An immigrant’s tale
There are 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Some surely deserve a reasonable path to citizenship.
An embroidered lace curtain hangs from the window, concealing the six illegal immigrants inside. Painted a mild yellow and surrounded by plastic tricycles and Tonka toys, Naomi Cruz’s house is ground zero in the culture wars. (The family’s names have been changed to protect their anonymity.)
When federal agents deported Cruz’s parents, she followed them into exile. Cruz is back now, and she has children who could face the exact same exile.
Cruz, 28, lives in a medium-sized, two-bedroom house with a small green lawn in east Reno. It’s a throwback to the late ‘70s when the idea of a yellow house with green trim still seemed smart. Visitors must sidestep the children’s’ toys.
Two knocks on the door and Cruz’s sister Jessica opens it.
It’s a quick right turn to settle on a comfy old couch. Cruz’s young sons and Jessica’s toddler bounce and giggle their way into a bedroom. They already know it’s not polite to be informal around a stranger.
Cruz emerges from the super-clean kitchen and walks across the front room’s thick rugs to shake hands. She’s tall and elegant, with a square face and straight black hair.
“It’s nice to finally meet you,” she says.
She’s confident, her English is very good, and she dresses like a typical middle-class American woman. Most people would assume Cruz was well-established in Reno, in Nevada, and in the United States.
In actuality, Cruz is one of the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. They form large parts of important and unglamorous industries like farming, construction and cleaning. Cruz works as an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant. Other illegal immigrants work in day care centers and in packing plants. They are everywhere.
While Cruz comes from the outskirts of Guanajuato, capital of the state of Guanajuato, most illegal immigrants are from rural Latin America. Many come from towns with unpaved roads and nonexistent high schools. Many rural areas in Mexico and other Latin American countries lack development.
The general dearth of opportunity and official corruption in many Latin American governments drives Latinos north regardless of the danger. Cruz, who hired a smuggler, or “coyote,” to sneak her into the United States in November 2003, was locked in mysterious rooms and sexually harassed by the coyote. “The coyote, he would make kissing faces at me,” she said. “Even in front of his wife.”
She was lucky in comparison to her companions. While Cruz crossed the border in the comfort of a car’s front seat, the migrants who couldn’t speak English were stuffed into the trunk of the coyote’s car.
Cruz’s sister had an even more difficult journey. She walked across the desert for two days armed with only Kool-Aid packets and a hand-drawn map.
“You mix the Kool-Aid with the water from cattle troughs,” Cruz said. “The map has where the farmers put the troughs.”
The journey north
Naomi had traveled to the United States before. She first came as a 12-year-old. Her parents, Diego and Fran, worked full time to support her, Jessica, her younger brother, Diego Jr., and the family’s youngest, Beth. Diego labored in a packaging factory, and Fran worked as a pit boss in a Reno casino.
Naomi rewarded them by maintaining an A average and becoming vice president of the Hispanic Club while attending a Reno high school. She mentions how, when she was a 16-year-old sophomore, the Immigration and Naturalization Service caught her parents. Diego and Fran were both illegal immigrants, and they’d both used fictitious Social Security numbers. As a result, they were convicted of using fake documents and jailed for six months. While Diego and Fran languished in jail, Cruz dropped out of school to prepare for the upcoming deportation. She and her siblings were never legally deported, but as juvenile dependents, they might as well have been. When the immigration agents took Fran and Diego back to Mexico, the rest of the family followed behind.
As she tells the story, tears roll down Cruz’s face. The tears smear her makeup as they run around her cheeks and through the creases around her mouth.
“I’m sorry to get emotional,” she says. “I was only 16 years old, and somebody took from me the opportunity to finish school. It was frustrating that someone I didn’t even know took my opportunity to succeed, but it made me stronger.”
Cruz made the decision to return to the United States after her small business collapsed. In spite of Guanajuato’s large shoe industry, Cruz’s enterprise selling soles and shoelaces failed. Customers would simply refuse to pay, and local officials, largely indifferent to small businesses, ignored her collections claims and told her to get a lawyer.
“Corruption made it so I couldn’t collect,” she says.
Cruz also had to face the reality of her children growing up in Guanajuato. It was November 2003 and Uriel, then 3, and Alexis then 6 months, had little chance to succeed.
“The economy in Mexico is very poor,” she says. “Instead of helping you [the government] puts you down. If you don’t have money, you’re a nobody.”
Cruz says she also worried about how she was going to keep her children healthy.[page]
“In Mexico, if you get sick you don’t get to make payments,” she says. “You pay for [healthcare] right now, or you lose your house, or you lose your car, or you just go to jail.”
Cruz also had smaller motivations. Scholarships for college are few and far between in her hometown of Guanajuato. Tuition at the University of Guanajuato was $130 per month. Cruz, who did much better than many workers, made $300 per month.
Student loans are expensive and hard to get. Even elementary school is pricey. In a city boasting the Centro de Investigación en Matemáticas, one of the world’s foremost mathematical institutes, children are expected to pay full price for their own books, their own uniforms and their own lunches.
Cruz indicates a professional photo portrait of her two wide-eyed sons. She paid $115 for it, or about a week and a half’s wages in Guanajuato.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that in Mexico,” she says.
Cruz gets up and walks stiffly, like a woman much older than her 28 years, to the mantelpiece and picks up a photo from Uriel’s soccer league. The tiny photo shows Uriel in a green polyester soccer uniform, grinning alongside his teammates.
“He wouldn’t have been able to play in a soccer league in Guanajuato,” she says.
Why not stay home?
What is it about Latin America that drives millions of people to abandon their homes and live as fugitives in the United States? What is it about Guanajuato that drove Naomi Cruz into the grasp of a lecherous smuggler?
The answer may exist at the University of Nevada, Reno, where associate professor of history Linda Curcio waits to explain.
In her tiny office stacked high with dusty books and random papers, Curcio, a cheerful historian specializing in Mexico, furrows her brow. The answers are not simple or clearly defined, she says. Guanajuato is a beautiful city, filled with cobblestone streets, a colonial era city core, and naturally formed mummies. The soil around Guanajuato, Curcio says, has special properties that naturally preserve about one in every 100 corpses interred in it.
“You can pretend you’ve gone back in time,” she says.
Perhaps the time-traveling extends to more than architecture and human remains. While Guanajuato has public education, there’s very little support outside of the schoolhouse. Business practices are modernizing, but like Capone’s Chicago, muscle still buys more than it should. While Mexico is clawing its way into the first world, it’s building very few safety nets along the way.
In the rural farmland surrounding Guanajuato, Mexicans have little chance to advance. The big city bureaucracy and corporate-enforced economic order of Mexico City or Monterey is missing around Guanajuato. So is the education system to support them.
Instead, privately owned farms dominate the whitish soil. Maize, dry beans and cactus pears drive their stalks up through the powdery earth. The farms bring livelihood to the Mexicans living on them, but they do not bring prosperity.
What’s the likelihood anyone could send her children to college on $300 a month?
“None,” Curcio says. “Not a chance.”
Illegal means ‘against the law’
Corinna Cohn, a conservative student activist, sits in a sandwich shop, reflecting on illegal immigration. She’s an average-sized woman with sharp features, graying hair and steady, straightforward eyes.
“Illegal immigration exists because people want to come here because it’s a great country,” she says. “It’s hard [to come here legally], but that’s no excuse for taking short cuts.”
She says she likes the idea of people coming here legally to supply the United States’ hungry labor markets, but she doesn’t want illegal aliens to get off without penalty.
“I don’t want a forgiving amnesty,” she says. “We need security background checks, a fine or penalty, and [illegal immigration] should go on their permanent record.”
The law must be respected, Cohn says.
She has other concerns, as well. Cohn, along with the majority of Americans, worries about the impact illegal immigrants have on U.S. healthcare and law enforcement.
“We don’t have any way to track them,” she says.
She’s particularly concerned about drug cartels that ship not only drugs but also people across the border every day.[page]
“That’s a security problem anytime you have people who are basically thugs,” she says.
Cohn’s concerns are warranted. The Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs estimates that a majority, as much as 90 percent, of cocaine smuggled into the United States comes through Mexico. The cartels shipping those drugs have already killed hundreds of Mexicans and engaged U.S. border agents in gun battles.
However, there’s also evidence that immigrants lower the crime rate when they move into a neighborhood. Considering their low income, immigrants are remarkably law abiding. For comparison, while they have similar income and education levels, they are incarcerated at about half the rate of African-Americans.
Illegal immigrants and their children often go without medical insurance. Because of this, many citizens believe illegal immigrants clog up emergency rooms and damage hospitals.
“Without health insurance you pretty much have to go to the emergency room,” Cohn says. “I don’t want to speculate on their legal status, but a huge percent of ER clientele are Hispanic.”
While Hispanics, and particularly illegal immigrants, are less likely to be insured than the general populace, there is little evidence to suggest they are driving hospitals out of business or are even lowering the quality of care.
The impact of illegal immigrants like Cruz on jobs is hotly debated in the United States. Many blast illegal immigrants for all sorts of economic maladies, everything from higher unemployment to lower wages.
Cohn says she thinks illegal immigrants can have a negative effect on labor, although she says that cheap labor is necessary to a healthy economy. She cites a friend who’s had difficulty running his business since he’s had to compete against other businesses that hire illegal labor.
“It puts legal workers at a disadvantage,” Cohn says.
A thin path to citizenship
Cruz’s concerns are perhaps more concrete. Her modern refrigerator and well-maintained old Jeep would be luxury items in Guanajuato. The park she drives past every day on the way to work, the public school her children attend, the prospect that her children can attend college here— these are her stakes in America.
However, the process of gaining legal status in the United States is long, expensive and uncertain. Cruz estimates it will several years and around $10,000 to get real Social Security numbers for herself and her two sons. In addition, she has to prove she’s paid her taxes and stayed clear of legal trouble.
“I think the harder it is to be legal the more [legality] is worth,” she says.
For now, she just focuses on keeping away from the police.
“I’m trying to stay away from [legal] danger because if I don’t, my children will lose the opportunity to go to college, to become legal,” she says.
Twelve years after she followed her parents back to Guanajuato, Cruz finished her General Education Degree. She received her certificate in March and is looking to take more classes at Truckee Meadows Community College.
“Getting my GED, it was like kicking the INS in the balls,” she says. “They made me drop out, but they couldn’t stop me forever.”
In spite of this, Cruz says she thinks many Hispanic immigrants come to the United States so they can take advantage of the government. She says others come just to make trouble. They are the ones making American life hard on her, Cruz says. They are the ones giving her a bad name.
Scrunching her eyebrows, she says many more people come looking for work than for crime.
“Those [hoodlums] ruin it for the rest of us and make it harder for the government to make us legal,” she says.
Cruz rejects the notion illegal immigrants make it harder for native citizens to get jobs.
“I think [employment] is about each individual,” she says. “I see people who are born here who have everything because they have a real Social Security number; they’re just too lazy to do anything with it.”
Cruz says that illegals don’t get jobs by accident.
“If we have a good job, it’s because we’ve worked our butts off,” she says. “We’re not taking jobs. There are a lot of jobs out there.”
Most economists agree with Cruz. Many say illegal immigrants make the average American a little richer each year. They still fight over the impact illegal immigrants have on the working class, though. A few experts say they hurt the working class to help the rest of us. The majority say illegal immigrants help almost everyone.
The short explanation is that for every job an illegal alien takes, they create another one. Every time Cruz buys soda pop, she creates demand for soda that wasn’t there before. Every time she gets an oil change, she creates demand for more Jiffy Lube workers.
Perhaps the irony is the consensus between Latino migrants and native citizens. Cruz, Cohn, and about 60 percent of Americans think there should be a process for illegal aliens to become citizens. Cruz, Cohn and a plurality of Americans think immigration has been good for the country. With this consensus, it’s easy for a typical native to wonder why earned citizenship and guest worker programs still flounder in the halls of Congress.
In the meantime, Naomi, Uriel and Alexis will continue to live precariously. Legally Mexican and culturally American, Cruz can only hope she doesn’t have to follow in her parents’ footsteps—again.