Stein column: Immigrants face gut-wrenching choices

Rob Stein
Superintendent’s Corner
Rob Stein

Local author Kelsey Freeman’s book, “No Option but North,” chronicles the immigrant experience through harrowing personal stories, a policy overview, and the author’s reflections as a white woman whose privileged position allows her to escape most, but not all, of the dangers faced by immigrants on their journeys.

Her book hits close to home, both because she grew up in Carbondale, and because so many in our community are immigrants with similar stories.

The book’s title implies that migrants who leave their homes to travel to the U.S. have no choice, but the dilemmas they face are actually much more gut wrenching. To stay at home means likely destitution or death by cartel-related violence. For many migrants from Mexico and Central America, violence drives them from their homes, only to be greeted by more violence along the way; making the journey means being victimized by criminals, by an impersonal and corrupt immigration system on both sides of the border, or even by alleged helpers along the way.

Freeman conducted most of her interviews at an immigrant shelter in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. There she meets Ernesto and Jacqueline and their two little girls. Ernesto’s job on a coffee plantation in El Salvador had been cut when the price of coffee plunged. Ernesto recounts how they have no option but to go to America because gangs prohibit people from working in other territories. She also meets Abraham, who was traveling from Honduras atop la bestia, the Mexican freight train on which many migrants hitch a ride north, and was thrown off the train and abducted. His kidnappers tortured him for three days, demanding that he send for money from relatives, then setting him free when they finally believed he had nothing to offer.

Freeman shows how the economic factors favor making the journey north in spite of the perils. The payoff for safely arriving in the U.S. is that, “you can make in an hour what it would take you days to earn in Mexico.” That is, if you could find any work at all back home. Leonardo, who made it to the U.S. from rural Guatemala before being caught and deported, is trying again. Back in his home village, there is no work at all. On his journey, he suffers hunger and the threat of violence. His final calculation is clear: “In the US, you can survive.”

Another cruel dilemma is whether to attempt entering the U.S. legally or illegally. Freeman contrasts the experience of Evilia, who takes the legal route, and Fernando, who crosses illegally. Evilia and her daughters are placed in a detention center, have all their possessions confiscated, and are fitted with tracking devices. Although they remain in the U.S. as of the book’s publication, she lives in constant fear of deportation.

Fernando escapes gang violence in Honduras and inquires about entering the U.S. legally. He learns that asylum seekers are held indefinitely in detention centers, usually wait several years for a hearing, and then are usually deported anyway. “Not surprisingly, he opted for illegality.”

Throughout the book, Freeman ponders her own role as a white U.S. citizen who can freely cross borders and who benefits from the double standard of “anti-immigrant discourse streamed across the border, juxtaposed against the welcoming way in which I was treated in Mexico.” In the end, though, she is nearly trapped in the web she thought she was merely documenting. When she learns that the director at the immigrant shelter has been turning migrants over to traffickers for money, Freeman quickly escapes. The immigrants she leaves behind have no such recourse.

For those of us who have options and opportunities, Freeman’s book is a good reminder about the limited options of the immigrant members in our own communities. Even though circumstances have changed with the pandemic, our local immigrants are still facing inhumane choices and exposed to intolerable risks as they work in front-line jobs with minimal protections against the disease. By a local author with a universal message, “No Option but North” is worth reading. It should remind us of the great sacrifices our immigrant families are making to live in our community.

Rob Stein is superintendent of the Roaring Fork Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt and writes a monthly column for the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

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