UVU Students Impacted by Immigration Issues

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Throughout time, people have migrated from one place to another in order to obtain resources. Nowadays, migration has a new impetus: searching for a better life by escaping the turmoil of home.

UVU students who are immigrants, or whose parents emigrated to the U.S., are familiar with the struggles of coming to a new land in search of better opportunity. Unfortunately, their experiences are often dismissed because of misinformation or political hyperbole.

Agustin “Tino” Diaz, program director for the Education Opportunity Center at UVU, traveled to Tijuana in January to offer humanitarian aid to Central American refugees. He described the conditions he saw at the U.S. border.

“I saw a number of people,” says Diaz, “without resources, without services.”

Refugees had set up makeshift camps in the open and in abandoned warehouses. Exposure to the cold weather and other elements compounded their situation.

Those who walked in what the media calls the “migrant caravan” experienced many life-threatening scenarios along the way from kidnappers and thieves to other nefarious individuals. For some refugees, the journey costs them their lives.

“How crazy it is that our borders are literally concrete and steel and barbed wire. What’s the message behind that?” – Agustin “Tino” Diaz

According to UVU professor of psychology Matthew Draper, the motivation of these refugees to trek three thousand miles on foot to the U.S. comes from a sense of desperation and hope.

“These are thoughts of overcoming great odds and facing the unknown,” he says.

The hardship experienced by immigrants, both during and after their journey, takes a psychological and emotional toll. For some, the experience is tragic.

“I’m sure you’ve heard these terrible stories of busloads of people being hijacked and used as human gladiators,” says Draper.

According to reports from The Atlantic and The Daily Mail, Mexican drug cartels hijack buses and force people into fights to the death with each other, their bodies often mutilated and decapitated.

“That’s trauma beyond what most of us can comprehend,” he says.

While not every immigrant faces such dire circumstances, it is not to say there aren’t hardships to overcome. Various social and economic situations have an effect on a person’s decision to migrate from their native land.

“Not everyone’s coming for the same reason,” says UVU political science professor Ernest Istook “There’s a multiplicity of motivations that are involved in the people who come here.”

Istook lists a number of perceptions some people have of immigrants, especially from Latin America: they’re gang members; they’re here only for government benefits; etc. Such perceptions wear thin, especially for UVU students who come from abroad.

“I’ve had some bad experiences,” says Maika Hafoka, a UVU student who emigrated from Tonga. Last semester, he experienced what he considers prejudice from an instructor whom he says ignored him while he was trying to schedule time for tutoring.

“Every time I had a question or concern, he would brush me off,” says Hafoka, who was the only person of color in the class. He suspects it was for that reason the instructor treated him the way they did. He also suspects other students noticed the instructor’s actions.

Sometimes, UVU students also make misguided generalizations about immigrants or refugees.

“People in my English class try to say for example, ‘Oh, you need to learn English more’ but we’re in the same English class,” says UVU student Lina Varionova, who found irony in an English student telling her that she needs to learn more English.

The situation was perplexing for Varionova, who says she once was mistaken for Mexican just because she had an accent. She is from Ukraine. Mexico and Ukraine are over 6200 miles apart and are on different continents.

Ethnic people are erroneously lumped together or stereotyped by people who lack information and knowledge about them. While some of that comes from media exposure, there is also the issue of U.S. foreign policy.

Immigration has become a topic with clear divides on how it should be handled. The current reality is that the U.S. is as polarized on immigration as it is on politics.  Diaz has seen the extent of that polarization with what he calls the “militarization of the border.”

“How crazy it is that our borders are literally concrete and steel and barbed wire,” he says. “What’s the message behind that?”

While many see such actions as necessary, Diaz fears the outcome of that kind of thinking.

“If that is where this country wants to take this next step to,” he said, “then that is not the country I want us to become.”

Some students feel like U.S. actions abroad and at home are contradictory.

“[Immigrants] come for an opportunity and nothing is given to them,” says political science major Jairo Villegas, whose parents emigrated from Mexico over 20 years ago.     

Regarding the U.S. border situation, Villegas considers the separation of children from their parents “disgusting.” He also finds irony in the U.S. turning away immigrants when the country itself was founded on immigration.        

Despite the challenges they faced, Hafoka, Varionova, and Villegas, along with other UVU students who migrated from other countries, continue to settle in their environments and fulfill their goal of self-improvement.