Migrants' Dilemma Strikes Chord in Rural America Commentator Machlyn Blair isn't an immigrant, but he sees a lot of parallels between the current immigration debate and the story of his own life. Blair is a 19-year-old living in rural Kentucky. But he suspects he may not be able to live there for long. He wonders if he'll have to leave everything he knows in order to make a better living.

Migrants' Dilemma Strikes Chord in Rural America

Migrants' Dilemma Strikes Chord in Rural America

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Machlyn Blair's aunts and uncles return home to Jeremiah, Ky. Machlyn Blair family hide caption

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Machlyn Blair family

Machlyn Blair's aunts and uncles return home to Jeremiah, Ky.

Machlyn Blair family

A lot of people, when they think about immigrants, think about them "coming in." They don’t think about what it's like for them to leave their homes in the first place. I do, because one day, I might have to leave my home in the mountains.

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I live in Jeremiah, Ky. For generations, people in my family have moved from state to state for jobs, and put their lives at risk in the coal mines. Here, leaving the mountains is a rite of passage, just like crossing the border might be for others. I hear kids every day making plans about their future, and Eastern Kentucky isn’t a part of that.

I never thought I'd have anything in common with teenagers from other countries like Mexico, but I do. Seeing the immigration debates and demonstrations on TV, I understand that big companies look at our families as dollar signs, as people who can pack coal out or bring the tomato harvest in.

Many people think economic migrants in our country had a choice. I can tell you there's no real choice in the decision to leave home. I look around my community and see how many people are out of a job, trying to get by working at WalMart, or getting hurt in the mines.

So far, I can count 23 people in my family who have left the community for financial reasons. I don't want to become number 24 -- someone my family sees only on the holidays. Making a choice to leave means going where people don't wave as you drive by. Where no one knows me or my family. Where people look down on my way of talking. A place where my customs and traditions are seen as backwards.

Knowing where I’m from is one of the most important things to me. I don’t want to give that up for a paycheck. And I’m afraid if I go, I’ll never be able to come back.

Machlyn Blair is from Jeremiah, Ky. His essay was produced by the Appalachian Media Institute and Youth Radio.