Undocumented Immigrants Pose Challenges, Bring Narratives To America

Posted: The Chautauquan Daily, August 8, 2012 — By Joanna Hamer, Staff Writer

Nancy Brown Diggs is always amazed at how willing people are to tell their stories. An author and co-author of six books, Diggs was particularly surprised by the forthrightness of those she interviewed for her latest book, Hidden in the Heartland: The New Wave of Immigrants and the Challenge to America.

Diggs will present her most recent book at 2:30 p.m. today in the Smith Memorial Library Meeting Room, reading excerpts, giving updates on the situation and participating in a discussion. Her presentation title is “Hidden in the Heartland: A Conversation about Immigration Experiences, Policy and Reform in America.”

She first confronted the topic of undocumented immigrants face to face when she was chosen for jury duty in a case involving two undocumented Costa Rican brothers accusing an Appalachian man of theft.

“I was really surprised to see these people assert their rights in court,” she said, despite their fear of their illegal status being discovered. “We had a lot of questions for the judge, and I had never really thought about that. So I thought, well, my Spanish is pretty good, I’ll look into that.”

Diggs interviewed a wide range of people, including chambermaids in North Carolina, an episcopal priest in Chautauqua County and the Mexican consul in Atlanta. Everyone she spoke to, in Spanish or English, was eager to tell their story of migration or to give their opinion on the issues facing America and its immigrants.

“The big problem for American citizens is the schools, and health services and the social services,” Diggs said.

Taxes immigrants pay go to the federal government, while local and state coffers have to cover those expenses.

For the immigrants, the challenges are different but equally dangerous. First they must cross the United States-Mexican border, an area Diggs discovered to be one of the least hospitable in the U.S., when she camped out there for a week during research. Once in the U.S., immigrants face discrimination, workplace abuse and issues that arise from not speaking English.

Hidden in the Heartland narrates all sides of the complicated story of undocumented American immigrants, a point of view Diggs found at once challenging and natural.

“I didn’t have a dog in that fight, as they say in Kentucky, so I could be pretty impartial,” she said. “When you meet individuals, of course you feel for them. But on the other hand, I’ve met school administrators and talked to hospital officials, and they bear a heavy burden.”

Diggs did find that Americans and immigrants agree on the need to alter immigration legislation and better deal with those already in the country.

“We have to do something, and nobody’s going to be completely happy about it, and it will be expensive,” she said. “But there are two things that unite us as Americans. One is the English language, and the other is rule of law, and I don’t think we can have a situation where that rule of law is being eroded, so we’ll have to change the laws.”

In her book, Diggs also considers the situation in a historical context, comparing it to previous waves of immigration.

“It’s similar in a lot of ways: Nobody wants the newcomers to come,” she said.

Diggs’ new book, while different in topic from her others, continues her interest in exploring other cultures through conversation and research. She has previously written about Japanese culture and the interactions between Japanese and American men and women, particularly in marriage.

“My husband and I grew up just a few miles apart, with very similar backgrounds, and we don’t always communicate,” she said.

Diggs hopes people will come to her presentation with opinions about undocumented immigrants and immigration law from all different geographic regions, and with questions about current developments.

She also hopes that among the crowd there will be lawyers with knowledge about immigration legislation and viewpoints on how the laws should proceed.

“The legal section was very difficult to write, because every state, every community, seems to have a different way of managing the issue,” Diggs said.

She will also give a talk with further updates next season at the Men’s Club about Hidden in the Heartland. She is currently working on another book based on interviews with children at a charter school in the inner city of Dayton, Ohio.

“I’ve interviewed a number of young people there, and they have terrible stories, yet they do wonderful things,” she said. “People tell me all about their backgrounds and drug problems in their families and communities, and it is a different culture.”

Diggs gains so many insights in her dialogues and writing that she wants her readers to learn along with her, and the experience of writing Hidden in the Heartland was no different.

“There were a series of surprises, and then a whole lot of ‘Yes, but,’ because nobody is completely right or wrong,” she said. “Everybody has right on their side, but we have to come together somehow.”

Contact Nancy

Nancy B. Diggs Logo