Volume 12, Issue 48 ~ November 25 - December 1, 2004
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Is There a Seat for America’s Newest Arrivals?
by Louis Llovio

Editors Note: In researching this story, Louis Llovio met Francisco and Manola, who agreed to share their stories of life as undocumented aliens on the condition that their real names be withheld.

Francisco prefers anonymity.

His truck is nondescript; he keeps his head down and avoids eye contact; when he talks, it’s in a whisper.

In fact, his name is not Francisco.

What his real name is he won’t say.

Francisco hasn’t killed anyone. He hasn’t robbed a bank. His name is not on any national register or terrorist watch list. Quite the opposite: Francisco has three sons, works a full-time job and picks up side work on the weekends. His wife works, too, plus watching neighborhood kids and helping clean offices at night. His whole goal is for his kids to have a better life.

Why, then, does Francisco keep to the shadows?

He is an undocumented alien.

Francisco is not alone.

Forty-four thousand undocumented aliens live in Maryland, according to the 2000 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Some say the number is closer to 126,000. There is no way of knowing the exact count because, like Francisco, the undocumented hide when the Immigration and Naturalization Service comes calling.

To understand Francisco and his reticence, we must go back further than 21st century facts and figures. Our answers go all the way back to the 17th century. Europeans tired of persecution packed their belongings, said goodbye to the life they knew and crossed the ocean for a chance at a better life.

For 400 years, millions have followed.

Imagine packing your bags, saying goodbye to your family forever and moving to Mexico. There you know only a handful of people; you are an outsider. There, all you know is a dream formed from other people’s stories.

If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to make that move. But somewhere in your family tree, someone did. Whether your family has been in Chesapeake Country for 35 or 350 years, at one point you had your own Francisco.

Starting Over
In Spanish laced with sadness, Francisco speaks about his life in America. Life in Annapolis is paradise compared to the village he came from.

Loneliness and isolation are why he is sad.

Francisco knows few people. The men he works with are mostly younger than he is, so he keeps to himself. The few people he meets at the bodega in Parole he smiles to politely. He may see them socially when he’s not working, but he’s almost always working.

Francisco isolates himself because, as an undocumented alien, one wrong move could get him deported. Chances are, he would go back without his wife and children.

Francisco wouldn’t worry so much if his kids were older.

“As long as they can take care of themselves, I know I can leave,” he says. “But they are too young. Right now I’m more afraid of being sent back than of dying.”

Back is Nochixtlan, a pueblo in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, four hours south of Mexico City, where he was born. When he was 15, Francisco left school to join his father as a full-time carpenter. He’d been learning the trade since he was old enough to walk because his family needed his work to survive. “If it’s good enough for Jesus,” his father shouted when the boy sneaked away to be with friends, “then it’s damn well good enough for you.”

Nailing boards together in Oaxaca did not qualify as carpentry in the U.S. Here, as he soon found out, his one marketable trade was no good.

How he made his way from Nochixtlan to Maryland, Francisco won’t say.

“I knew if I went out West to California or Texas or Arizona, I would know people and get work. But chances were I would get caught. I’m too old to get kicked out and come back and get kicked out again. I just want to raise my kids.”

He heard through the wife of a friend that many Hispanics lived and worked around Washington, D.C. But for Francisco, the more dense the population, the greater the chance he’d be caught. Suburban D.C. was too crowded.

He stayed in Laurel less than six months.

He heard from the owner of a bodega off Rt.1 that other Hispanics lived in a small town an hour east called Annapolis.

Annapolis was the perfect fit.

photo by Louis Llovio
“If you let me work, I will pay my bills, pay my taxes and raise my kids,” says Francisco. He doesn’t use his real name for fear of deportation to Mexico, where he had worked as a carpenter before coming to America in search of a better life for himself and his family.
Fighting to Fit In
Francisco is 31, but his leathery face and cracked, dirt-stained hands make him look many years older.

He’s further aged by a world of worries. Today, he can’t understand much of what his 11-year-old son’s teacher is saying. He’s had to find an interpreter to explain why his son is once again in trouble. The boy, small like his mother but wide like his father, is like a bull in a china shop. Other boys mock his worn clothes, his home haircuts and worst of all, his accent. He lets them know in no uncertain terms they can’t get away with it. What he lacks in money and pedigree, he more than makes up for in righteous indignation.

“He doesn’t walk away,” the interpreter says to Francisco and his wife, who sits quietly, ashamed, afraid and angry as they listen on yet another visit to the school’s guidance office.

“I’ve told him a thousand times to just let them keep talking,” Francisco says, staring down at his hands, his fists clenching. “But he thinks if he fights them, he’ll stop them. It won’t.”

The interpreter nods but doesn’t tell the teacher what the father has said.

“He thinks that if he walks away he’s less of a man,” Francisco says, angering as he talks. “What he doesn’t understand is that if he keeps getting into trouble, we’re all going to wind up back in Mexico. Then he’ll be a man — a poor broken man without a future.”

The interpreter only translates the first half of the comment.

Francisco’s fear is that these schoolyard scuffles will escalate.

Francisco’s wife fears that her son’s behavior will reflect badly not only on the family but also on other Hispanics. “So many people already treat us like animals because we don’t talk like they do, look like they do,” she says, holding back tears. “Then they see this little dark-skinned boy rolling around on the ground and he convinces them we are animals.”

“We’re not,” Francisco corrects her. “We’re just people trying to make a better life for ourselves. It’s not supposed to matter how we talk or look. This is supposed to be America.”

Getting Help at Ayuda
Off the main thoroughfare of Forest Drive in Annapolis, across from a graveyard and next to a small strip mall is the Gardner Center. If you drive by it fast you might remember the barbershop, liquor store or the small record store. But up the stairs, in a corner barley visible from the street, is an oasis for an entire community.

It is Centro de Ayuda, which means Center of Help in Spanish.

“I come to them for everything,” Manola, a 42-year-old mother of three from Salvador says in Spanish. “They helped me when I first got here to find a job. They helped me when I needed to get my green card. They helped me when my husband started drinking again. And they help me every day because my kids can come after school.”

photos by Louis Llovio
At Annapolis’ Centro de Ayuda — center of help — “We do everything,” says Claret Vega, above right, as she helps Yvonne Ramirez with a confusing utility bill.
Chuck Kyle, a retired State Department worker, helps immigrants with legal advice at the center.
Manola is not alone.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 12,902 Hispanics live in Anne Arundel County, with another 1,135 in Calvert.

The real number is impossible to know.

By some estimates, there could be as many as eight to 12 million undocumented aliens in the United States.

Behind her cluttered desk at Ayuda, Claret Vega talks to a 19-year-old-woman who is in deep trouble.

Arrested in Laredo, Texas, three months ago, she was supposed to be arraigned today. She didn’t make it to court because she was in Annapolis, 2000 miles from that Texas courthouse.

Here, Vega is working to get INS to move the hearing to a court in Baltimore. If she’s successful, Vega will also have to arrange transportation to Baltimore for the young woman.

This is just one job for Vega, who only minutes later is figuring out Yvonne Ramirez’s electric bill. Ramirez had electric turned on two months ago. She’s made several payments to the electric company, but now she has received a bill for $224. She can’t afford to pay the bill. Vega says she’ll call BG&E the next morning and either solve the problem or make payment arrangements.

“We do everything here,” Vega says. “We act as human resources department; we help people arrange housing; we collect and distribute donations. We even have volunteers who make sure kids have their vaccinations to get into schools.”

A U.S. citizen and 16-year resident of Annapolis by way of Bolivia, Vega is a compact woman who has a son in the Army just home from Iraq. “I started helping because of him,” says the school teacher and former administrator. “I wanted to help families take the first step.”

A lot has changed since Vega arrived in Annapolis, and she sees more changes every day. “The buses go out farther now, so our people without cars can get out. And more people walk the streets and mingle with the rest of Annapolis. Now you see Hispanics working everywhere downtown. Our community is tight, and we help each other, but the people of Annapolis are great to us. They understand that immigrants are hard-working people just looking to make a living.”

Working alongside Vega is Chuck Kyle, a retired 27-year veteran of the State Department who gives legal advice to immigrants walking in off the street. “I am a facilitator,” Kyle says. “I try and help people respond to letters, to guide them through the system.”

The tall, thick, gray-haired State Department pro counsels newly arrived aliens in broken but precise Spanish.

“There is a social infrastructure here that is still developing,” says Kyle, who volunteers two nights a week at Ayuda’s office as well as spending many hours working cases at home. “But groups like Ayuda are working to close the gap.”

Kyle is currently advising a 49-year-old woman who came from Argentina to work as a housekeeper. She entered the country on a tourist visa. In the last month, she has lost her job and is now afraid she’ll have to go back.

“She has nothing to return to,” he says. “Her husband divorced her, sold their house in Argentina and left her with nothing.”

Kyle is helping her to obtain the proper paperwork to stay in the U.S.

“All she wants is a chance,” he says. “That’s all anyone wants.”

The Cost of Lying
What Francisco hates is the lying.

“My parents didn’t raise me like this,” he says. “But I don’t know how else to do it.”

Francisco lies just to survive.

He lies about his status in the United States. While applying for an apartment. While registering his children for school. While applying for jobs. He lies. He must lie.

But, he’s quick to point out, it could be worse.

Immigration is booming business. There aren’t quarterly figures for how much money changes hands, but the Center for Immigration Studies says the direct and indirect windfall of illegal immigration is about $78 billion over a 10-year period.

The money comes from trafficking humans across the border, under-the-table earnings by undocumented aliens and the thriving business of false documentation.

For a few hundred dollars, Francisco could have bought a forged social security card. With the fake number, he could create an identity for himself, deduct payroll taxes and begin to build credit in his new name.

“If he really wanted to,” said a source who worked on national immigration legislation, “for a few thousand dollars he could have bought an entire identity.”

Francisco says that option was offered to him. “I was told that a name of a baby born about the same time I was would be taken from a headstone. With that date and name, they would create an entire new person for me. I just couldn’t do that,” he says — though he admits considering it.

Instead, Francisco passes on his name as he tries to hide in plain sight.

One way or another, immigrants like Francisco add to citizens’ tax burden.

According to figures from the Census Bureau, undocumented aliens cost the federal government $26.3 billion in 2002 while only paying $16 billion in taxes, creating a deficit of more than $10 billion.

Ironically, says former State Department counsel Kyle, “these costs grew from border enforcement. It used to be a man would sneak across the border to work, then sneak back to visit his family.”

With tighter restrictions, this man brings his family along. “That costs the government money,” Kyle says, “for education, health care and other services.”

Light at the End of the Tunnel
November 2, 2004: Francisco sits by his television set watching election returns on Telemundo, the Spanish language network owned by NBC.

As the results roll in and the states change from white to blue or red, he is encouraged. He cannot vote, but he pins his hopes for the future on this election.

“I don’t know much about all the politics,” he says, ignoring issues like the war, Social Security and cultural values. “I want Bush to win because with him I might not have to be scared anymore.”

Francisco doesn’t mean he feels safe from terrorists or a liberal scourge; he feels safe because of reform promised from the White House.

According to a Bush administration program announced last January, illegal immigrants already in the United States can apply for a temporary worker program if they already have a job. The special status would last for three years and could be renewed once, for a total stay of six years. If temporary workers failed to stay employed or broke the law, they would be sent home.

President George W. Bush has said that the new legal status would allow illegal immigrants to travel back to their home countries without fear that they would not be allowed to return to the United States. It would also help keep immigrants from being abused or exploited.

“Over the generations, we have received energetic, ambitious optimistic people from every part of the world,” Bush said in a speech announcing the reforms. “By tradition and conviction, our country is a welcoming society. Every generation of immigrants has reaffirmed the wisdom of remaining open to the talents and dreams of the world.”

The proposed reforms received mixed reviews from immigration organizations.

“We are pleased the president has recognized the importance of immigrants to our nation,” said Katherine Culliton, an attorney for the Mexican American Defense Fund.

But Lisa Navarrete vice-president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization, said, “For us, this is just a massive guest-worker program. It benefits employers and not the workers themselves.”

Undocumented aliens, for the most part, work low-wage jobs with few benefits provided by employers.

Kyle calls the plan a rehash of earlier programs. “These programs aren’t designed for people to gain citizenship,” he says. “They’re designed so people can come in, work, send money home and go back.”

But to Francisco, Bush’s plan is a godsend.

“This all I want,” he says. “I can work. I don’t need anyone to give me a handout or to support my family. If you let me work, I will pay my bills, pay my taxes and raise my kids.”

Six years is a lifetime for Francisco, who knows his boys will almost be adults by the time his amnesty expires. “Even if I don’t get permanent citizenship,” he says with an uncharacteristic laugh, “they will be old enough to have jobs and apply themselves.”

“Not if they are in college,” adds his wife.

“Our homeland will be more secure when we can better account for those who enter our country," President Bush said when he announced immigration reforms that would allow currently undocumented aliens working in the U.S. to apply for a three-year work visa.
In Maryland, both Democratic Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich have waded in on the immigrant debate. “This is the United States,” Schaefer proclaimed. “They should adjust to us.”
Not everyone agrees with President Bush in welcoming immigrants in the country.

In 2001, two polling organizations — McPeters & Co. and Beta Research — found that 92 percent of Americans supported “imposing stricter immigration and border crossing policies.” In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamic poll of the same year, 84 percent said they supported tighter restrictions on immigration.

Those polls were taken less than two months after the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., put the nation’s borders on the front page.

Bush mentioned balancing security with giving immigrants opportunity when announcing immigration reforms in January 2004. “Our homeland will be more secure when we can better account for those who enter our country," he said. “Instead of the current situation, in which millions of people are unknown ... law enforcement will face fewer problems with undocumented workers and will be better able to focus on the true threats to our nation from criminals and terrorists.”

The immigration issue hit Maryland in 2003.

Last April, the General Assembly passed a bill that would allow Maryland high school graduates regardless of their immigration status to pay in-state tuition rates. Gov. Robert Ehrlich vetoed the bill. Ehrlich’s reasoning was that by rewarding illegal immigration, the state was “slowly chipping away at the central logic of citizenship.”

A similar bill passed the House of Delegates in 2004 but died in the Senate. Two bills proposing studies on the financial impacts of immigration on the job market and health care also failed. Those three were among 15 immigration bills introduced in the last General Assembly. The bills ranged from refusing driver’s licenses to immigrants to ordering the immediate detention of illegal aliens.

But the biggest debate broke when Comptroller William Donald Schaefer complained at a Board of Public Works meeting about the broken English of a McDonald’s worker who’d irritated him at breakfast. “I don't want to adjust to another language,” said the 82-year-old Schaefer. “This is the United States. I think they ought to adjust to us.”

Adding fuel to a smoldering fire, Ehrlich weighed in during his regular spot on a Baltimore radio talk show. “I reject the idea of multiculturalism,” he said. “Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, you run into a problem. With respect to this culture, English is the language. Should we encourage young folks here to be assimilated, to learn the culture and values? Of course.”

Ehrlich defended his remarks several days later and refused to apologize. “In America we have a singular culture, common values and a common language,” he said. “It's a common history, it's a common culture. We should not separate ourselves. This is a melting-pot society. I think we need to get back to our roots, which is to celebrate the melting pot.”

Ayuda’s Vega wishes immigrants got more compassion. “You have to understand, immigrants come from lands where many didn’t even get the chance to study in their own language,” she says while encouraging new immigrants to learn English.

Francisco says he agrees with the governor. On the other hand, he says, the fast-food worker who riled Schaefer was trying to speak English. “He shouldn’t mock her for trying,” he says.

One Way or Another, We Are All Immigrants
The hardest part about being an immigrant, says Francisco, is being treated like a second-class citizen.

“You always feel different,” he says. “Like you’re a stranger. And the sad thing is, you are a stranger.”

His wife talks about the day she was snarled at as she stood in line at the Safeway on Forest Drive. She had reprimanded her youngest in Spanish.

“Speak English,” said the 20-something blonde in a business suit, a Starbucks cup in one hand.

“Doesn’t she realize her family was once just like us?”

The first immigrants landed in Maryland in 1634. Like Franscisco, those Englishmen and women came for a better life. For 370 years, their descendants — along with the children and grandchildren of many other nations — have benefited from the daring of their forebears.

“They all forget,” Franscisco says in a moment of anger, “that they were all like me. Every one of them. They’re rich and they speak without an accent now, but their grandfathers were poor, and nobody spoke the language.”

His wife pats him on the leg to calm him down.

“Now they tell me to get out, to speak English, to go back where I came from, that I’m stealing their jobs,” he rants on, oblivious to his wife’s pleading. “This is America. What happened to the Statue of Liberty? To the land of opportunity? To the American dream? How would those bastards feel if someone didn’t give up everything to give them a better life? Their grandfathers must be spinning in their graves.”

His wife shares his grief but is more understanding.

“I just wish those who criticize us would understand that we are just working people like they are,” she says. “We want a better life, and we were always told that America was the place to come for that.”

“It is,” Franscisco says, calmer now. “This is a better life. I just wish I could tell the whole world how proud I am. Instead, I have to lie and hide.”

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.