For many illegal immigrants, coming to America is about survival. For Georgina, it was the price to pay to reunite her family. Her husband, who struggled to find work in Mexico, crossed back and forth into America every year to work on construction sites in Atlanta. After nine years, Georgina and her two daughters made the trip themselves. She curled up on the back seat floor of a car, covered by a blanket, one daughter with her. The other, Daisy, traveled in a separate car.
Daisy, now 16, recalled the trip: “I didn’t want to eat. Coke tasted like chlorine.” By the time they reached a family farm in Houston, she had a fever so hot her relatives plunged her into a tub full of ice. They kept going. A bus from Houston brought them to Atlanta where they moved into an apartment with cousins, all four of them sharing one room.
Paloma, 34 also crossed into the United States illegally for work. She and her husband waited for a full moon, then packed bags with canned tuna, cookies, crackers, and water and set out across the Arizona desert. A guide held her hand, steering her past the corpse of a woman who had died on an earlier trip. When their group of 40 neared a road, someone came behind and wiped their footprints out of the sand. After three days of walking, they boarded a van that brought them to Atlanta.
Milsan, 36, left home in Guatemala to flee her abusive father. “I had always told my mother I wouldn’t live the way she had,” she said. Countless times, her father had come home in a drunken rage and chased her out the house with a machete. She applied for visas twice, with no success, and finally gave up. She walked for one day, then snuck onto a freight train bound for Mexico.
Eventually, she stood at the edge of the Rio Grande along with 40 other immigrants bound for the United States. They crossed the river, either by swimming or by boarding a raft made of strung-together black tires. Coyotes, the slang term for smugglers, pulled them across with a rope and guided them up a hill towards America. But they didn’t get far. From the top of the hill, lights flashed. U.S. Border Patrol agents warned them through a megaphone to stop.They rounded up Milsan and her group, processed them briefly through a detention office and dropped them off back in Mexico.
Milsan went through the same process twice. She finally made it across the border on her third attempt, despite mental exhaustion and sore feet. She joined family in Los Angeles and found work at an eraser factory. She was safe from her father, but life in America wasn’t easy. Her brother died tragically, and she suffered through an abusive first marriage. She finally fled to Atlanta where she now lives with her second husband and their five children.
Georgina, Paloma, and Milsan all now live in Atlanta, along with roughly 480,000 other illegal immigrants. Their stories highlight the dangers many illegal immigrants face to come to the U.S. Advocates for immigration reform point to these types of stories as proof that reform is necessary. Improving the immigration process would decrease the need for such dangerous crossings, while harnessing the economic benefits immigrants bring with them. The Immigration Policy Center estimated that illegal immigrants in Georgia are responsible for $21 billion in economic activity, $9.5 billion in gross state product, and about 132,000 jobs.
But opponents view illegal immigrants as a threat to national security, unfair job competition, and an increased strain on public benefit programs funded by law-abiding citizens. Crossing into American illegally costs tax-payers and shouldn’t be rewarded, they argue.
It isn’t rewarded in Georgia. In 2011, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal approved a law that allowed police officers to question the immigration status of any criminal suspect, tightened the punishments for anyone who transports illegal immigrants and introduced stricter consequences for employees who use fake identification to get jobs.
In April, he revised the law to ban illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses, grants, retirement benefits, and public housing and required employers to use E-verify software to ensure their employees are legal residents. Both times, he presented the regulations as a response to “the absence of federal action” that would protect Georgia’s tax-payers from bearing the costs of illegal immigration, roughly $2.4 billion a year according to PolitiFact.
Critics call the law a step backwards: “The law will make Georgia more hostile toward foreigners and make Georgia less competitive in the global marketplace,” Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when the law passed. “When the national GOP is moving toward immigration reform, Gov. Deal takes a huge step backward.”
In the meantime, all three women said even though they live in fear of being sent back, their trips were worth it. Georgina is grateful her family is together, that her husband has work, and that Daisy might have more educational opportunities. She hopes to get papers one day, but that process is long and expensive. In the meantime: “I pray to God for strength for every day.”