Elena Gonzales

Elena Gonzales tells Veronica Pineda and others in her English as a Second Language class her story about immigrating to America at Walter Turnbow Elementary School

When junior Erick Perea’s uncle was deported seven years ago, he left behind a wife and three kids who were forced to live with different family members because she was unable to support them.

“It was terrible,” Perea said. “It got to the point where my aunt couldn’t afford it financially, and because of that, my aunts and uncles offered to take one of the kids. So each of the kids went with separate families because my aunt couldn’t provide for them.”

His uncle was caught trying to get a passport under the name of a deceased family member.

Now his uncle has to wait three more years before he is allowed back in the U.S. to see his family, Perea said.

The issue of immigration has been divisive in the 2016 presidential election, and the topic has hit home for students and residents in Northwest Arkansas.

Elena Gonzalez, an immigrant from El Salvador, has first-hand experience with immigration.

When Gonzalez left her home country of El Salvador to come to the U.S. in 1999, she was starting from scratch. With one pair of shoes, one pair of clothes, no education and little money to her name, she crossed into an unknown land, and her dream of being in America was realized.

“I’ve always had it in my mind since I was little,” Gonzalez said. “When I stood in the U.S. I said, ‘I made it.’ I even pinched myself to see if I was dreaming.”

But she was about to face a different set of obstacles. She started looking for work, only to find the only job she could get was as a roofer.

She had a boyfriend attempt to kill her, and when she threatened to call the police, he told her the police would deport her because she was an undocumented immigrant. That was the final straw for Gonzalez who moved out and worked toward getting her citizenship the next day, she said.

Since being in the U.S., Gonzalez has taught herself how to read and write in Spanish and is learning English now at an English as a Second Language school in Springdale, but she did learn some English by a “really small radio” she had growing up with her grandmother.

“I used to sing the song from Titanic (‘My Heart Will Go On’ by Celine Dion) and ‘Hotel California,’” Gonzalez said. “I love those songs.”

All of Gonzalez’s hard, work paid off last January when she received her Certificate of Citizenship.

“I’m with Hillary,” Gonzalez said. “For sure my vote is not going to be for Trump because he is really inhumane, and his heart is like a rock.”

While Gonzalez’s story is unique to her situation, the topic of immigration has been a divisive issue for people in the upcoming 2016 election. Seventy percent of registered voters viewed immigration as very important, according to a poll released by the Pew Research Center in June.

“The policies in place in the United States to allow people to come into this country, specifically from Mexico, are so out-of-line with the U.S.’s values,” Perea said. “Because the steps cost so much money and are so lengthy, the only reasonable thing to do is to turn to illegal immigration.”

Hillary Clinton has gone on record saying she would support laws making naturalization easier for immigrants within the first 100 days she would be in office. She has also said she would work towards supporting undocumented immigrants by championing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors act.

“People hear that and say, ‘Golly, she’s going to do a lot,’” said Drew Devenport, a lawyer from the UA Law School’s Immigration Clinic. “The problem is immigration law solely rests with Congress. Any comprehensive laws have to go through Congress. Some of the things she has said I think are viable if she could reach across the aisle and work with both Democrats and Republicans, but as far as being able to come in the first 100 days and change the system, realistically that is not going to happen.”

Perea said he thinks that Trump’s policies are not realistic and because of that he cast his vote for Clinton.

“I voted for her because not necessarily she is a great candidate but because her values coincide more with mine then Trump’s,” Perea said.

Immigration and border security have been one of Donald Trump’s largest platforms in the election. His stance on immigration includes building a wall to secure the border, ending President Barack Obama’s two executive amnesties for immigrants and bolstering immigration laws already in place in order to deport undocumented immigrants in the country.

“Honestly, it isn’t viable,” Devenport said. “You’re talking about having to hire thousands if not tens of thousands of people to execute a program like that. Plus the sheer cost to employ and train them and then detain people and deport them. I think it would be a violation of civil liberties as well. That has been his big campaign stance throughout the election season.”

There were 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in 2014 and of those immigrants 52 percent of them came from Mexico, according to a report released by the Pew Research Center.

For those without the alternative to enter the country legally, the trek to the U.S. can be quite perilous. From having to scrap together thousands of dollars to pay for a coyote, who smuggles undocumented immigrants across the border, to finding a job where an employer might pay below minimum wage if they’re lucky, sharing in the American dream is as difficult to achieve as it's ever been, Gonzales said.

Dwight Gonzales, a Republican running for state representative – covering the 85th district that includes Farmington, south Fayetteville and northeast Prairie Grove – refused to comment on the Trump’s stances on immigration, saying he wants to just “focus on (his) own campaign.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t get to control the border,” Gonzales said. “I shouldn’t say unfortunately, I should say luckily, but look how diverse we are in Northwest Arkansas. We are booming.”

Gonzales does not support either Republican or Democratic candidate for presidency and that no matter the outcome of the campaign, “people are going to be unhappy,” he said.

With one of the largest concentrations of immigrants in Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas has been a beacon for immigrants to come to, and Devenport said they are hard-working individuals.

“A lot of times in law school you’re taught to be a successful lawyer. You have to make the most money, which often means you’d work for big corporations or firms,” Devenport said. “I have friends and family that do that. That’s great for them, but I think it's important to realize that there are people in the community that need your help too. I think it’s great to be able to give back to the community and give a voice to sections of the community that wouldn’t have a voice.”

 

Alex Nicoll was the editor-in-chief of the Arkansas Traveler from 2017-2019. Before that, Alex was a sport designer, and he wrote stories for the news, lifestyles and sports sections.

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