Our cover story in this issue became sadly personal a few days ago when a friend called to say, “My wife is in jail.” Both he and his wife are Mexican, and both have lived and worked in the United States illegally for many years. Three years ago, my friend’s mother-in-law died. She had also been living here, and her daughter decided to take her body home to Mexico for burial. Some years ago, my friend’s wife had come to this country on a visa and overstayed her allotted time, so, although her son and grandson are now United States citizens, she was not permitted to return legally to be here with her family. For these three years, she and my friend have talked on the phone several times a day, teary phone calls bemoaning their separation. Recently, the pressure to do something became so great that she very unwisely followed a coyote that my friend, against all advice, had paid to lead her across the Rio Grande. A poor swimmer, she nearly drowned, and a Honduran man in her party did drown. On the other side of the river, she was met by U. S. law enforcement officials, who took her to a correctional facility run by a for-profit company.
Permit me a bit of special pleading for my friend and his wife. I know him to be honest, hardworking, law-abiding, and devoted to his family. He is living here in the shadow of deportation because he wants to give his family a better life. That is his crime, and hers is wanting to be with him and her son and grandson.
My friend’s story will do nothing, I know, to change the mind of anyone on the large questions of national immigration policy. But read our cover story by Keramet Reiter, please, to learn what this gray-haired grandmother can expect to face in a prison operated in our name by a company whose profits are well beyond reasonable. Read how she could be forced to work inside her place of confinement for, if she’s lucky, a dollar or two a day—which adds, of course, to the company’s profits. This company and those that offer telephone and other services are permitted to gouge the families of people like her. She is lucky, at least, to be incarcerated in Texas, where the cost of the five-minute phone call she is permitted a few times a week has been capped.
A second story in this issue, by Tom Zoellner, widens the immigration focus to look at towns in Iowa shaped by both legal and illegal immigration. On this past Fourth of July, in Spillville, the place Antonín Dvořák made famous, Zoellner finds the tension between people who want the borders closed and people who need immigrants for their businesses to do the jobs that established Americans will no longer do. Many of these established Americans, pro and con, are the descendants of the immigrant Bohemians who attracted Dvořák to Spillville 125 years ago.
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