The human face of immigration

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Elizabeth Cantú has interviewed immigrants from Eastern Europe and Canada to create a series of digital stories that illustrate their personal experiences in the process of immigrating.

By Allie Nicodemo

Aug. 23, 2010

When Arizonans think about immigration, they tend to think about migrants coming to the U.S. from the neighboring state of Mexico. The recent enactment of Senate Bill 1070, a law that makes undocumented status a state crime in Arizona, has placed immigration on the political forefront even more so than usual.

With all the buzz about the border, it’s easy to forget that immigrants come to Arizona from all over the world, each with a unique story to tell. Elizabeth Cantú, a Ph.D. student and graduate teaching associate in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, believes the perspective of non-Mexican immigrants has been underrepresented in the conversation about immigration. As part of her dissertation, Cantú has interviewed immigrants from Eastern Europe and Canada to create a series of digital stories that illustrate their personal experiences in the process of immigrating.

“We forget that there are other people coming to the U.S.,” Cantú says, “I want to open up people’s perception of immigration.”

In Arizona, the focus on immigrants from Mexico highlights certain experiences and struggles, but what about those who relocate from other countries? During her interviews, which often lasted more than two hours, Cantú learned about challenges that rarely get attention from the media.

For example, she describes one woman’s experience emigrating from Eastern Europe. As an international student at ASU, her visa status made her ineligible to apply for loans or scholarships and restricted her to only work 20 hours per week at an on-campus job. With only one semester left to complete her doctorate degree, the student ultimately had to withdraw from school and move back home, a scenario that Cantú says probably happens more often that we know. Cantú also learned about the struggles immigrants face in finding a job because of language barriers or misconceptions about a person’s native country.

In order to tell each immigrant’s story in a compelling way, Cantú incorporated audio clips from the interviews into a photographic slideshow. Nadia Sablin, a graduate student in ASU’s School of Art, helped Cantú capture snapshots of the individuals and their homes. Cantú says the visual and audio components are essential in giving audiences a feel for who these people are and how they live day-to-day.

“I wanted to create a story of what immigration has been to these people,” Cantú says.

Arizona is a state known for having “a certain sentiment toward immigration,” Cantú says. Why? She attributes some influence to the media, which portrays “tidal waves of immigrants,” especially from Mexico. Geography and history also play a role. Growing up on the southern border of Texas and Tamaulipas, Mexico, Cantú recalls that South Texans were more accepting of immigrants. Not only were Latin Americans willing to take low-wage jobs in agriculture—an industry critical to the region’s economy—but more Latin Americans held positions of power in South Texas, giving them a greater voice. Cantú says these factors influenced the local culture and played a role in developing different attitudes toward immigration.

The United States has a long way to go in coming to a political and cultural consensus about immigration. However, Cantú believes that by exposing the experiences of immigrants from many different countries, she can help shed light on the “plurality of voices” that many in Arizona and all over the United States are unaware of. Immigration has been studied extensively over the years, but as Cantú explains, “We rarely hear of the person. I want to humanize the immigration story.”

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