January 13, 2006

by Jill Kramer

“I don’t like to remember it,” says Gloria when asked about her journey from Guatemala to the United States.  “For me it was very difficult to cross.  I came in a group of about 10. There are some trucks in Mexico that have like a double bottom where they put food, and we would lie in that area for six or seven hours at a time.  The hardest part was when the engine would warm up.  It would get very hot in there and we didn’t get enough air.  We had no food.  It was eight days from Guatemala to here.  During that time I only ate once.” 

Gloria was one of the 700,000 people who risk their lives each year crossing the Mexican border illegally. They do it for much the same reason most of our ancestors immigrated here: they want to make a better life for their children.  The difference is that, over the course of the last century, immigration laws have gradually tightened.  Ironically, it’s only the highly skilled workers – those who compete for jobs with citizens – who now gain legal entry, while the unskilled – who take the low-paying jobs employers can’t fill – are barred.

Congress is torn between business interests hungry for cheap labor and restrictionists who would like the borders sealed.  The mixed message we’re sending to our desperate southern neighbors is “Stay out – but if you come, we’ll pay you.”  The House recently passed a bill calling for a crackdown on illegal immigration; but law enforcement is already overwhelmed.

When Gloria’s group crossed the border 12 years ago, they were caught but not sent back.  “They took us to the jail but it was packed that day, there was no room for anybody else,” she says.  “So they gave us authorization to be in the country for 15 days.”  Of course, by that time, they’d scattered, gotten fake documents and landed jobs.

Gloria went to San Francisco to join her husband Carlos, who had left Guatemala when she discovered she was pregnant.  When their daughter was a year old, Gloria put her in the care of her mother and headed north.  As she tells her story, she speaks softly, pausing to allow her words to be translated from Spanish to English.  “When I was a child, it was very hard, there was no food, we didn’t have enough clothing.  I didn’t want my children to have the same fate. I wanted to give my parents a chance to live better, too.  I send money back to them.  Now my parents have running water and electricity.”

They had no such luxuries while Gloria was growing up.  The family of six was crammed into two tiny rooms.  Gloria went to school only through second grade, then went to work cleaning people’s houses.  She and Carlos met when she was 14, he was 16.  He worked in the fields, driving a tractor, whenever he could.  But work was scarce and pay was barely subsistence-level.  When they had another mouth to feed, the journey to El Norte seemed worth the risk.

Carlos found that jobs were plentiful in the U.S. -- at $4.50 an hour.  “When I first came,” he says, “I worked as a cook, as a dishwasher, as a janitor, I did gardening, construction work – anything I could get.”  Usually his fake documents were accepted without question, but occasionally he ran into trouble.  “I lost one job because I didn’t have a driver’s license.  I was the one driving the truck to do gardening.”  

When Gloria arrived, she got a job in the kitchen at a McDonald’s, which she held for four years.  During that time, the couple had another child, a boy.  In 1997 they moved to Marin, where they found a two-bedroom apartment in the Canal area of San Rafael -- a neighborhood of people much like themselves.  70% of the residents are Latino and 22% are recent immigrants.  The Canal is situated between the freeway, the bay and the narrow waterway that separates it from the spiffier downtown San Rafael area.  A commercial/industrial area lies close to the freeway, while the rest of the neighborhood is comprised of apartment complexes and a smattering of auto body shops and small grocery stores.  It differs markedly from the rest of Marin county, with its green hills, million-dollar mansions and boutiques.

A wave of immigrants from Mexico and Central America swept into the Canal in the ‘80s, jolting the populace of Marin which up until then was almost entirely Anglo.  Most of the newcomers were single men, hoping to send money back home and eventually bring their wives and children up north.  They began congregating on the streets near the freeway and the lumberyards, where homeowners and contractors drive by looking for day laborers.  By the early ‘90s, the City of San Rafael was getting swamped by complaints from longtime residents and from local merchants who worried that the sight of large groups of brown-skinned men were frightening away shoppers.  The City looked into establishing a Day Labor Center to get the men off the street, but eventually gave up.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that seeking legitimate work in a public right-of-way is a First Amendment right.  It’s freedom of speech,” says Lydia Romero, assistant to the San Rafael City Manager.  “So there’s no enforceable means to get the day laborers inside the center.  If they aren’t getting work inside, they’re going to go outside.”  At the handful of day labor centers that have been established in the Bay Area, only 35-45% of workers who go there succeed in finding jobs.

“If they weren’t getting work by standing there, they wouldn’t be standing there,” says Romero.  “They’re not standing out there drinking or doing drugs, they’re not standing out there to be a nuisance. They’re not asking for handouts, they’re not asking for anything free, all they’re asking for is to work.  And the work is very labor-intensive – it’s moving furniture, it’s digging a ditch, it’s moving rock, it’s moving brick.  It’s back-breaking work.  These men work for every penny that they get.”

The day laborers are usually the newest arrivals – those who haven’t yet found steady jobs.  These days, they’re also from the lower socioeconomic levels of Latin America.  As in past waves of immigration, it’s the poorest who come last.  “They come from the interiors of Guatemala and El Salvador and sometimes the interiors of Mexico. They’re indigenous people to those countries. For most of them, Spanish is their second language – their first language is Mayan,” says Romero.  “They’re very, very poor.  They come here, just like every other immigrant that came here before them, seeking the American dream, to provide a better life for their family, a better life for their children.”

Over the years, Marinites have gotten used to the day laborer phenomenon, although Romero still gets occasional calls about it.  “We get about a complaint a month from someone who doesn’t like to see the men standing out there,” she says.  Asked if their objections have to do with racism, Romero chooses other words.  “They have issues with folks standing around that don’t necessarily look like they do.  Most of the complaints are that the men are here illegally, they shouldn’t be here, and you, the City, need to arrest them all and send them back. But immigration is a federal issue, it’s not a local issue.” 

Colin Russell, chair of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, has mixed feelings about the influx of undocumented immigrants.  On a personal level, he’s troubled.  “I don’t want to speak for the Chamber on this, but one of the issues is that they’re using services that are taxed such as emergency medical care.  I’ve been through this,” he says.  “My wife injured herself, I took her to the emergency room and it was packed full of people, many of them Hispanic.  We had to wait a long time to get in. And I’ve read that many people who are here without papers use the emergency rooms as their health insurance.  We all know the stories.  So personally, I think we need to be much more strict about giving them entitlements to services like health care and drivers licenses.”

On the other hand, Russell appreciates the contributions of the immigrant work force.  “I’m an architect and I’m just amazed at how many Hispanics are now working in the construction industry.  There’s a remodel going on just up the street from where I live and I would say 90-95% of the workers on that site are Hispanic. And they’re excellent workers, they’re there every day, they do good quality work. I have no idea  how many of them have work permits.  It’s really the responsibility of employers to make sure that the people they’re hiring are documented and of course they don’t do this because it’s not to their advantage to do so.  You keep hearing that if we were to send all the undocumented workers back home the economy would collapse – well, it’s probably true.  We absolutely depend on them for a lot of really tough jobs.” 

Unauthorized immigrants do the work of last resort: on the Gulf coast, they’re cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina; they harvest crops on farms across the country.  Here in Marin, they prepare our food, take care of our kids, mow our lawns and haul our debris.  These are the jobs that go unfilled even in times of high unemployment.  They’re often the jobs that are hardest to do; they’re always the jobs that pay the least.

Employers are required to see two pieces of identification and to fill out an I-9 form for everyone they hire – except for domestic help taken on sporadically.  However, “there’s no requirement for an employer to be a documents expert,” says Tom Wilson, co-executive director of the Canal Alliance.  “That doesn’t mean you can just look the other way when somebody shows you something that’s written on the back of an envelope.  But if you’re shown something that reasonably looks like a Social Security card or a work authorization card from Homeland Security, you can accept that.”

The form goes in the employee’s personnel file and, ordinarily, never investigated further.  “If Immigration had some reason to believe that the employer was hiring undocumented people, they could then come in and do an audit of the hiring records – and that’s happened maybe once or twice in Marin,” says Wilson.  “Since 2001 they’re a lot more interested in the borders than they are in employers, so they haven’t been doing the kind of employer enforcement they were doing before.”

A recent report from the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy finds that new immigrants have a net positive effect on the overall economy, but, at least in the near term, they put a strain on state and local budgets.  That’s because most taxes paid by workers go to the federal government while the cost of public services are borne by state and local governments.  The Center’s analysts conclude that the long-term impacts on state and local jurisdictions will improve as the children of today’s immigrants attain higher levels of education, enter the workforce with higher skills and help pay the public costs of the aging Baby Boomers.

Johnny Huinac is one first-generation immigrant determined to make good in his new home country.   He crossed the border illegally on his 10th birthday.  Now 19, he’s in his second year at Dominican University with plans to go into business.  He’s been working about 18 hours a week ever since the age of 14, attending school the whole time.  He spoke no English when he came to the U.S.  Now he’s reading Aristotle and Nietzsche. 

Huinac grew up on a farm in Guatemala.  His grandfather was the first in the family to come to the U.S.  “My grandpa got a work permit soon after he got here because there was a bill that passed saying that anyone who had been here for more than 5 or 10 years could get a permit.  So a lot of ranchers were selling letters vouching for people and my grandpa bought a couple of letters and went to the INS and got his permit.  After that, he started learning English and got his citizenship.”  At 73, the old man is still working two jobs, as a janitor.  

Huinac’s mother followed his grandfather to San Rafael after her second son was born, leaving both boys with their grandmother. She worked three jobs for the next several years -- at two car washes and a McDonald’s -- saving her money to pay for her sons’ trek north. “My mom wanted my grandpa to say that my brother and I were his sons so we could come in an airplane, but he didn’t want to.  So we had to come here illegally.”  Huinac doesn’t remember how much she had to pay the <I>coyote,<I> the guide – some charge as much as $5,000 per person -- but he does remember the man calling her mid-trip, demanding more money.  He learned years later that she’d cry herself to sleep each night, worrying about him and his little brother.

The two boys made the journey with their uncle and a large group of strangers.  “It was Christmas of ’95,” he recalls, sitting on a park bench on the leafy, tranquil Dominican campus.  His black hair is shorn to stubble; a speck of a beard dots his chin.  “It took us two months to get here.  The first walks that I remember were like three or four hours.  Then we’d all get squished into a van.  In Mexico we found out that the <I>federales<I> were stopping the buses and asking people for Mexican IDs.  We actually got caught in Oaxaca and sent back to Guatemala.  We started heading back to Mexico the same day.  Because of that, we ran out of money in Mexico.”

The group was stuck in Mexico for two weeks until the <I>coyote<I> had raised enough money to continue.  “It was kind of awful,” says Huinac. “We were sleeping outside. There were no bathrooms.  We only had two meals a day.”  When they started traveling again, they’d walk for six or seven hours a day.  They were caught crossing the border seven times before they succeeded.  “The last time, we lay down in this tall grass while a helicopter flew overhead shining a light down on us.  But they finally went away and that’s when we crossed.  There were two vans waiting on the other side.  The next day we were put in a truck and driven to L.A.  And my mom came and picked us up in L.A.  And the next day we go to Disneyland!”

Although his grandfather had been unwilling to bring him here legally, he did arrange for the boys – as well as their mother – to get authorized papers once they’d arrived.  Huinac struggled with the language for the next few years, but managed to get As and Bs all through school.  At 14, he got a job as a busboy at the Villa Marin convalescent home, working every day after school until 8pm.  “I’d bring in about $500-600 a month, which was enough for my mom not to have to provide for me anymore,” he says.  
His junior year of high school was the most demanding.  His family had moved from Santa Venetia to Richmond, so Huinac was commuting from across the bay to continue attending Terra Linda High.  At the same time, he’d taken a second job, at the Redwoods convalescent home, and was working seven days a week.  He plowed through each day, focused only on bringing home as much money as he could and keeping his grades up so as not to disappoint his mother.  He had no ambitions, no expectation that life would ever get any better; he only thought of today.

But just when Huinac’s life looked bleakest, it took an unexpectedly hopeful turn.  At the suggestion of a school counselor he attended a summer program, offered by Marin Education Fund, that took low-income students on tours of college campuses and taught them how to apply for financial aid.  Huinac wound up winning a raft of grants, including one from MEF itself.  “All through high school I felt angry and there were times when I thought I should just give up because it was too much for me,” he says.  “I thought I would wind up working as a mechanic or something like that.  Being here at Dominican and the opportunities I’ve been given through Marin Education Fund has changed me.  Now I see what I can do.”

Gloria and Carlos are still juggling multiple jobs, but they’re both earning more these days.  Gloria supplements her income by selling her homemade tamales to friends and neighbors.  Carlos now has his own gardening business.  And they stretch their earnings by sharing one bedroom with their son and renting out the second bedroom.  But they still live under the cloud of illegality.  “I’m a little scared because I still don’t have a license to drive,” says Carlos.  “If I get caught, I could lose my truck.”  Gloria dreams wistfully of someday returning to Guatemala.  

“As beautiful as it can be here, it is also very sad,” she says.  “I came here searching for the American dream.  The problem is, the reality is not the same as your expectations.  You find discrimination.  And when you’re not documented, you don’t have any rights. If there was an amnesty program, I would definitely want to stay.  And if I could become a citizen, absolutely!  Because then I could buy a house.  I would be stable.  That would be absolutely beautiful.”

Gloria and Carlos are pseudonyms.  Gloria’s Spanish was translated by Jessuina Perez-Teran, founder and organizer of Marin Tenants Union.