Latinos are growing frustrated and angry about migrants and the border. Here’s why

Xochilt Nuñez is not the typical person who comes to mind when thinking about critics voicing their displeasure with U.S. immigration policy or the influx of migrants.

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Nuñez crossed the border into California in 1999. She left her hometown of Morelia in Michoacán, Mexico, in search of a better life. The trip took her just over a week, during which she spent days without food and water.

Days after crossing, still exhausted and dehydrated, Nuñez began working at a carwash in San Diego. Soon after, she took on a second job in construction. Her hope then was to save enough money to own a home — her version of achieving the American Dream.

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Today, people from around the world come across the U.S. border, many just as eager to work and potentially reach that dream.

Yet, Nuñez — now 53, a farmworker and a single mother of three — has mixed feelings about the overwhelming majority of these migrants. She uses words such as “anger,” “frustration” and “jealousy,” when asked to describe her feelings toward the migrants. All the while, she shares the same undocumented status and participates in grassroots activism for immigration reform.

“Right now, this immigration is out of control,” Nuñez said. “And now, they don’t come to work. They come to live from the system.”

She represents an increasing number of Latinos — both native born and undocumented — who, according to several polls, are concerned with the immigration system and, at times, direct their frustration at the arriving migrants.

Their views are rooted in a litany of reasons, from decades-long failed immigration reform and economic inequality to xenophobia and the disconnect amplified by the online misinformation. The nation has a long history of anti-immigrant sentiments, even among Latinos.

“These conversations on immigration are happening as California is more unequal than it’s ever been…but it’s easy to sort of pass the blame on to newcomers,” said G. Cristina Mora, an associate professor of sociology at UC Berkeley. “This is not a new story. It’s always been there.”

For Nuñez , her frustration mainly stems from a belief that the system is hopelessly rigged. More than 25 years after arriving in the country, like many farmworkers, she has no legal status.

And instead of the home she longed for, Nuñez lives with her two youngest children in a mobile home park in Orosi, a small rural town 45 minutes from Fresno. Her oldest son recently joined the Army, a decision he made hoping to increase his mother’s chances of securing citizenship.

To her, the new arrivals are receiving benefits that she and other immigrants were never awarded. Those views, while conflated in both truth and misinformation, highlight growing tension caused by an immigration system pitting immigrant Latinos against each other.

“We are hardworking people and good people,” Nuñez said. “But the problem is that the government doesn’t see us.”

‘There is a deep history’

For years, California has been at the forefront in protecting people without legal status. Politicians passed laws to allow undocumented residents, like Nuñez, to apply for driver’s license, receive protection from immigration authorities and access healthcare.

Still, immigration experts expressed little surprise discussing recent California polling that shows Latino support for migrants seemingly eroding. Perhaps most notably, a January 2024 UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll found that 63% of the state’s Latinos consider undocumented immigrants to be a major or minor “burden.”

“People are surprised that Latinos would take this stance, but there is a deep history,” said Mora, who is also the IGS co-director.

As far back as the 1960s, some Latinos, including civil rights icon Cesar Chavez, took a hard stance against undocumented immigrants.

In his push for farmworker rights, Chavez believed securing the border would prevent employers from using undocumented workers as strike breakers which undermined the wages of Latino farmworkers.

Kevin R. Johnson, the dean of UC Davis’ School of Law, said Chavez initially would encourage union members to patrol the border and prevent undocumented workers from crossing. Chavez’s position changed in the 1970s, and he advocated against the deportation and for the “amnesty” of undocumented residents.

“Chavez changed, but a lot of times there have been concerns with Latinos in this country, as well as citizens in this country, fearing attacks by workers undercutting the wage scale,” Johnson said.

Decades later, some Latinos rallied for Proposition 187 — the famous 1994 ballot measure seeking to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing social services. Though it never went into effect, about 23% of Latino voted in favor of the measure, according to exit polls.

“One of the things that immigration teaches is that Latinos are not a monolithic community,” Johnson said. “It’s a very diverse community, with conservatives and liberals.”

‘The American Dream is dead’

So, is Nuñez one of those conservative Latinos? Did she wake up one day and start disliking migrants? No. Her beliefs took shape over a span of many years, and recently were accelerated by government inaction.

In 2003, following years of working two jobs, Nuñez achieved her dream of a home. But the triumph was short-lived. Less than four years later, in the midst of the U.S. financial crisis, Nuñez lost her job and eventually the home.

Without many options, Nuñez used her remaining money to buy a modest trailer home and moved to Orosi with her three children. She began working in the fields, where she has spent the last 16 years stuck living paycheck to paycheck.

Earlier this year, Nuñez was hit with another blow.

Her longtime employer, Prima Wawona, one of the largest growers and packers of tree fruit in California, laid off her and thousands of workers off.

“The American Dream is dead,” Nuñez said.

These feelings of disillusionment among Latinos are common, particularly in California, according to Mora.

Latinos living in the state are overrepresented in low-income brackets, more likely to live in poverty and struggling to buy homes. All together, the frustration can spill over, directed at people portrayed as worsening the problem.

Nearly 70% of California Latinos in a February 2024 PPIC poll said the situation at the border is a crisis or a very serious problem.

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  1. I do feel sorry for those that came over looking for a better life. But if you came over illegally you need to go back. Become a citizen and change the way it is. If you came over 20 years or yesterday..ya need to leave and go back.

  2. No more Ellis Island folks….. by-gone days when they came legally and with the mindset of becoming a true American and assimilate with purpose; to get a job, support your way of life with hard work achievements! What a concept….

  3. Nunez has had 20 years to follow the law – complete the immigration process – why hasn’t she? Everyone needs to follow the same rules. In the past you had to have a benefactor or sponsor, a job, a way to support yourself and agree to proceed with the immigration process – what happened to that – it worked and should be re-instituted immediately. Go home if you are not willing to follow our laws and you should not be looking for ways not to do so.

  4. If they can remove things like homesteading, add more taxes every year, put more Americans in jail, and reduce us to working poor what “ better “ life do others have to work for in California or America. The government treats us all as undocumented illegals. I guess if your coming from a war torn country a better life might be obtainable, at this point it’s better for citizens to become undocumented to receive all the benefits that illegals have secured. It’s beyond sad and stupid that newcomers illegals get better benefits and help that citizens or illegals that have been here for so long. It just goes to show how little our government thinks about us, or thinks they need us. They obviously don’t care about our tax money because they just give that away to buy votes and put us in debt using the federal reserve to run the government. Everyone either needs to stand up and say this is going to end or we are gonna reach the point where no one wants to and it’s gonna get ugly for everyone and politicians are gonna start having a short fall with a sudden stop.

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