumented workers have also contributed to a less-hospitable climate in general. Critics of unauthorized immigration are undoubtedly rejoicing at these numbers, but as sociologists have tried to point out, these issue exist in a larger context of institutional and historical factors that require a longer-range focus if we want true and fair immigration reform.

To go along with the Census’s latest report, the Congressional Budget Office has put together a list of Congressional reports and publications relating to immigration, both legal and unauthorized.

Of particular interest is their report released in December 2007 on “The Impact of Unauthorized Immigrants on the Budgets of State and Local Governments.” For those who are too impatient to read the whole report, it basically confirms what previous research has suggested:

  • State and local governments incur costs for providing services to unauthorized immigrants and have limited options for avoiding or minimizing those costs.
  • The amount that state and local governments spend on services for unauthorized immigrants represents a small percentage of the total amount spent by those governments to provide such services to residents in their jurisdictions.
  • The tax revenues that unauthorized immigrants generate for state and local governments do not offset the total cost of services provided to those immigrants.
  • Federal aid programs offer resources to state and local governments that provide services to unauthorized immigrants, but those funds do not fully cover the costs incurred by those governments.

So in other words, on a national level, unauthorized immigration constitutes a slight positive benefit for the American economy but on the state and local governments have to bear a disproportionate share of the financial costs, so at the state and local levels, unauthorized immigration constitutes a slight net loss on their budgets.

That is also a big reason why opposition to unauthorized immigration is so vehement — people situate themselves at the local setting, within their own city, town, or neighborhood — not at the national level. So they mainly see what is immediately around them, rather than taking a national-level perspective.

In that sense, it’s easy to see why people are opposed to the costs of unauthorized immigration that their city or state must bear, rather than recognizing the net benefit at the national level.

As sociologists have also pointed out, part of the solution needs to include the federal government sharing more of those net benefits with the state and local levels, to offset the disproportionate burden of costs that states and cities have to bear. Unfortunately, in today’s financial climate, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.