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Struggles of 'temporary migrants' documented by U. of I. researchers

Melissa Mitchell, News Editor


Monika Stodolska, left, and Carla Santos
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Monika Stodolska, left, and Carla Santos, professors of recreation, sport and tourism, have been studying a swelling subset of the increasingly audible and visible population of Latino immigrants: Mexican “temporary migrants.”

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Across the United States, hundreds of thousands of newly empowered Latino immigrants have been stepping out of the shadows, taking to the streets and moving into the public-policy spotlight in recent weeks with their vocal opposition to proposed legislation aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Monika Stodolska and Carla Santos, professors of recreation, sport and tourism, have been studying a swelling subset of that increasingly audible and visible population: Mexican “temporary migrants.” The researchers define temporary migrants as people who come to the United States from Mexico, most often undocumented, intending to live briefly in the U.S. Temporary migrants share a common plan: to earn enough money while working in the U.S. to build homes, fund small businesses and support family members back home.

“The goals of many of these migrants, at least initially, are not to settle down in the U.S., but instead to suspend their ‘normal’ lives for a limited period of time, to make as much money as possible, and to return to their home country,” Stodolska said. In reality, she said, many never do return to Mexico, yet they cling to that idea, while struggling to get by in this country for years, and sometimes decades. Most never fully assimilate; instead, they remain in low-paying jobs, don’t learn to speak English or develop other new skills, live in substandard housing and limit their social and leisure activities for fear of attracting attention that could lead to their deportation.

To better understand how Mexican temporary migrants’ transnational status – that is, their attachments to dual countries and cultures – affects their leisure behavior, Stodolska and Santos conducted in-depth interviews with 21 migrants living in a large metropolitan center (Chicago) and a smaller Illinois community (Champaign-Urbana).

The researchers’ finding will be published in an article titled “Transnationalism and Leisure: Mexican Temporary Migrants in the U.S.” in the upcoming edition of the Journal of Leisure Research.

“Due to the strong ties that they maintain with their country of origin, they (Mexican migrants) constitute an ideal population on which the effects of transnationalism on leisure behavior can be investigated,” Stodolska said. Another important reason for focusing on this particular population, she added, was because Mexican migrants represent the largest migratory workforce temporarily residing in this country. Stodolska cited 2004 U.S. Census Bureau data, published online, projecting the number of first-generation Mexican immigrants in the United States to be 10.6 million; the number of Mexican Americans in Chicago alone, she said, has increased by 89.8 percent in the past 10 years.

Research results yielded poignant snapshots of hard-working people who remain focused on their goals, despite overwhelming odds – from a 44-year-old factory worker separated from her children for 10 years to a laborer who walks six miles each week to a phone booth in rural Illinois to call his family.

“Our research is designed to give a voice to these people and to show a human face of immigration – something that is often lost in the debates of economic impacts and legal issues,” Stodolska said.

The researchers’ findings suggest that the leisure activities and patterns of this population – or lack thereof – are shaped by four main factors: family status; unique work arrangements; economic, social and cultural networks; and unique legal status.

Because they are often separated from spouses, children and other family members, many of the migrants in the study reported feelings of loneliness and depression. For younger male migrants, the disconnection from family caused them to seek companionship from “substitutes.” These ad-hoc family associations ranged from acquaintances made while standing around in parking lots waiting to be hired for day-labor positions to less savory relationships formed by joining street gangs.

Many subjects in the study also reported limited or no time for leisure, as a result of physical exhaustion from working long hours.

“Regardless of the way in which Mexican migrants obtained their jobs, their work was extremely tiring and physically demanding,” Stodolska and Santos noted in the study. “A majority of those interviewed worked 70-80 hours a week, and … after a full day of work were too exhausted to do anything besides watching TV.”

Furthermore, many reported working at jobs that don’t have set hours, which made it difficult, if not impossible, to plan leisure activities. As a result, “their leisure was found to be low-cost, unstructured, and spontaneous in nature” – pickup games of soccer and basketball, or swimming.

Another strong influence on leisure behavior indicated in the study was the need to make financial remittances to family members, or to sock away money earmarked for building homes and businesses back home.

“Migrants remarked that they tried to save almost everything they made in the U.S. in order to better their lives in Mexico,” Stodolska and Santos wrote in the journal article. “As such, their tight budgets had a profound effect on their leisure engagements. Most avoided going to movies, bars and any leisure places that required paying a fee. Not only were expensive leisure activities out of reach, but they also tried to limit all unnecessary expenses, including spending money on items such as alcohol, cigarettes or soda.”

A 21-year-old construction worker probably summed up the situation best by reporting: “Beer is like a tile on my floor.”

Yet another factor limiting participation in leisure activities is the legal status of many of the migrants interviewed. Stodolska said was a strong sense among undocumented migrants that the wrong move could result in being identified, arrested and deported. For that reason, they rarely strayed beyond “safety zones” – such as parks in close proximity to their residences – when taking part in recreational activities.

For Santos, the most significant finding of the research was that those interviewed were willing to persevere despite difficult circumstances.

“While conditions are bad, quality of life is poor and, for many, the end is never really in sight – or at least, it is a moving target – they are still willing to risk it all to be here,” she said. “No matter how bad things may be here, clearly in their minds it is worth it. Their ability to rationalize all that goes on is what keeps them sane; and that rationalization comes from knowing that there is something more, something better in the future. When that future will materialize, they don’t know.”

Stodolska said that the recent wave of organized rallies taking place across the nation – in which large numbers of Latino immigrants have turned out to protest plans to construct a 700-mile fence between the U.S.-Mexican border and the branding of illegal aliens as felons – is proving to be a wake-up call to many in Congress, and to the nation.

“It is unlikely that most Americans who come into contact with transnational migrants, who employ them, and who take sides in the ‘immigration debate’ realize or consider the sacrifices these people make to support their loved ones in their home country, the tough lives they live in the U.S. and the contributions they make to the economy,” she said.

“It is true that many of the migrants whom we interviewed came to this country illegally and were breaking the laws of this country, but in our research we are not trying to pass moral judgment on them, but to examine the quality of life of representatives of almost 11 million first-generation immigrants from Mexico who are residents of this country, regardless of the legality of their status.”