Oklahoma sees immigration increasing from Central America (The Oklahoman)

By Josh Dulaney

Talk quickly turns to tamales when Edgar Argueta considers the differences between Hispanic groups who call Oklahoma home.

The 64-year-old property owner prefers tamales wrapped in plantain leaves, like the kind he ate in his native Guatemala nearly 40 years ago.

“If I cook my food for the Mexicans, they don’t like it,” Argueta said, laughing before a weekly citizenship class he teaches at the Hispanic American Mission in Oklahoma City. “It’s different. Mexicans say they have the best food, but we have the best.”

The great food debate may continue in Oklahoma for a while. Residents who trace their roots to Mexico make up about 82 percent of the estimated 396,000 who live here and identify themselves as being of Hispanic origin, but Oklahoma has seen explosive growth over the past decade among those with ties to Guatemala and other Central American countries.

The number of those who identify as being from or who trace their heritage to Central America grew from an estimated 9,600 in 2005, to an estimated 24,300 in 2015, or by about 150 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That compares to about 75 percent growth among those with Mexican heritage.

While their overall numbers are low, academics, policy analysts and community leaders have taken note, saying Central American population growth continues to have an impact on the state, from the economy to health care, to public safety and education.

“These little mom-and-pop restaurants are showing up, and the food trucks,” said Raul Font, president of the Latino Community Development Agency. “They feel that Oklahoma is a little further step away from the border, so it’s safer for them. The families of people here feel there’s a lot of work here. A lot of construction work and tons of stuff, from moving to doing flower beds, the restaurants. People are finding it’s a good place to work and the cost of living is much lower than the other places.”

Argueta certainly did. He crossed illegally into the United States in 1977, first making a three-year stop in Phoenix before settling in the Sooner State.

He worked on farms and in restaurants. He supported Ronald Reagan and the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that granted amnesty to about 3 million illegal immigrants. He married, had a daughter and saved money to snap up properties. He became an American citizen.

In his four decades in the United States, Argueta has learned much about the differences between Hispanic groups, from their food and family traditions to their religious customs and Spanish slang.

There are other differences too, he said. Especially among younger Hispanic immigrants.

“It’s a lot different now,” Argueta said. “They come here thinking they can have anything they want. That’s not their right. They do protests, telling the government they have to give them papers, with no reason. That’s not right. We have to prove ourselves. We have to work for this country.”

It’s a message he delivers each week to between 15 and 20 immigrants in his citizenship class.

Establishing beachheads

Waves of immigrants hit the United States each year, keeping heated the debate about illegal entry into the country. With domestic and foreign policy at stake, much of the discussion centers on where people are coming from, and why.

What often gets overlooked is that a growing number of unauthorized immigrants are living in the country longer, with census data showing two-thirds of adults having been in the U.S. for more than a decade. That means they are expanding their families, and letting relatives and friends back home know about life in the U.S., and places such as Oklahoma.

“First of all, a small group makes the trip and they sort of establish beachheads so to speak, and in the United States, once they figure out ‘there’s a good place to live, I can get a good job and support myself,’ the situation becomes known to others, their family and friends and fellow villagers,” said Craig St. John, chair of the Sociology Department at the University of Oklahoma. “The more people that start coming and provide that base in a particular location in the United States, they expand every time a new person comes in. Eventually that kind of runs its course, plateaus and levels off. I bet we’re seeing the takeoff strategy. That’s my guess. Once you get the ball rolling, it’s going to keep rolling on its own.”

A generation between

As the social network of immigrants expands, their American-born children, like 29-year-old Maria Argueta, the daughter of Edgar Argueta, sometimes find themselves in a clash of cultures. Born in the U.S., bilingual and having attended Oklahoma schools, she eschews the country-and-hyphen prefix that many attach to their identities.

Still, Maria Argueta grew accustomed to being mistaken for a different nationality, particularly by classmates, even as various Hispanic groups at Northwest Classen High School segregated themselves during lunch. She often sat with a group of friends with Guatemalan heritage.

“Yeah, they always referred to me as Mexican,” she said of some white students. “With a lot of the kids at school, it’s kind of a stereotype. ‘Oh, you speak Mexican?’”

While watching her father work hard and establish himself, Argueta has felt the sting of anti-immigrant rhetoric. During a geography class in college, a white student opined about immigrants abusing the education and health systems, draining tax dollars and taking jobs from Americans.

But that hasn’t turned Argueta into a champion of unrestrained immigration, even from Guatemala. Because of the dangerous journey, Argueta would tell those seeking refuge in the United States to stay in their homeland.

“It divides my heart up,” she said. “I do have family there. A lot of them say ‘we’re trying to flee from gangs and violence.’ But my family says you get into violence because you’re looking for it. I recently had a cousin who disappeared in the Mexican desert. It’s an uncertainty. You don’t know if you’re going to make it through. You hear of people who die and never make it through.”

A traumatized population

Oklahomans are typically surprised to learn that Guatemalans, Hondurans Salvadorans are in the state, said Michael M. Smith, a history professor at Oklahoma State University.

“Given the domestic violence and the minimal economic opportunities, in some cases almost forced labor, in which many of the very poor find themselves, that trip to the United States is considered, even though they undergo some terrible dangers,” Smith said. “Ill-treatment and the payment of bribes to get in and stay in the county. The process of crossing the southern border, across Mexico, can be perilous activity. The hazards that they face are very often completely unknown by most people in the United States, whether you are sympathetic or unsympathetic to the presence of people who are here.”

Those who work with newly arrived immigrants have seen their physical and emotional scars up close.

Laura Bachman is an attorney and immigration program manager with the YWCA in Tulsa. The group’s immigrant and refugee program helps with representation in legal matters, job searches and social service referrals, among other offerings.

The YWCA in collaboration with other legal services groups assisted a surge of immigrants in 2014, when the Texas border buckled under an influx of tens of thousands of minors from Central American countries.

In the first weekend of December, ICE released more than 460 mothers and children from two immigration detention centers in San Antonio, Texas after a district court judge ruled Texas law doesn’t allow them to hold families. Aid groups provided some of those released with assistance, but the current whereabouts of all 460 people could not be immediately ascertained.

Homeland Security said far fewer Mexicans and single adults are trying to illegally cross the southern border, but more families and unaccompanied children are fleeing poverty and violence in Central America. In 2014, Central Americans caught on the southern border outnumbered Mexicans for the first time, and it happened again this year, Homeland Security officials said.

The rising number of those from Central America, or with roots in that region, doesn’t surprise Bachman, as the Tulsa County Jail is the only jail in Oklahoma authorized to hold inmates detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for more than 72 hours. That means as facilities fill up in other states, many unauthorized immigrants are transferred to Tulsa.

Bachman said in the last year she’s seen more mothers and children illegally coming into the country together. When corrections officials in Texas discover that an unaccompanied minor has relatives in Oklahoma, they will work to place them here, Bachman said.

“It’s a much more traumatized population for sure,” Bachman said. “I would say more than 90 percent have suffered sexual assault on their journey. Personally, every single woman and child fleeing from Central America that I have worked with have been sexually assaulted. There are a lot of undocumented, unaccompanied minors, and targeted violence against children, most specifically from El Salvador and Honduras, but Central America generally.”

There’s a tremendous need for immigration, legal and social services in the state, but the most pressing need for Central American immigrants is competent mental health care, Bachman said.

“We’re talking about victims of sexual assault and post-traumatic disorder,” she said. “It’s really a tough need to fill in Tulsa, because we have a shortage of mental health providers who are also culturally sensitive and bilingual.”

Laws and safeguards

As the Central American community in Oklahoma continues to grow, it faces challenges wrought by one of stiffest anti-illegal immigration laws in the nation.

HB 1804, which took effect in 2007, prohibits illegal immigrants from obtaining official government-issued forms of identification, such as a driver’s license or occupational license. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for most taxpayer social services or benefits, and the state can require employers to check the legal status of their employees.

Laws aimed at illegal immigrants can affect their American-born children, said Gene Perry, policy director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

“A particular challenge with undocumented immigrants is that these are people who don’t have access to things like health insurance and driver’s licenses, which are important for keeping people out of the emergency room, for having safeguards, and to apply for jobs,” he said. “They end up falling through the cracks, or many of them might have children here who are citizens themselves, so if they can’t get health insurance, this is going to affect their children.”

‘It’s all the same before God’

The growing presence of Central Americans in particular, here legally or not, could cause friction as they seek to carve out a living among fellow Hispanics, many of whom have lived in Oklahoma for some time.

“My guess is there will likely be competition with Mexicans for the same neighborhoods, and they’ll probably compete for the same jobs and the same housing,” said St. John, the OU sociology chair. “That always produces a little bit of conflict. There’s no particular affinity among these groups, just because we lump them altogether as from Latin nations. The one thing they have in common probably is that they’re Catholic and speak Spanish.”

One religious leader said Hispanic cultural differences, such as family customs, the use and meaning of particular Spanish words, and yes, even cooking styles, are put aside at the altar.

Pedro Moreno, director of the Hispanic Ministry Office of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, said he, too, sometimes gets teased for taste in food. Moreno, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, admitted that he doesn’t like hot sauces.

“But there is something greater than language, something greater than what we eat at home, something greater than the current culture, and that is we share the same baptism,” Moreno said. “We have the same God as father and we celebrate the discipleship of Jesus Christ. Whether it’s a baptism certificate from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico or Oklahoma, it’s all the same before God. We all, before the eyes of God are equal.”


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