The article, “15 years on the Bottom Rung” by Anthony DePalma highlights the tough situation faced by modern immigrants from Mexico by contrasting a typical story of one with that of a Greek immigrant who came to the United States illegally in the late 1940s. The article points out that although both the Greek immigrant and the Mexican immigrant came from roughly the same circumstances, the Greek was able to work his way up the economic ladder well into the middle class, while the Mexican immigrant worked for fifteen years and remains in the lower economic class working entry-level jobs. The author wonders what the differences between the two immigrants were. DePalma does not even entertain the notion that race has anything to do with the difference in socio-economic situation. He instead makes a number of points about the differences between the two immigrants as functions of their background and of the times during which they were trying to immigrate. The article makes several cogent points, ultimately arguing that circumstances of immigration for Mexicans in modern times are markedly different than those faced by Greeks and other immigrants after WWII. The main differences that DePalma cites are lingering ties to the “old county”, a lack of an existing support system in the US, and a reluctance to integrate culturally with Americans as obstacles to the kind of success achieved by immigrants from earlier eras and different nations.
DePalma points out in the article that the subject of the writing, Mexican immigrant Jan Peralta, never fully separates himself from his “real home” in Mexico. He continues to be in contact with relatives and sends his extra money to his father. He misses the holidays native to his Mexican heritage. He also met and married his wife in his home town, which eliminated any possible family connections from the marriage. This connection has several effects Peralta. First, it prevents him from saving the money he would need to obtain legal documentation for the United States, and second, it prevents him from establishing roots where he lives. Peralta’s calls and visits to his “real home” also complicate his life because he is compelled to lie about his financial success to his parents and family. (This causes them to demand more money from him, further limiting his opportunities in the United States.) This characteristic is common among blue collar workers in the United States (Komarovsky, Cohn, and Hodges in Kerbo, 2012) This having no sense of belonging extends to his work situation. Because he works for long hours in low-paying menial jobs, he has no sense of connection to his work or coworkers. Peralta’s attitude when he loses jobs illustrates this disconnect. He makes no real effort to keep his jobs, and does not go out of his way to demonstrate loyalty that might be reciprocated by his employers. This is described by Karl Marx as alienation from work, where the work is only a means to an end (making money) and the worker is in no other way invested in it. (Marx in Kerbo, 2012)
In contrast to the Greek immigrant featured in DePalma’s article, Peralta does not have a community in the United States to help him adjust or find employment. While the Greek immigrant, Mr. Zannikos, was offered a job upon his arrival by other Greek immigrants, Peralta had no such support. While there are numerous Mexican Immigrants in the United states, they have a tendency to self-segregate, which allows them to keep Spanish as their first language across generations, and prevents them from accessing the social and professional networks that are often necessary for obtaining better jobs. Additionally, his status as an illegal immigrant keeps him from obtaining better jobs and government assistance. As a result, his upward mobility is essentially negated by circumstances mostly beyond his control.
This article illustrates a growing problem in the United States. As immigrants continue to pour in to the US from Mexico, they populate the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. This skewing reflects poorly on the ideal of equality of opportunity that was once characteristic of the United States. (de Toqueville in Kerbo, 2012) Relegated to the lower end of the economic scale by education and language deficiencies, modern immigrants from Mexico face an unprecedented disadvantage compared to immigrants from earlier times. Additionally, these modern immigrates lack a consistent method for changing their legal status, which severly limits their earning potential. While facing many of the same limitations, these earlier immigrants did not have to compete with one another in a limited job market.
The legislative reforms necessary to remedy this situation have been slow in coming. The last general amnesty of illegal immigrants was in 1986. Several factors seem to be causing this inactivity. First, as members of the lowest economic class, even legal immigrants are less likely to vote than their richer counterparts. (Kerbo, 2012) This means that there is little incentive for either political party to espouse amnesty legislation. Furthermore, such amnesty tends to be unpopular in the middle class when they feel that their own positions may be undermined by a huge influx of immigrants.
This confluence of political and economic realities leads new immigrants from Mexico into an untenable situation. They are stuck in low-paying jobs, do not actively seek advancement and face obstacles born of illiteracy, language barriers and legal legitimacy. Even without these disadvantages, as blue-collar workers in modern America, Mexican immigrants have seen the value of their money decrease and the prospect of working even longer hours at menial jos just to stay at their current standard of living. (Kerbo, 2012)
These circumstances beg the question: if it is so bad here for Mexican Immigrants, then why do they continue to come? The answer to this question is twofold. First, the myth of the United States as a utopia where anyone with a desire and a work ethic can succeed is still perpetuated in world culture. The second answer to this question is despite the hardships faced in the United States by Mexican immigrants, the circumstances are still better here than they are in Mexico.
An easy solution to these circumstances is hard to find. Some advocate tighter border security. This solution, however, has proven both costly an ineffective. Recent attempts to prevent border crossings have in no way reduced the number of illegal immigrants coming to the United States. Similarly, enforcing immigration policy with increased raids of suspect establishments and instituting deportation of illegal aliens is also expensive and ineffective. Deporting illegal aliens to Mexico is particularly troublesome because it is so easy for them to come back. Additionally, many immigrants have children who are born in the United States, creating a situation where minor children who are citizens have two parents both facing deportation as illegal immigrants. Another circumstance that occurs is a young child being brought to the US during infancy, only to be discovered to be illegally in the United States. Such a person might face deportation through no fault of their own, and since intent is a primary element of most crimes, it is difficult to justify punishing them.
On the other side of the debate is the idea of granting a general amnesty for illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. While this would solve many problems related to the illegality of these immigrants, it would not resolve the major sociological trends that tend to keep Mexican immigrants in the lower socio-economic classes. Immunity would not encourage immigrants to speak English, nor would it cause a separation of familial ties to Mexico.
The problems highlighted by DePalma’s article, “15 Years on the Low Rung” speak to the ongoing challenges faced by Mexican immigrants to the United States. Peralta’s story, when contrasted by that of Zannikos, speaks to the changes in circumstance that face immigrants in the modern era versus those faced by post-WWII immigrants. It is hard to ascertain what DePalma’s solution to this dichotomy might be. Like many, he seems only concerned with highlighting a problem rather than finding a solution. Given an equal amount of industriousness, hard work and desire, the two immigrants faced very different realities in the United States. Perhaps, as Peralta suggested in the article, the most important factor for success for immigrants is luck.
DePalma, Anthony. 2005. “15 Years on the Bottom Rung” The New York Times May 26th, 2005.
Kerbo, Harold 2012. Social Stratification and Inequality: Class Conflict in Historical, Comparative and Global Perspectives McGraw Hill. New York, NY.