Immigration day one

(Editor’s note: This is part one of a four-day series on the impact of immigration in Madison County.)

Imagine you are so poor that your six-member family is living in a four-room house without a bathroom.

To wash your family’s clothes, you must take them to the river and get them as clean as you can.

Your children are thirsty for knowledge, but there’s no school in your town.

There are no jobs and many nights, you lie awake wondering how you will continue to take care of your family.

With hopes of a better life, imagine you move your family to a nearby city, but there are no jobs there, either. And still no school.

What would you do?

“You would move, too,” answered Sandra Anez Powell, program coordinator for the Madison County chapter of Muejers Unidas (United Women).

A native of Venezuela, Powell has lived in the United States for 17 years. She works directly with immigrants and their families and has seen firsthand the hardships that prompt families to migrate to the United States.

“You hope to have a better future for your children and your family. You would do it, too,” she said. “It’s very basic. Many people want to make it sound very foggy and not clear, but it is a very basic need.”

Powell said she learned how simple it was once during a home visit in Lexington with a Hispanic family. She said there were eight people living in a three-bedroom trailer in ill repair.

“The insulation was bad. The flies were coming in like nothing else,” she said. “The floor was not in the best shape. The door was not in the best shape either. And they were paying $500 a month for it.”

“And there was an older lady who had just arrived. She was the grandma,” Powell continued. “They had saved enough money and were able to bring the grandma home. I realized they were all really happy and I could relate to it. Who doesn’t want to be close to their loved ones?”

For the Hispanic immigrants to have their entire family together in the United States was a huge accomplishment, Powell said.

“So I asked the lady, ‘OK, tell me something. How different is it to live here in comparison with living there? Was it better for you to be here than to be there?’ And she said, ‘To begin with, there is a bathroom right there.’”

Powell said she immediately understood the family’s plight.

“I definitely knew they were in better shape being in that beat-up trailer,” Powell said.

Socorro Zaragoza, a Mexican woman who recently moved to Richmond to teach Spanish at Eastern Kentucky University, said many in her homeland cannot provide for their families on the low wages they receive.

“We need to start looking at people as human beings with necessities — basic necessities,” she said. “You need to provide for your family, so what do you do? In this little town, there’s nothing. You move to the big city, and there’s nothing. You go until you find something for your family. It’s not easy.”

The trek from Mexico to the United States is “no piece of cake,” Powell said.

Most people want to come to America legally, but, “There are people who will never qualify for a visa,” she said.

“And that’s why they have no choice but to come and risk their lives and their loved ones’ lives. It’s not a journey that any one of us can even imagine. It’s not a field trip,” she said.

But why do so many take the risk instead of applying for legal status?

“Believe me, people would choose to come here legally if they had a choice,” Powell said. “In many cases, people who are working in agriculture in Mexico many times don’t even have a bank account and so they go to the embassy and they will always be denied for the visa.”

The benefits of living in the “Land of Opportunity” usually far outweigh the risks, she said.

Zaragoza said the bureaucracy in the immigration department frustrates many Hispanics and the costs associated with even learning about visas are very expensive.

“You have to pay for all paperwork and it doesn’t guarantee you that you’re going to get accepted,” she said. “It is difficult.”

It also is difficult to obtain information about how to get the appropriate paperwork, Zaragoza said. Most immigration telephone numbers refer callers to its Web site, which offers several different brochures about how to apply for a cost of $49.95 each. The site is written in English and many times, contact telephone numbers are difficult to locate.


The United States Census says there were approximately 887 Hispanics in Madison County in 2006 — of that number, they counted 509 males and 378 females.

While an exact number is not available, Powell estimates Madison County’s Hispanic population to be about 3,000.

“It is very difficult to know. We can guesstimate,” she said. “There are many farms where there are people living in places where people don’t know they are living. So in many cases, the only way we may know there are people living in those places is there is a lady who is pregnant who goes to the health department or to the hospital to deliver.”

About the discrepancy in her estimate and the Census figure, Powell said Census-takers only visited places they knew about. She said they did not go “to the little houses behind the farms where many people live.”

Hispanics make up 2 percent of the 4,206,074 people living in Kentucky, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In 2006, Hispanics made up almost 15 percent of the United States’ total population.

Alberto Sanz, a Hispanic newspaper publisher in Madison County, said his own research has shown that about 4 percent of the county’s population is Hispanic. Two years ago, he compiled a report about Hispanic immigration in Kentucky for National Public Radio.

“No one has a real estimate,” he said. “Organizations that work close to the Hispanics have different numbers.”

Madison County has been very welcoming to Hispanic immigrants, said Rona Comley of the Madison County Migrant Program.

“I think we have had a growing number because Madison County has always been, I feel like, a community welcoming Hispanics. They like it here,” Comley said. “The churches, the schools, the hospital have all stepped up to the occasion.”


Many Spanish-speaking immigrants just want to take part in The American Dream, Powell said.

In her homeland of Venezuela, workers make about $7 a day, Powell said.

“To be able to make $1,000 a month, you (would) have to have a job equivalent to a CEO in an agency or organization,” she said.

“Just to be able to buy a car is a major investment,” Powell added. “With a schoolteacher’s salary, in many cases, if you don’t have somebody else’s salary to help you, you cannot even afford to buy a car. So here, when you come and you can buy a secondhand car, and then being able to have the children in school, you have already achieved all the dreams that you will ever thought you could achieve.”

Zaragoza said salaries in Mexico are about $5 for eight hours of work. In agricultural jobs, workers make about $10 for 12 or more hours of work, she said.

“You come here (the U.S.) and you get $6 per hour. Even though it is underpaid and even though you don’t have any benefits, if you think about it, you think, ‘I am getting way more, double, triple what I make in Mexico or any other country.’ But, then when you start thinking about having to pay bills — rent, phone, I have to buy food, I have to buy this and that. The American Dream is not anymore a dream.”

Once in America, regardless of their citizenship status, many Spanish-speaking immigrants have to deal with stereotypes from those who think all immigrants are Mexicans and that all are here illegally, Zaragoza said.

When she first moved to Richmond, she experienced it firsthand.

“When I came here, I was looking for a place (to live),” she said. “I found a place I was interested in and made an appointment. And after telling the landlord that I was from Mexico and I was looking for a place, etc., then I said, ‘Well, I like the place and I would like to rent,’ and then he gave me the application form and asked me, ‘What is your legal status?’ And it was very disturbing for me because I just told him I was a professor at the university.”

“Not all come from Mexico and not all come illegally or undocumented. So he just assumed that I was Mexican so I was an illegal,” she added. “I don’t think that they have the right to ask for legal status. I think it is wrong.”

Zaragoza said she confronted the landlord, telling him he had no right to ask her about her status.

“If somebody from immigration asks me, then I will tell them, but not to you and you should only be worried about if I am able to pay my rent or if I have any criminal record,” she recalls telling the landlord.

The landlord asked her to call him later, and Zaragoza said “no” and found somewhere else to live. She said the landlord was surprised by her reaction.

“He said he understood and he had to do it. I said, ‘No you don’t,’” Zaragoza said. “People judge by the looks.”

They also judge by accent, Powell said, recalling times she sat outside an empty house and called about renting it for someone. Oftentimes, the owner told her it already was rented.

“I come back in a few days and it is still empty. What a coincidence,” Powell said. “It happens all the time. It is an example of racism and it is illegal for landlords to ask that to one person. If they ask the same question to every single person they meet with, it’s completely all right.”

Lorie Love can be reached at or 624-6690.

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