Book by UF faculty reveals human side of undocumented immigration issue

Published: October 3 2011

Category:Arts, Hispanic, Politics, Research

GAINESVILLE, FLA. — Philip Williams didn’t expect to find hope in Cobb County, Ga.

The county has become a new destination for undocumented immigrants looking for work. With a history of racial conflict and tensions growing between natives and newcomers, it’s not the kind of place that fosters a bright outlook.

But while interviewing an elderly conservative barber for a new book, Williams, a University of Florida professor, discovered some optimism toward the gridlocked discussion on immigration.

The barber asked his grandson how many Hispanic children attended his school. The boy responded, ‘I don’t know, Papa. We’re just all the same.”

The interview with the barber is one among hundreds that went into “Living ‘Illegal,’ The Human Face of Unauthorized Immigration,” a new book that records the stories of both undocumented immigrants and the natives of the communities they inhabit.

Williams, director of the Center of Latin American Studies, and Manuel A. Vásquez, a UF professor of religion, co-authored the book with Marie Friedmann Marquardt and Timothy J. Steigenga. The book is scheduled to be released Oct. 8.

The authors spent 10 years working in immigrant communities in Florida and Georgia, and wrote the book to focus the national conversation about immigration on the human aspects of the issue.

In the past, the topic has produced polarized shouting matches but no “informed, humanized” discussion, Vasquez said.

“This book is an attempt to say that the issue is more complicated than it seems,” he said.

In their research, the authors found that immigration is a moral and ethical issue and cannot be defined in simple “approve and disapprove” terms.

“The attitudes people hold toward immigration are a lot more ambiguous than we think,” Williams said. “The issue isn’t as black and white as our politicians make it seem.”

The book does not advocate for open borders but does suggest a more humane immigration reform that will benefit America as a whole and the immigrants themselves.

“Right now, immigration is a lose-lose situation,” Vasquez said. “These people’s home countries lose their best and brightest people. America loses when it doesn’t accept these skilled people who potentially could add a lot to our society.”

Vasquez and Williams, a professor of political science and Latin American studies, hope the book will help put a human face to the issue.

“We wanted to humanize the debate on immigration,” Williams said. “Our lives are very often entwined with those of immigrants. They are our co-workers. Their kids go to school with our kids. They worship alongside us. They play a huge role in our communities.”

While the authors hope for comprehensive immigration reform, they are not optimistic about its prospects in the short term. Politicians show no sign of rethinking their hardened positions to compromise on the issue, Williams said.

But even if the politics look bleak, Williams holds on to hope that the issue will resolve itself in the future. When he’s pessimistic about the current state of affairs, he remembers the barber’s grandson in Georgia and how every generation seems to be less fixated on cultural differences.

“If I’ve learned anything from this,” he said, “it’s that even in the most unlikely places, there is cause for hope.”


Meg Wagner
Philip Williams,, 352-392-0375
Manuel Vásquez,, 352-392-1625 ext. 229

Category:Arts, Hispanic, Politics, Research