"The American dream is increasingly difficult, and more and more an illusion"
Colombian Helena Olea lives in Chicago. She is an executive at Alianza Américas and she assists migrants. In an exclusive dialogue with LPO, she talks about the difficulties faced by those who manage to cross the border.

Helena Olea is a Deputy Director of Programs at Alianza Americas, a transnational organization rooted in Latino immigrants communities, which focuses on improving the quality of life for all the people in the United States, Mexico, and Central America migration corridor in areas related to economic, racial and social justice, humanitarian migration policies and protection for children and families seeking refuge.

Olea was born in Colombia, and although she previously lived in the US, she settle in Chicago nine years ago. Although she did it due to familie reasons - her Chilean husband was offered a job - she soon found her own space. She is an international human rights lawyer with advocacy and litigation experience before intergovernmental organizations and governmental agencies. She also has an LLM from the University of Notre Dame. Upon arriving in the third city of the country, she decided to join the organization as a volunteer. Her professional life is dedicated to the rights of immigrants, refugees and internally displaced people.

In an exclusive interview with LPO, Helena says that the fact that the people affected can advocate for policies that benefit them is something valuable. "We understand first-hand what the consequence of the measures are," she says. Helena insists that it is important to emphasize that migrants represent "a contribution to this society, not a burden." She warns that seeing migrants as a problem does not adjust to reality: this idea shows ignorance on the contributions they make and the identity of the country. According to Helena, the concept of white supremacy is always present and the United States also suffers.

What is the mission of Alianza Americas?

It is a very special organization, because we are a network of organizations of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants in the United States, and our mission is to work to create dignified and safe living conditions in our countries of origin and also in the United States. From that transnational perspective and understanding that we have one foot on the United States - but also in our countries of origin - it makes us an organization different from many others.

This year the arrival of immigrants caused Chicago shelters to overflow. What is the situation of migrants in the city? Where do they come from?

We see many single men and families with little children. There is a Venezuelan majority, but also other Latin American nationalities. We see fewer Central Americans and Mexicans, and this also changes according to the policies they establish. So, certain nationalities decrease, others increase, there are changes in the nationalities of the flow. Chicago has a wide network of organizations that provide services to migrants, but they certainly had not had the experience of handling large flows, and that has been a real challenge.

How did you manage to respond to such large flows in Chicago?

Social organizations such as the Salvation Army and others that work with homeless population have taken the lead: "we have the capacity, we manage, we can receive people and provide them accommodation." And others have joined this, including member organizations of Alianza Americas. The city has also contributed resources, for example by renting hotels to provide accommodation for families. That is where civil society organizations come in to provide work, such as social workers or social assistants, to guide these people in the process so that they obtain an identification card from the city that allows them to buy and have a card for public transport. It means access to some social benefits, access to job training programs, support to find housing, that kind of things. But the flow of people has been greater than the capacity to do and the resources the city has had, so at some point we came to a terrible situation: people sleeping inside or outside police stations, and that situation persists in different parts of the city. The city has tried to set up places, for example schools not longer in operation during summer months, it tried to take advantage of the bedrooms in some universities that were not being used because there were no students. But that is a short-term solution and the bottleneck is how a newcomer who doesn't have authorization to work, manages to get a lease. That is very difficult.

We see many single men and families with little children. There is a Venezuelan majority, and we see fewer Central Americans and Mexicans. Chicago organizations had not had the experience of handling large flows and it has been a challenge.

What is the difference between Chicago and other cities regarding the reception of migrants?

There are many cities in the United States, in states governed by Republicans and Democrats, where there is a very important presence and work of civil society that do the same thing, that are welcoming, that provide legal representation and support services on social issues, that include children enrolled in school, guidance, support to obtain employment, explanations about housing. Chicago is fully aware of its identity as a diverse city. This is seen in the authorities that govern, in the representatives elected to the Senate and the House of Representatives at the federal level, it is seen in the state Legislature and therefore in the recognition of the US as a country of immigrants, the need to welcome newcomers, to know that people who are elected today are probably granddaughters of immigrants. That is not always, but quite often; it is part of the nature of this city, a city where it is very easy to hear different languages on the streets, to find food from different parts of the world. We enrich and nurture each other, learn from diverse cultures and work on differences.

"Los inmigrantes siguen llegando y la lucha no termina porque los retos todavía son monumentales"

In March, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot asked Texas governor not to send more migrants to Chicago. What about Democrat Brandon Johnson now?

I think there have been several strategies. The Governor is not going to turn a deaf ear to those requests, and my feeling is that Mayor Brandon Johnson has rather focused all his efforts on trying to get support from the City Council to provide some assistance, and also work with councilors and communities to identify spaces where people can be accommodated for a while.

Among his promises was the plan of a sanctuary and justice for the immigrant. He argues that migrants positively contribute to the city and that the American dream is more an illusion than the promise it used to be.

I totally agree. I think that it is a very interesting element, because it is part of the factors that attract people to the United States: The idea that it will be possible here, that everyone will have a chance is increasingly more difficult and more and more an illusion. Somehow people have to go through that adjustment process, because life in the United States is much more expensive than they thought. Everybody knows how much they pay per hour, but not how much money they need to live, how much of the generated income is deducted in taxes. It's like disarming that dream. Also what things this society does not provide, for example health. If there was more information, perhaps the dream would deflate quite a bit.

"The American dream is increasingly difficult, and more and more an illusion"

How do you assess the policies of the Biden administration regarding migration?

We have not seen the progress and promises that this government has made. There is an important change in rhetoric, so it is important to think about were we were, in an administration with xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric never seen in the history of this country. So simply changing a president who does not have that rhetoric, at least in terms of symbolic spaces and perception of the general public, there is a great change. The truth is that among the litigation efforts in the absence of a space and the possibility of advancing in legislative matters, this administration has been able to do very little. In other words, all the challenges that exist in terms of immigration policy, a really stagnant system that does not have the capacity to respond continues, and at the same time, the pandemic ended and we returned to increasing flows with the economic impact the pandemic had in Latin America as a last factor that has worsened the situation. And in recent years we are also seeing a lot of repression and a lot of closure of democratic spaces, erosion of the rule of law in many countries of the Americas, and that also contributes to expel people from their countries.

People have to go through this adjustment process, life in the United States is much more expensive than they thought it was. Everybody hears how much they pay per hour, but not how much money we need to live. It is just like disarming that American dream.

It is remarkable that despite everything that happens, people always hope that these candidates end up coming back to power.

The use of anti-immigrant and angry speech as part of a political strategy is unfortunately quite common. We are seeing it in different parts of the world. It is not just an American phenomenon. We see it even in Latin America. It does not surprise me at all.

What is the Latino vote in Chicago like?

Chicago is highly aligned with the Democratic Party and it is difficult to talk about the Latino vote. Latino voters have interests that have to do with everything, with the economy, security, well-being, the school system. It is difficult to say they are this or that. It is interesting to look at the contrast, a state with big fiscal deficit problems, that has a terrifying public debt, that always ends up being like this element that does not allow all that is collected to be spent on the population... We had a Republican governor in Illinois, Bruce Rauner, who ended his term very poorly, with very little political wiggle room to gain support even in the state legislature. He was a very unsuccessful governor and is in stark contrast to the current governor, who is a Democrat and has been better able to find wiggle room to deal with the state Legislature, which has really tried to get progressive reforms going in the state of Illinois. The State has also understood how it positions itself in the Midwest situation, which is very interesting in terms of women's sexual and reproductive rights, in terms of access to health insurance for all people regardless of their immigration status.

"La gente de mi generación es más consciente de las barreras que existen para cumplir el sueño americano"

How does the organization deal with the separation of migrant families?

Unfortunately, it is an element that cuts across the migrant experience that can sometimes be exacerbated by public policies. We advocate, we insist a lot on the right to family unity, and the mere fact of putting it at the center of the debate is relatively new. We are concerned about the separation since the decision. Previously it was more common for one, let's say the father or the mother who decided to leave their children with someone and came to the United States when circular migration was possible. People were willing to leave their family because they knew they could return to see them again. As border policies tighten, circular migration truly ceases to be a possibility and is largely limited to workers on temporary visas. But that somehow remains hanging in the lives of people who are in the United States, who left their families on the other side and hope and dream of the possibility of family reunification. Not surprisingly this latest parole program for family reunification established by Biden administration is very small, the consequences are very limited, only people whose family petitions have been approved, but it is very important.

Olea at the XII Summit of the Global Forum on Migratino and Development.

What is the message you are trying to give to separated families?

The family integration visa system was part of those foundational blocks of immigration policy in the United States, and family members can still be asked to meet the conditions. The status to be able to bring someone is still a dream for many, a privilege, you must have a job, certain economic conditions, and that makes many people live with the illusion of possible family reintegration, but in many cases it is very distant. What we see now is that families decide to come together. I think they are clear about the experience of those who traveled alone with the expectation and dream of family reintegration, it could not be achieved, there is a long delay: a a request, depending on the country, can take 30 years. We emphasize the right to family unity in deportations. We are fully aware of the fracture that deportation means and we value a legislative system such as Argentina's, for example, which invites consideration of the impact on the family unity, especially on children, of a decision such as the deportation of the mother or the father. It is essential to take this into account because migrants are all in need, we end up creating families with people who are not from our family, but who end up fulfilling that role when we live in other country, who give us a hand when we have an emergency, who take care of a child when other person cannot, who care about the elderly or a friend when he or she is at hospital. This is natural for the migrant experience and reminds us all the time how painful family separation is.

We have not seen the progress and promises that the Biden administration has made. But there is a change regarding the rhetoric of a xenophobic anti-immigrant administration never seen in history. So a president who does not have that rhetoric is a big change.

What is the situation now that Title 42 has expired?

It is interesting because, in a way, with all the measures that were put in place to respond to the end of Title 42 - like the new rule on ineligibility for asylum - it is like keeping Title 42 in very practical terms. The space for someone who is fleeing and does not have a tourist visa, who arrives at the southern border of the United States and needs to enter to request protection, continues to be very limited, almost non-existing, and finally that is what Title 42 was about: closing the possibilities for those seeking asylum.

What is your analysis of the actions of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis regarding immigration and the law he promotes that toughens controls in Florida?

I was in Miami last week, where I heard and saw almost paralyzed construction projects. So, analyzing the economic and social impact of this measure is important in the long term. We are also going to have more information to understand the impact that health of people who are going to choose not to seek medical treatment because of that fear is having, and this of course can have consequences in people's lives. What other experiments and measures of this kind have shown in the past is that generating fear so that people go to seek health care, go to the police, to the authorities has larger and negative repercussions for society in general, not only for these people. They do not end up punishing migrants, and they do not have an effect on the majority of the population. The second important thing is to recognize that migrants have a vital role in the economy. All economic sectors of this country benefit from migrant labor, including workforce in an irregular situation. This measure will have economic consequences. Florida recorded the highest temperatures and wind chill in the city. So, not understanding the impact of the climate crisis and not putting into practice elements as simple and as humane as that workers have the right to take a break and drink water, that they can refresh with cold water to guarantee health is an absolutely inhuman measure.

Are you familiar with María Elvira Salazar and Verónica Escobar's bipartisan bill called "Dignity", which proposes to provide dignity to illegal immigrants but closes the borders so that no one else can enter?

The name of the project says it all. Dignity is inherent and the bill includes measures in which people would pay a kind of fine through a process to "buy dignity." That measure and that conception that is deeply rooted in legislators have to be broken. "We do not need more people, so we have to expel more or completely close the borders, and we are going to order and then we are going to continue to see who we let in and who we don't." It is a rather simplistic approximation of a much more complex phenomenon such as migration, and it is an initiative that is not positive, it is not the kind of approach response to migration policy that a country of this size, with the economy this country has, that has more jobs than people who can fill those vacancies need. This moment demands other more pragmatic and more human approaches.

Translator: Bibiana Ruiz.

Temas de la nota:
Post a comment
To submit your comment, you must confirm that you have read and accepted the terms regulation and LPO conditions
The comments published are the sole responsibility of their authors and the consequences derived from them may be subject to the corresponding legal sanctions. Any user who includes any comment in violation of the terms and conditions regulation in their messages will be eliminated and disabled to comment again.
Noticias Relacionadas
"El sueño americano es cada vez más difícil y cada vez más, una ilusión"

"El sueño americano es cada vez más difícil y cada vez más, una ilusión"

By Bibiana Ruiz
La colombiana Helena Olea vive en Chicago, es directiva de Alianza Américas y asiste a los migrantes. En diálogo exclusivo con LPO, cuenta las dificultades que enfrentan los que logran cruzar la frontera.