‘Living “Illegal”’ resets immigration issue to human focus

Book by UF authors tells the human stories often lost in the rhetoric


UF professors Manuel Vasquez, left, and Philip Williams have co-written a book called “Living ‘Illegal’: The Human Face of Unauthorized Immigration.”

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 30, 2011 at 6:15 p.m.

There’s a hair salon in Marietta, Ga., that comes to mind for Philip Williams when he thinks of Latin American immigration.

Facts

If you go

What: “Living ‘Illegal’” book talk and signing with authors Philip Williams, Timothy Steigenga and Manuel Vásquez
When: 6-8 p.m. Friday
Where: Matheson Museum, 513 E University Ave, Gainesville
Cost: Free and open to the public

“‘They got hair. We cut hair,’” Williams, the director of the University of Florida Center of Latin American Studies, recalls the barber saying about the increased Hispanic population in the neighborhood. “‘Let’s try to cut their hair.’”

And just like that, the Southern suburb was part of a larger, global debate — a debate he says is all too often “dominated by talking heads” instead of faces.

“We thought it was really important to try to humanize the debate,” he says of the hot-button issue.

Williams, along with UF professor Manuel Vásquez, Emory University scholar-in-residence Marie Friedmann Marquardt and Florida Atlantic University honors college professor Timothy Steigenga, set off to tell the stories that often get lost in the rhetoric.

Nearly a decade’s worth of their research formed the book “Living ‘Illegal’: The Human Face of Unauthorized Immigration” (The New Press, $26.95), which Williams, Vásquez and Steigenga will sign and discuss Friday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Matheson Museum.

Told through a narrative, “even-handed” lens, Williams says, the book explores the lives of unauthorized immigrants, from Brazil to Mexico to Guatemala, living in the south.

“It’s my neighbor,” Williams says of the immigrant population in the U.S. “It’s the classmate of my son. It’s the person who worships next to me at the pew.” It’s the man getting his hair cut one chair over at the barbershop.

It’s not about the stereotypes sometimes fueled by the media, Vásquez says: the lawbreaker, the gang member, the criminal putting the community in peril.

“It’s wrong to lump [immigrants] together and just stick a label on them,” he says. It’s this message that inspired the book’s cover, which depicts a police officer arresting an undocumented high school student, Diana Martinez, then 18, who wears a cap and gown in protest at a sit-in.

The photograph, which ran in The Washington Post, captures the spirit of the Dreamer Movement, the culmination of supporters for the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that would grant citizenship to certain undocumented students. But beyond that, Williams says, the girl on the cover is a “composite” of the diverse faces of a diverse, often-polarizing issue.

It’s an issue they don’t hesitate to address in the title of their book. Williams says the word “illegal” is placed in quotation marks because “once you start out using that adjective, it’s hard to have a constructive debate.”

It’s complex, Vásquez adds, but “it’s important to understand that we are connected to the world.” Steigenga, who is also chair of social sciences and humanities at FAU, says the book isn’t just about changing people’s minds because a lot of people already “have feelings about it, and those don’t really change very much.” Maybe the only hope, he says, is to “view immigration through a human lens.”

These are the people, Marquardt adds, who “know that values Americans hold dear are values they are willing to fight for. And they are.”

The book presents answers to the debate: The solution should come from the federal government, the book proposes, and the hand-in-hand nature of immigration and the economy must be addressed.

The book also poses questions.

“The United States has to face this issue. This is a key turning point in our history as a nation,” she says. “Who are we? And how do we want to be remembered?”

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