In '07, immigration reform was a hot-button issue for many Americans. Meanwhile, Central Oregon's Latino population was growing rapidly—prompting some to speak out against illegal immigration in the region.
Date Published: April 12, 2007
lizabeth Garcia doesn't look like a threat to national security or the American workforce. A petite, dark-haired Latina, Garcia dresses sharp, has a finance background and wears her hair in trendy pageboy style with bangs. But to some people, including many who walk the halls of Congress, she represents a threat more dire than global warming or the future of Social Security.
Garcia is an illegal immigrant and has been for the last seventeen years. She is one of a growing population of Latino immigrants, both legal and illegal that have come here looking for the jobs and the promise of a better life.
In the past 15 years Deschutes County Hispanic population has more than quadrupled from roughly 1,500 people in 1990 to more than 7,000 in 2005, according to U.S. Census numbers. Statewide there are more than 350,000 Latinos, or about one in every ten people. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that somewhere between one third and one half of them are here illegally.
That flood of immigrants is, once again, changing the face of America. Hispanics recently surpassed African Americans as the nation's largest minority group. They are also the nation's fastest growing minority. They have fueled the recent housing boom, helping to provide low cost labor and swelled the ranks of service workers, filling jobs that few other people are willing to do but that have become vital to our economy. But the fact remains, many of the workers are here in this country illegally—something that has provoked fierce debate about our nation's immigration policy.
As a nation we seem unable to decide what to do about our dependent relationship with our new neighbors. Who are these people who travel thousands of miles, sometimes risking their lives, to work some crappy job otherwise attended to by teenagers? Where do they work? Why have they caused such a stir? What is the face of illegal immigration and when did it arrive at our doorstep?
The truth is that there are a lot of factors driving immigration and that each immigrant story is unique, but there is a common theme: opportunity. In other words, the same thing that has drawn people to America for two centuries.
That's what drew Garcia, who I met at the Bend Community Center recently. It was Latina women's night and I asked her in pidgin Spanish if she would let me interview her. We agreed to meet a few days later. We met at the westside home where Garcia is housesitting for a friend.
After an hour or so, I started to piece together her story. She says that in Mexico she could not make ends meet, even with a professional job. Her mother, three brothers and two sisters all came north together seventeen years ago, first to Madras and then to Bend.
She has a driver's license, a bank account. These small conveniences mean a lot to Garcia. They signify that her life is normal. Some of her friends haven't been so lucky with bank accounts and the DMV. They keep their money in cash and face deportation if they're caught running a red light. Garcia doesn't have a fake social security card, but a few years ago she used one to get a job cleaning rooms at a hotel.
It's one of the ironies of illegal immigration that workers like Garcia are breaking federal laws to land a minimum wage job with bad hours and no benefits.
Garcia applied for citizenship five years ago, but to-date she hasn't heard anything. She has an American boyfriend but he will not agree to marry her, so she can't get a green card that way. Her niece will grow up soon and be off to school. When this happens Garcia will have to get another job. That means getting a new fake social security card, or other form of documentation. She asked me if I know of any job openings. I told her I didn't. She says most Latinos get jobs by word of mouth. I say I'll let her know if I hear anything.
The Land Of PlentyI
once drank a latte from a Starbucks in El Paso while looking through barbed wire at a shanty town in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. While Juarez may not be representative of Mexico in its entirety, there is no doubt that the US is the corn-fed cow to Mexico's scavenging hyena.
"This is the land of opportunity," said Joel Garibay a forty-three year old from Jalisco, Mexico. "Americans don't realize how many doors are opened to them."
Garibay is one of the lucky ones. A former illegal immigrant, Joel received his citizenship in 2004 and now works for the state. Growing up, Garibay was one of 14 children. His father made saddles at home for riding horses.
"There was almost never enough food on the table to feed all the kids," says Garibay. "It was rough."
Most Latino immigrants in Bend are Mexican and most of those are from the Mexican states of Michoacan and Jalisco. The minimum wage in those Mexican states ranges from 47.6 and 49 pesos per day. That's between $1,093 and $1,161 annually—if you can find a job. As of January 1, 2007 Oregon's minimum wage is $7.80/hour - the equivalent of $16,536 annually.
For Carolina and Juan, who agreed to be identified by their first names, America is a place to get ahead. They met in Tijuana and plan to go back there as soon as they have enough money to build a house and start a business. "Mexico feels free, it feels like a home," says Carolina. But America in general, and Central Oregon in particular, is a place to build a nest egg.
In Bend's fast growing service economy, jobs are as plentiful as latte cups on Wall Street. That's why immigrants are coming to Central Oregon.
For the last five years, Bend's unemployment rate has been hitting record lows. Steve Williams, a regional economist with the Oregon employment department, said that the tightest labor market on record in Central Oregon was in 2006, which averaged only a 4.5% unemployment rate. That is nearly half of what the unemployment rate was in 1992. Translation: People who are able and willing can find work in Central Oregon's booming (construction and service) economy.
"When we went through this past recession, which was in 2001, growth slowed," said Williams, "but we never lost jobs. Then in 2004, 2005, 2006 we've grown tremendously which has led to a really tight labor market. In October the unemployment rate was 3.5% . That was very low; that's the easiest way to say it."
Whether in construction, food service, or something else, Latinos fill open jobs in a labor-short economy.
"There's not a drywaller in town that doesn't have an illegal working for him," said Dan Rutherford of Rutherford Construction. "The prices are so low the only way to make money in town is to hire an illegal."
According to the U.S. Labor Department 81% of foreign-born Latinos filled jobs that do not require higher education.
Rutherford says that he personally has never hired a Latino worker, but Latinos are still finding work.
No one readily admits it, but restaurants and construction sites that hire Latinos are full of fake documents.
Take the case this past December when meatpacking plants in six states were raided in one day and hundreds of workers were arrested for immigration violations. Those arrested also face charges of identity theft for the use of pilfered social security numbers.
Or there's the incident last month when the owner and three managers of the textile factory Michael Bianco, Inc., were arrested for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, and for providing them with information on where to obtain fake documents. The workers themselves, also arrested, had been—among other things—sewing backpacks and vests for U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fake social security cards can be bought in some small town near Salem (I never got the actual address) for $150. Several sources said the card passes for the real thing.
"This is common," said Brad Porterfield, executive director of Bend's Latino Community Association. "By the time most illegal immigrants make it to Central Oregon," says Porterfield, "they have some sort of documentation."
All of this comes down to the fact that America is a bountiful country and poverty is a powerful incentive for overcoming obstacles.
Immigration Vs. InvasionC
laudio Prieto was a lawyer in Mexico before she followed her husband to the United States. The two now work together at a local fast food restaurant where he's a manager and she takes and fills orders. Miguel, Claudia's husband, came to the United States from Mexico in 1985. He started out at a dishwasher at T.G.I. Fridays in California, learned English, worked hard, dedicated himself to his employers and worked his way up. He prides himself on being honest and trustworthy.
Miguel Prieto believes in the American dream.
"I think it's safe here if you are a really good worker," he said. "If they can see you really want to be here. That's why I feel free. I feel safe."
Miguel is accommodating, generous, Christian, and family oriented. It would be difficult to find a better exemplar of the good American citizen. Still, not everyone is happy that the Prietos have found a way to live their dream.
"The fact of the matter is that, in a literal sense, we've been invaded," says Jim Ludwick, co-founder of Oregonians for Immigration Reform.
Ludwick has two major concerns about the increase in illegal immigrants in the United States. The first is population control. "In the broadest sense, our present immigration levels of 2 million per year will eventually have terrible effects on us environmentally, socially, economically, all aspects of life," he says.
The second concern is about the rise in cheap labor and increase in government aid, which he says ultimately undermines the American tax base and threatens sustainable wages for legal Americans.
Ludwick is a sixty-six year old firecracker who rails on Republicans and Democrats alike, and what he calls Big Business and Big Government.
"The primary duty of our American government is to protect our borders," Ludwick says, "but you would think their job is to provide big businesses with cheap labor."
Ludwick hates newspaper reporters who did just what I did: kick off with a profile of a nice Latino person who is trying to work within the system, but can't catch a break. Ludwick doesn't doubt that there are good, hard working Latinos out there, maybe even a majority. His point is that in cumulative numbers, the increase in the demographic could be catastrophic.
Ludwick, a retired pharmaceutical salesman and cattle rancher turned activist, is the type of increasingly rare American to which you cannot assign political affiliation in the first few minutes of conversation. He calls Bush an elitist, and was simultaneously fired up about liberals funneling people into cycles of government dependency. Clearly, the man is a middle class defender to the death. But he isn't angry. In fact, he laughed a lot on the phone. You can't help but like him.
"I tell all the reporters the same thing," he said. "I tell them the truth. You don't have to bend it."
He never divulged what party he belonged to, but pointed out that members of his group are evenly split. One third are dems, one third are republicans and one third are independents.
Ludwick has a point when he says illegal immigrants drive down wages for native-born Americans. Common sense says that flooding the market with cheap labor will bring down, or at least hold down, wages. These drops typically affect low-skilled, uneducated workers the most.
The drywallers mentioned earlier are a good example. From 2003 to 2006 average wages for drywallers have increased by 3.2%, according to surveys taken by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. Inflation in the same amount of time has risen 9.14%. Essentially this means that the average drywaller is less wealthy (in terms of purchasing power) than he was four years ago. This is surprising in the booming Central Oregon building climate, particularly with the low unemployment rate.
There are many factors that influence wage levels; an increase in workers is only one of them. This is why trying to calculate the actual effect of immigration on the United States is so difficult—real numbers and real information are difficult to tweeze out.
Deportation and Other TroublesT
he Deschutes County jail turned 85 people over to the direct custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2006. ICE, as it is better known, is the post-9-11 branch of the Homeland Security Department in charge of immigration enforcement. Brad Porterfield of the Latino Community Association says their non-profit gets at least a call a week from people whose relatives or friends have been picked up and face deportation.
"What is really important and what I hope you'll include," he tells me, "is who gets left behind." Porterfield says that most of their clients get picked up for things as small as running a red signal, having a burned out headlight, or getting into a car accident. Whether carrying fake ID or driving without a license, small incidents quickly turn into life changes for illegal immigrants. Typically men are picked up, meaning that wives and children are left behind.
"I mean, just imagine. The cases I know are of people who are basically left with no spouse. You wouldn't have income. All of a sudden you can't pay your bills. You can't pay your rent. So you're faced with eviction. And most people choose to stay. You have to ask, what is going to happen to them?"
The fear of deportation is real among the illegal community. Last May a rumor that ICE was sweeping through Bend caused most of the illegal community to stay inside for three days. One illegal immigrant whom I met in the course of reporting this story, says that he is scared to take a day off to celebrate his wedding because his boss threatens him with deportation.
The challenges extend beyond the workplace. Despite calling America home, many immigrants remain on the outskirts of society due to language and cultural barriers.
Porterfield says that the Center gets calls all the time from people who don't understand lease agreements. Others need to go to the dentist, but don't know how they'll find someone who speaks Spanish.
An Evening At the Latino Community AssociationI
t's six o'clock on a Tuesday night and forty people have gathered in the Bend Community Center. They sit at fold-out tables, hunched over a drawing of the inside of a house. On the paper, items are labeled: table, chair, television. There is instant hot chocolate and cookies on a table against the wall, sitting in wait for the break-time, but at 6:16 pm everyone looks serious and listens to David Shimek, the teacher in front, who is explaining how to ask for things at the store.
This is the English class for many Latino immigrants, hosted by the Latino Community Association. Twice a week, for two hours they gather to learn how to integrate into their new community. Child care is available.
In the same room, but on the other side of a drawn periphery curtain, thirteen kids—babies to teenagers—are trying to keep themselves entertained. I sit with the group of kids and play Sorry!, a four-man board game. All the kids speak English beautifully. When they switch to Spanish I try to tune in, but slang and rapidity make it virtually impossible for me to understand. No comprendo. Occasionally one of the kids will chime in and translate for me, it comes easily for them. They do it all the time.
Yolanda Villagra, another babysitter, is holding a one-month old baby with the darkest, thickest shock of hair I've ever seen. Gladys Brown, the head sitter, deals with Alexandra, an adorable little dark haired she-devil who has spilled glue on a group of puzzle pieces.
When the kids are occupied, Gladys, Yolanda and I sit together and gossip. I'm getting married in June and they ask about my dress, my shoes, how I'm going to wear my hair, whether I want to have kids. Gladys is from Peru and talks sometimes about Lima. Yolanda is from Paraguay. Both are legal immigrants, and help out at the Community Center when and where they can.
Yolanda remembers a time, twenty years ago, when she says there were only three Spanish speakers in Bend. Now there are lots, she says, which is good for her. It gives her a chance to speak her native language to her friends.
With the women's air of internationality and the kids constant language shifting, this is the most diverse room I've been in since I moved to Bend. The Latino Community Association is a fun place to be. Like the basement of a church after Sunday mass, we mill around the dusty room, eating cookies and playing board games. It's the low-cost comfort of community. I'm struck by the thought that the rhetoric around immigration doesn't reflect the scene and the faces of these kids laughing around the table.
The problem with trying to have a conversation about illegal immigration is that two different ideals are at odds with one another. One is that a country has a right to protect its borders and its workforce. The other is that people shouldn't have to live crappy lives, or better: that it doesn't seem criminal to try to give a better life to your children.
In fact, leaving a home for the promise of a better life is pretty much the constant theme of American culture, and certainly one that should resonate with the American West.
In the meantime, the Oregon legislature will duke it out over in-state tuition for illegal kids who graduate from Oregon high schools. They'll consider naming English as Oregon's official language; and they'll figure out whether or not to require proof of legal status before giving drivers licenses. On a national level, Congress will hem and haw over Bush's guest worker program and about the rights of self-appointed militiamen on the Texas border.
For the average Bendite, for lots of reasons, I suggest brushing up on your Spanish.