Migrant Lives and Leadership: Introduction

Cape Town, South Africa, and Flagstaff, Arizona, might seem to have little in common. Cape Town is a multi‐cultural city of four million people, the legislative capital of a still new democracy. Flagstaff is a college town of 65,000, known mostly for its proximity to the Grand Canyon. Yet both are international tourist destinations, with booming service economies that support a steady stream of low‐income workers, often immigrants from neighboring countries. And both are located in countries that are the strongest economies in their regions of the world, creating a powerful attraction for migrants fleeing poverty and violence and looking for new opportunities.

In Flagstaff, most migrants have come from Mexico and plan to stay; many featured in this exhibit have been in Flagstaff for decades. In Cape Town, migrants come from all over Southern Africa to look for work and refuge; most cannot return to their home countries because of war and poverty. Yet conditions in their new countries are not always easy. Arizona’s “show me your papers” Senate Bill 1070 created an environment of fear that that has now been renewed with President Trump’s commitment to increased immigration enforcement. Outbreaks of xenophobic violence have plagued South Africa, especially since 2008, and increasingly restrictive immigration policies have left many migrants undocumented and unable to work legally.

Our interviews with migrant leaders revealed common themes across very different social situations. The experience of migration has led to new family configurations, with women taking on new roles in the workplace and in their households. The need for solidarity among migrants has inspired new social supports such as the Scalabrini Centre Women’s Platform in Cape Town and the Mercado de Sueños in Flagstaff. But there is frustration, too, that countries that seem happy for the low‐wage labor of migrants do not make it possible for them to advance and for their children to go on to higher education. Labor exploitation is a common theme, especially for undocumented migrants who work without protections. For them, it is especially critical that their children get an education that will move them out of low‐wage jobs.

The migrants we interviewed in Cape Town and Flagstaff are not victims. They are leaders who are searching for ways to improve life for their families and their communities. Get to know them here and learn more about how you can get involved.

Cape Town