July 23, 2007

Living in the shadows: An illegal immigrant tells what life is like and why he’s going home

Posted by D.A. King at 12:00 pm - Email the author   Print This Post Print This Post  

This is an excellent news piece…the reporter should be praised for actually being fair and balanced.

From the Gainesville (Georgia) Times

Living in the shadows: An illegal immigrant tells what life is like and why he’s going home

Leonardo has a wife, a steady job and money in the bank. Leonardo also has a secret: He is in the United States illegally.

The slender, 29-year-old Mexican national with slick black hair, a thin mustache and liquid green eyes crossed the border with the help of smugglers in 2005. He joined family already in Gainesville. He has lived here since, avoiding detection through fake documents and a quiet life.

Leonardo agreed to talk with The Times because he wants others to know “hard” truths he said many Mexicans who consider coming to America never hear.

For the newspaper, the source identified here by part of his name offers a glimpse into the shadow lives of thousands of Hall County residents. Questions about illegal immigrants crop up daily in a community where a quarter of the population is Hispanic and a fifth is foreign-born, according to 2005 Census Bureau estimates.

The wave of immigration, legal and not, that flooded Hall in the late 1980s and ’90s was stirred by poultry industry jobs but quickly spilled into all corners of the market. On the stretch of Atlanta Highway called “Little Mexico,” El Expresso bus company is advertising four destinations: Mexico, Florida, Texas and Gainesville.

The topic of illegal immigration recently became more toxic as the U.S. Senate tried and failed to pass reform legislation pressed by President Bush.

The president reaffirmed his support this week for a guest-worker program and a path toward citizenship for the country’s some 12 million illegal immigrants.

In Georgia, debate ramped up as new state laws reinforcing federal restrictions kicked in three weeks ago. Worried immigrants hoarded money and considered moving. One newspaper reported a drop in car sales from new vehicle registration requirements targeting an illegal immigrant population estimated at 470,000, most from Mexico.

Hall County’s share of people living without documents is anyone’s guess. But the widespread belief is there are thousands more than can be inferred from census figures, which do not address legal status.

Leonardo, a gentle, polite man with imperfect English, does not speak for them all.

But he is willing to speak.

Why did you come here?

Family and finances.

Leonardo was living in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, with his parents, sister and two brothers when a 1994 economic collapse blamed on former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari sent interest rates and product prices soaring nationwide.

Leonardo said his father left his small meat market and restaurant for America. “He said, ‘I need to make some money, because right now it’s too hard over here.’ He tell me, “I’m gonna stay over there probably two, three years.'”

Leonardo, 17 and the oldest son, quit school to work and help support the family. He got a job at his uncle’s tire shop and later worked part-time in security at concerts.

Life in the U.S. proved harder than expected for his father, however. Then in Gainesville, he asked Leonardo to come.

Leonardo said no. He cited his father’s promise to return.

But in 1998, Leonardo’s mother left for America with his brothers. His sister followed a year later. All crossed the border illegally.

Leonardo stayed in the family’s four-bedroom home, paying utilities but not realizing there also was a mortgage. A telephone call from the bank telling him and his new wife the house had been sold “(hit) me like a hammer on the head,” Leonardo said softly.

In about 2003, his wife said she thought they needed to go to America so that Leonardo, now back on speaking terms with his father, could see his family. He balked at first, but later agreed.

He and his wife tried unsuccessfully to get a passport. Leonardo said he told the U.S. Consulate General office he wanted to vacation in America. An unfriendly staff questioned him harder.

He walked out, losing about 1,000 pesos, or about $100, in the process.

“We left the office very upset. We said, ‘Well, we tried for the good way.’ They make it hard anyway.”

Leonardo is clear, though, that need did not drive him from Mexico. Unlike some coming from the country’s poor rural areas, he lived in a large city where there were “a lot of opportunities.”

“We not die for lack of money or anything like that. … We got our problems, but you still can … make a good life over there. It takes a little bit longer, but you can make a good life over there.”

Still, they came.

How did you cross the U.S. border?

In January 2005, he and his wife left by bus for the border. The trip north took 2´ days.

Leonardo’s father had arranged the crossing through “coyotes,” or smugglers. He gave his son few details.

Leonardo had a phone number and directions to stay in a rundown hotel in the Mexican border town of Nogales. The area is rife with drugs and crime, he said. He and his wife were scared.

“We talked about coming back,” he said, a slight smile on his face.

A woman contacted them the next morning. That evening, smugglers shuffled took them to another house. It had a bathroom but no running water. Others arrived. They were told they would walk across the border that night. It would take 30 minutes.

It took all night.

They had no flashlights, food or water. Leonardo was robbed at knife point. He couldn’t see the thief’s face. He handed over 30 pesos and bolted.

He and his wife stumbled with the group through the rugged, cold desert, dodging border patrol agents. By night’s end, he was half-carrying her.

They stayed in the woods and a private barn the following day. Next came a human shell game: Coyotes moved them among six cars and a handful of houses.

Three days later in Arizona, he and his wife joined about eight other immigrants in a Ford Windstar minivan. It carried them to Indianapolis, then North Carolina and finally Gainesville.

For secrecy’s sake, “I stayed on the floor the whole way,” Leonardo said.

He remembers occasionally asking on the cross-country ride, “It’s pretty close now?”

The driver’s answer: “No, not yet.”

How do you justify living here illegally?

“That’s hard to say,” Leonardo said, pausing to think, and finally acknowledging, “I can’t do that. …

“The only thing I can say is I been here for two years and a half and I’m trying to do good things. I mean, respect the law.”

He paid about $75 each for a false Social Security number and card, and an identification card. Both are critical to finding work. Finding someone to supply such documents apparently is not hard in Gainesville. Others tell whom to call, Leonardo said.

He drives but he does not have a fake driver’s license. He reasons that if caught behind the wheel, it is better if he does not also face a charge of driving with illegal documents. His father, he said, has a license and carries insurance on the vehicle.

Read the rest here…