published Sunday, July 24th, 2011

Gerber: Crossing the border for a story

It’s 1,468 miles from Chattanooga to the Guatemalan village of el Xab.

Times Free Press reporter Perla Trevizo hopped two airplanes and two cabs and hitched a ride with a local photographer to reach the small town near Guatemala’s Pacific coast. She traveled that distance to interview a family who’d once lived in Chattanooga.

She wanted to answer the question: What happens after illegal immigrants get deported?

The American media give plenty of attention to the fierce debate over immigration as it plays out in statehouses across the country and in Washington, D.C.

Some American newspapers have delved into the stories of those crossing the border — their perilous walks through the desert, their willingness to cram into poorly ventilated and unsafe trucks, the efforts of border control agents and citizen militias to stop them.

But little ink is spent on the other end of the story. Last year, the U.S. government deported nearly 30,000 Guatemalans. Others have returned to their home country because work here is scarce because of the recession.

Today, the Times Free Press starts a six-day series on Guatemalan immigrants who entered the country illegally, lived and worked in Chattanooga and later returned home, either willingly or by order of the U.S. government.

Trevizo, the newspaper’s diversity reporter, has lived in the United States, Mexico and Spain and switches effortlessly between English and Spanish. Armed with a grant from the International Center for Journalists and her trusty MacBook, she spent three weeks crisscrossing Guatemala to track down former Chattanooga residents.

She found Guatemalans arrested here during the 2008 raid at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant. She found others who left on their own. In all, she interviewed 14 Guatemalans who’d lived here. Once she returned, she interviewed their family members who remain in Tennessee.

Trevizo reported and wrote a dozen stories, which will be published in English in the newspaper and in both English and in Spanish on the newspaper’s website, timesfreepress.com.

Chattanooga’s population of Guatemalans is growing. Just check out the tiendas and taquerías around Main Street. Tennessee and Georgia are now considered new “destination

states” — places immigrants head for directly.

Trevizo gives a glimpse into illegal immigration from the other side of the border. She examines the effect of immigration on Guatemala, a country slightly smaller than Tennessee that relies heavily on the American dollars being pumped into its economy from Guatemalans working in places like Chattanooga. And she explores what happens to the illegal immigrants’ children, some born in America.

Like it or not, the children born here to illegal immigrants are American citizens, entitled to vote, collect Social Security and run for office when they come of age. Fair or not, they pay a steep price for their parents’ legal problems; sometimes that means the difference between a future in a land of opportunity or life in a bamboo shack with no toilet.

Supporters of illegal immigrants will invoke images of Ellis Island and tell you America is a land built on the principle of welcoming “huddled masses.” They will say most of us descended from immigrants.

Their critics will tell you illegal immigrants enter the country dishonestly, defy our laws and drain our health care and education systems as well as social welfare programs. They will say they should be rounded up and sent back home.

The object of our series is not to advocate for or against illegal immigration, but to tell human stories and to try to explain why some immigrants risk so much to live and work in America.

Alison Gerber is managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.

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