The immigrant gap

Men and women from Mexico contribute to American society and want to be legal citizens, but it’s not as simple as sneaking across the border.

Ricardo Higareda began his life in the United States as an illegal immigrant. He is now a U.S. citizen and owns the La Michoacana restaurant in Reno.

Ricardo Higareda began his life in the United States as an illegal immigrant. He is now a U.S. citizen and owns the La Michoacana restaurant in Reno.

It’s breakfast time in the La Michoacana restaurant on South Virginia Street. The ristorante is well lit and brightly decorated with sarapes, a mural depicting Mexican workers and other ephemera. Loud música ranchera is playing overhead.

Owner Ricardo Higareda pulls up outside, opening the car door for his wife and daughter. He wears a silk warm-up jacket emblazoned with the name of his business and sports a green ball cap. His moustache is dark, bushy and long, a little reminiscent of Emiliano Zapata’s.

He sits down in the tan booth and starts to tell the story of how he became a U.S. citizen.

“When I first came across, I was 17. I’m 46 now. In the beginning, I was back and forth over the border all the time. After a while I decided to establish myself here and stay.”

The restaurateur speaks in measured tones, appearing humble, proud and thankful for what he has accomplished here. He originally hails from a city of 200,000 called Sahuayo, in the Mexican state of Michoacan. The last time he illegally crossed the border was more than 20 years ago, and he says illegally entering the country didn’t have the infamy that it does now.

“I remember that I paid $200. I crossed many times illegally. It is much more difficult and dangerous to cross now.”

Higareda, or Don Ricardo, as he’s known by Reno’s Hispanic population, is a success story. He, like many folks, came to this country hoping for something better than he had at home. And while he’s one of a kind, he’s also one in a million, since most illegal immigrants in the United States come from Mexico.

There are many contextual statistics to illustrate illegal immigration to America.

• According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, there were 3.5 million illegal immigrants from Mexico in 1990. That number doubled to 7 million by 2000. El Salvador, the country that sends the second-highest number of illegal immigrants, sent only 189,000 people in 2000.

• In 1999 alone, the total number of illegal aliens who entered the country was 968,000, but a porous border allows two-way traffic, and 456,000 also left—a gain of 512,000 in one year.

• The number drops over the long term. The INS says that only 150,000 Mexican illegals settle permanently in the United States annually.

• There are costs. The Migration Policy Institute claimed in February 2001 that immigrants send $6 to $8 billion to Mexico every year. There are also the social costs: The Federation for Immigration Reform claims illegal immigrants cost this country $32.74 billion for such things as education, food stamps, prisons and Social Security, while paying only $12.6 billion in taxes.

But, statistics can be made to say anything the statistician wants. The fact is, immigrants, illegal and legal, are human beings, and the only way to get at the truth of the matter is to talk to them.

Look around. Chances are you see illegal and legal immigrants every day. They wait on you in restaurants; they mow your lawns; they’re raising children down the street; your doctor may have come from someplace else. You may even be an illegal alien yourself.

According to Kate Berry, a University of Nevada, Reno professor who’s conducting a study on Latino businesses in the Truckee Meadows, it’s drive that separates many businesses owned by Latinos from their counterparts.

“My sense, after conducting more than 150 interviews with local Latino business owners, is that these are people who are entrepreneurs and committed to making their businesses happen,” she says.

She added that the majority of the 500 businesses identified as Latino-owned are service based—landscaping, restaurant and maid services—but she also found professionals such as dentists, doctors and lawyers.

“They are very innovative in how they organize and run their businesses, and they’re willing to diversify. It’s clear that they are very absorbed in what it is they’re doing, and they dedicate a lot of time and interest.”

Lupe and Rosita: Illegal for now
Lupe is a 24-year-old Mexican woman from Guadalajara, the second-largest city in Mexico. She’s accompanied by her 5-year-old daughter, Rosita. Lupe and Rosita are illegal immigrants, brand new to the United States, having crossed the border less than two months ago.

Lupe doesn’t look any different for her illegal status, but she does exude an air of apprehension; she undoubtedly knows the INS would love to get its hands on her. Her daughter is shy and stays close to mama.

The two came across the border near Tijuana. Her husband, who’s been here nearly three years, paid an immigrant smuggler $3,500 to bring his family across the border. The smuggler, known in Spanish as a coyote, was a woman.

“We crossed during the day,” she says. “I would have been more afraid if I’d crossed with a male coyote, but since we came with a woman, I was calmer. It was still scary.”

Lupe speaks little English, unlike her husband. He works as a waiter and has spent all of his time in the United States in Reno.

“He came up first because there is no work in Mexico,” she says. “He would send money back to us every month. I came up to be with him. Three years is a long time to not see your husband. I think it’s good here; there’s a lot of work.”

They live with a brother-in-law. It’s crowded, but being around family in this foreign place helps make them feel less isolated. She says she stays in the house most of the time.

“I’m afraid of the police,” she says. “I also worry that someone will report us. It’s been known to happen.”

If two people are up for the same job, sometimes one will call the INS to cut down on the competition. Lupe has no false papers, and she says she doesn’t know where to get them.

Many who come to the United States from Mexico to work do so only to earn money and then return home. Lupe says she has higher aspirations.

“We want to stay here,” she says. “With time, if it’s possible, my husband and I would like to become citizens, our daughter, too. I’m not working now; my main concern is taking care of my daughter, but I’d be willing to [work].”

Rosita has been listening to the conversation. She buries her face in her mother’s cotton dress.

"[Rosita] likes it more in Mexico,” her mother says. “She really misses her grandparents. They’ve had passports, but they’ve only been to L.A. to visit and not for a while.”

Ricardo Higareda works alongside Carlos Iberra in the La Michoacana restaurant. Hard work is a key to his success.

When George W. Bush made his controversial speech on Jan. 7 about changing the United States’ immigration policy, there was a collective breath drawn by illegals across the nation.

“The citizenship line … is too long, and our current limits on legal immigration are too low,” the president said in the speech from the East Room at the White House. “My administration will work with the Congress to increase the annual number of green cards that can lead to citizenship.”

These changes would allow workers from Mexico to enter the United States if they have jobs waiting for them. Democrats and Republicans have criticized the president for proposing principles instead of legislation and cynically postulate that this announcement is an effort to curry political favor with Hispanics—a potent political force, particularly in key states like Florida, California and the states that border Mexico.

The immigration law changes are on Lupe’s mind. Indeed the possibility is on the minds of both those who would support reform and those who think the borders should be closed—American companies should not be able to pay less than a living wage to someone, just because they come from desperate circumstances.

“It will be a while before they could even put Bush’s plan into action,” she says. “He still needs to talk with Congress, and, of course, they’ll change it. But it’s a good idea.”

Cesar: preparing for citizenship
Cesar is wearing a leather jacket and jeans in the coffee shop of a local bookstore. He’s of medium height, clean shaven and has dark, close-cropped hair. He looks to be in his late 20s to early 30s. He’s a straight shooter and not afraid to talk. Of course, due to his status as an illegal, he’ll keep his surname to himself.

“I come from the capital of Mexico,” he begins. “I’ve been here in the United States for over 10 years now and in Reno for more than three years.”

Cesar crossed into the United States near Tijuana. The border crossing is the dangerous beginning to most illegal immigrations into the states.

Last year, nearly 100 people died while crossing into Arizona through the Sonoran desert, where treacherous terrain and summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees. According to the Bureau of Customs and Immigration Services, there were 320 deaths along the whole of the nation’s southwest border in 2002. That was down from 336 in 2001.

“I chose not to pay a coyote to get me across,” he says. “It’s robbery and a danger to your life when these people see you as merchandise, as a business, instead of as someone to help. I tried three times in one week, but I was not able to cross until the third. The first time I couldn’t make it; I became tired and had to sleep on a hill, in the open air, in the cold. The second time, the Border Patrol found us and didn’t let me pass. The first two times, I went with others. The third time, I went alone, and made it, walking more than three hours.”

Cesar’s distrust of coyotes is not unfounded: Last year, a truckload of immigrants was discovered in a trailer abandoned at a truck stop in Victoria, 100 miles southwest of Houston. Seventeen people died at the scene, and two others succumbed later.

Cesar has had a variety of jobs since crossing into the States. He says the key, in the beginning at least, is finding work that doesn’t require strong English skills.

“When I first arrived, I took whatever I could find, which was usually landscaping and gardening,” he says. “Later, I worked in construction, putting up fences. I’ve also done factory work and warehouse work. It didn’t matter that I spoke poor English back then because I was willing to work hard.”

Cesar now does occasional maintenance at an apartment complex and buses tables at two local restaurants.

Since entering the United States, Cesar hasn’t returned to Mexico.

“My original plan was to come and leave better economically. I got a job and told myself, ‘Maybe this will work; maybe I’ll be able to return quickly.’ But when I got my first check, and after observing this country and the progress here, I changed my mind and decided to stay. My whole family lives here now. When I was gone, I missed them, so I told them about what was up here, and they came as well. I do miss my country, and I’d like to return to visit, but not without the ability to come back into the U.S.”

“When I came over, there was a lot of unemployment in Mexico. It was hard to get ahead even though I had studied and prepared. I did my bachillerato (higher secondary-education course) at the National School’s College of Sciences and Humanities in Mexico City. I couldn’t go to the university there because the university is expensive. I wanted to come to the U.S. because everyone said it was the place where anyone who makes the effort can get ahead. So that was always my mentality, to come here to enjoy, progress, and take advantage of the opportunities available in this country.”

Cesar says there are two kinds of people who cross the border to work illegally: those doing it for the money and those doing it to make money and to escape repression.

“Fifty percent come just to make money. The other half makes money and stays. Why do they want to stay? Well, the people of Central America have political problems, persecution, death threats, and the people of Mexico come because at home there’s no progress, no work, no opportunities.”

Cesar believes he has been a good member of American society. He has never accepted public assistance. He’s never skipped out on bills. He’s learned English to better fit into this culture. He’s made American friends. He pays taxes. He wants to call this country his own.

“I know that I deserve citizenship,” he says. “I’m studying and preparing, and know that I, like many other striving immigrants, deserve to progress at work, to be a good supervisor in a factory, a good manager in a restaurant, to be a man who can open his own business. For all these reasons, I want to be a citizen of this country. A big part of my life has been dedicated to this country, and I think I deserve it.”

Cesar pulls out his wallet and flips out a photo of his son.

“The most important thing to me is the education of my child. I want to make that one thing clear, because it’s clear in my mind, in my life and in my heart. I have a son. I don’t want a country for my son; I want my son for this country. [I would be happy] if I could have just one good job instead of three, but I know it’s worth it. It will all be worth it, if he becomes a good man for the country. Someday, he’s going to be a good doctor or a good engineer, and I’m going to work hard so that he can be a professional person.”

Cesar expressed mixed emotions about the immigration law changes proposed by the former governor of Texas. He admires Bush as a president and as an American citizen but thinks the laws need to be more expansive. He worries that the temporary work permits will bring in new workers from Mexico who haven’t struggled like he has and may push the illegal population out of some jobs. A general amnesty is due, he asserts, for all those who have lived here for at least 10 years and who have been productive, though illegal, workers in our society.

“I want the congressmen, both Latino and white, to remember that we’ve made our lives in this country; we’ve adapted to this culture. I have a few relatives in Mexico, but no house, no land, not even a bank account there.”

Back in the restaurant, La Michoacana, Ricardo Higareda remembers the days when he first arrived. When he first got here almost 30 years ago, Higareda lived all over California, working wherever he could.

“I sometimes lived near L.A., but I’d be out a lot in the fields,” he says. “I harvested onions, avocados, tomatoes, berries, cauliflower. Later, I began working in restaurants all over. I’ve done about every job there is to do in a restaurant.”

He didn’t come to America for any deeper reason than a young man’s desire to see places in the world that he hadn’t seen. As he grew older and began wanting something more than just a paycheck, his attitude began to change. Then he married, started a family, and he began to want more than just hand-to-mouth survival in Mexico.

“The first intention of those who come here is to make money, save some up and start a business in Mexico. After a while, you realize that it’s difficult because you can’t save as much as you’ll need. After realizing this, I began to see that there are more possibilities here to survive and live in a more honest fashion, and it makes you change your perspective. Often you will decide to stay here forever in this country.”

He opened his restaurant in Reno because of the area’s growing Latin population. The work is hard, but his nascent business flourishes—customers often form a long line at mealtimes. Higareda has yet another perspective on the possibility of loosening up the laws against foreign citizens who work illegally in the United States.

“If these and more changes are brought to bear, it will be fabulous because it will give opportunity to many who are working illegally in this country and who would love to have a legal status and be able to work and feel free to express themselves. I have a lot of hope that these changes will come through.”

Unlike many Americans who can trace their family’s citizenship back to the Mayflower or the potato famine or to the depths of geologic history, Higareda believes American citizenship is a goal that everyone should be able to strive for. Still, he expresses the mixed emotions that come when surrendering allegiance from one country to another.

“I’m a citizen now, gracias a Dios (thanks to God)," he says. "I’ve been one for 17 years. I have conflicting emotions about this because I was born in Mexico, and I love it there. My parents and relatives live there. But I feel that here in this country, I’ve been given a lot, and I’m learning to love it. Two of my children were born in Mexico, and now they’re citizens here as well, and we have another four children who were born here. They’re all citizens. In the future, my wife plans to take the test as well and get her citizenship."