‘Dreams and nightmares’

Author Liliana Velásquez and journalist Juan González narrated personal and collective histories of Latin American migration to the U.S. in a School of Social Policy & Practice event.

A map with a red line tracing a route from Guatemala to Philadelphia
Liliana Velásquez left Guatemala alone, at 14 years old. She was one of over 326,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended by immigration authorities between 2013 and 2019. 

By the age of 14, Liliana Velásquez had been physically abused and sexually assaulted and had attempted suicide. She ran away from home, was robbed at gunpoint, and walked for three days in the desert without shelter. At this point, she was captured by immigration authorities and taken to a detention center, put behind a fence, and given a space blanket for warmth. Velásquez is one of more than 362,000 youth who fled their home countries as unaccompanied minors and were apprehended by immigration authorities between 2013 and 2019. She is also the author of “Dreams and Nightmares / Sueños y Pesadillas” and spoke at a virtual event as part of the School of Social Policy & Practice’s One Book, One SP2 program. Velásquez shared the platform with journalist Juan González of Rutgers University in a discussion moderated by refugee law and policy expert Fernando Chang-Muy of Penn Law and SP2 and introduced by Dean Sara S. Bachman and Joretha N. Bourjolly, associate professor/clinician educator and the associate dean for inclusion at SP2.

“Discussions like the one we will be having tonight are integral to how we collectively address the complex social problems that SP2 is dedicated to addressing through education, research, and civic engagement,” said Bachman.

Latinos are central to the immigration controversy, said González, who has dedicated much of his career to migration research. Fifty percent of all migration to the U.S. since World War II has come from Latin America, two-thirds of all undocumented immigrations are from Latin America, and 90% of people deported are from the region, he said.

“The country is undergoing a tremendous transformation, and that has unnerved many people,” González said. “How and why has this happened, and what does continued migration signal for this country? Is it a danger and a curse?” he asked. “Or is it a blessing, a basis for renewal and renaissance of the American dream?”

The volume of migration from Latin America is an unintended consequence of American empire and domination, González said, noting that this phenomenon can also be seen in the migration of North African peoples to Europe and South Asian and Caribbean peoples to the United Kingdom.

“These sudden surges of people fleeing one country for another did not arise out of thin air, or from millions of individual families suddenly deciding, out of the blue, to simply seek a better life in another country. Rather, they are manifestations of the profound flaws in the economic and political systems of our modern world,” González said. “The key thing to understand is the migrations have come from the regions that each of those rich nations once dominated as colonies.”

No U.S. penetration went on longer or was more intense than in Mexico, González said. “Over the last few decades of the 19th century, the vast Mexican countryside evolved into an unprecedented laboratory for the spread of U.S. economic control over a foreign country.”

By the time of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, 78% of the country’s mines, 72% of smelters, 58% of oil, and 68% of the rubber business were all American owned, González said. “American interest not only owned more holdings than all other foreign capitalists combined, they owned more than the Mexican people themselves.”

By 1910, there were more than 40,000 Americans living in Mexico, González said. Of these Americans,15,000 had amassed land amounting to 27% of the country, a surface area encompassing more than 130 million acres. This, he said, was what caused the Mexican Revolution, “the first great people’s revolution of the 20th century, and the seismic event that led to massive Mexican migration to the U.S.”

This intervention continued to ripple down into Central America, where migration patterns to the U.S. were fundamentally changed by violent unrest in the migrants’ home countries. In 1980, there were approximately 94,000 people from El Salvador living in the United States, González said. A decade later, there were almost 700,000. Likewise, the Guatemalan population in the U.S. jumped from 71,000 in 1980 to 226,000 in 1990, and the number of people from Nicaragua grew from 25,000 to 125,000 within the same decade.

These numbers were a direct result of civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, all of which were “fueled by U.S. military aid on the side of right-wing governments or paramilitary groups seeking to prevent social change.”

It is important to understand that Latin American migration has and continues to be precipitated by U.S. political involvement and repression, environmental manipulation, exportation of guns, and mass incarceration, González said.

Having laid out his thesis, González then introduced Velásquez, who “can testify to the human effects that this brings upon any people,” he said.

Now 23, Velásquez grew up in a small Guatemalan village of 15 houses, with no water, roads, electricity, or health care, she said. Her parents pulled her out of school at age 9 to help with her younger brothers and sisters before getting married. Women and girls were undervalued because they got married and had children, she said, while boys were expected to emigrate to the U.S. and send money home to their parents.

Young woman sits on railroad tracks
To get north, Velásquez rode “La Bestia”—seated on top of a boxcar, the lone woman among two hundred men.

Without telling her family, Velásquez left home in order to prove that she could work and send money home, only to find that she was not allowed to work as child of 14. She was sent to live in Philadelphia with a foster family that hid food from her; the mother had a separate fridge in her room, while Liliana ate alone. She was sent to a Philadelphia public high school, where she felt lost and overwhelmed by the size of the building and the language barrier. “I almost gave up,” she said.

Velásquez was eventually placed with another foster family, “where I found the love I didn’t have in Guatemala,” she said. “They really treated me like a child, and I was living the American dream.”

With her foster family’s support, she shifted to another school where she could attend technical school part-time. She decided to train as a medical technician and learned complex English terminology by placing notecards on the ceiling above her bed so that she could study them as soon as she opened her eyes in the morning.

Her story is not unique, Velásquez said. As of February 2020, approximately 13,000 children live alone in detention camps. During the last year, seven children died while in detention camps.

Zoom screen depicting young woman in a graduation cap
Liliana Velásquez ultimately graduated from high school in Philadelphia and is now working as a medical technician. 

“I was very lucky because I got a foster family; I went to school,” she said. “So many kids get deported back home and their families will beat them and push them because they didn’t make it.” Now with a green card, Velásquez is legally able to work and send money home to her sister.

In the Q&A session moderated by Chang-Muy, both Velásquez and González were asked what was needed in terms of immigration reform. SP2 provides graduate education in social work, non-profit management, and policy, so the speakers were asked to direct their suggestions to those fields.

They should create more opportunities for immigrant communities, Velásquez said. Immigration lawyers, foster families, and places to live are specific needs.

They should advocate for asylum seekers and migrants quickly, González said. “Clearly, given the crisis that’s facing so many Central American migrants that are coming now, the direct service aspect of social work is so important because people need help immediately.”

“You can’t be satisfied with business as usual,” González said. “We have not had a major change in our immigration system in over 50 years.”