- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

Francisco Gomez wants to play by the rules to become a U.S. citizen, but he says it’s been nearly impossible.

The 25-year-old Colombian came to the United States on a student visa in 2000 and graduated from George Mason University in 2004.

He stayed in Northern Virginia until last summer under a provision of U.S. law that allows immigrant students to work for one year after they graduate.

In August, he flew back to Bogota, unsure whether he would return to the United States because, he says, it was too hard to be a legal immigrant in America.

“You have people coming here and doing everything right, and every day it gets harder. It’s crazy,” Mr. Gomez says. “It’s like the government is telling you: It’s not worth it to be legal; it’s not worth it to do things right.”

He is not alone in his frustration. For years, many immigrants to the United States have said that the system rewards those who enter the country illegally and punishes those who try to follow the law.

Opinions on immigration reform among Hispanics in the Washington metropolitan area are divided, in part, by whether an immigrant is from Central America or South America, according to interviews conducted by The Washington Times.

Many Central Americans who came to the United States — legally or illegally — hold pro-immigrant views and want the U.S. government to work toward legalizing aliens already in the country.

But many South Americans and Cubans who are in the United States legally are frustrated, to varying degrees, with the difficulties faced by immigrants who want to legally enter the country. They lean toward regulating the border more closely.

In December, the House passed an immigration-enforcement bill that required checking workers’ Social Security numbers and included an amendment authorizing construction of a wall along portions of the U.S.-Mexico border. But the bill faces a rough ride in the Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is working on a separate bill to enhance border-security measures while also providing some sort of guest-worker program. It is not clear whether the bill will require illegal aliens to return to their country of origin before participating in the guest-worker program. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, has promised to start the Senate floor debate at the end of this month.

‘A torrential flow’

Before Mr. Gomez returned to Bogota last summer, he had been waiting for his green card, or naturalization card, which can take several years to obtain. In the meantime, his only option for staying in the United States legally was to go to graduate school.

But if Mr. Gomez wanted to have the freedom to go home at any time while he was in school, he needed a new student visa because his old one was expiring. To get that, he had to go back to Bogota.

“I’m either locked in the U.S. legally as long as I’m here with a student visa, or I go back home and I can go anywhere I want,” Mr. Gomez says. “I’m not going to just stay here and not be able to go visit my parents like I’m some sort of prisoner.”

But he put his chances of getting a visa from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota at 50 percent, saying the officials there issue the visas almost arbitrarily.

“They call you, and if they like you, they give you a visa, and if they don’t like you, they don’t give you a visa. It’s sad, but it’s true,” Mr. Gomez says.

Meanwhile, he hears about illegal aliens streaming across the U.S.-Mexico border every day in what Mr. Frist has called “a torrential flow.”

“You’re getting somebody who can give something back to society, and you don’t want him here? While you’ve got people coming illegally? I’m not saying they don’t have the right. I’m saying it doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Gomez says.

Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are about 17 million foreign-born Hispanics in the United States, or about 41 percent of the 41.1 million Hispanics in the country.

Of the estimated 10.3 million illegal aliens in the United States, about 7.8 million are Hispanic, Mr. Passel says. That means 46 percent of all Hispanic immigrants are illegal.

In the Washington area, nearly 68 percent of the Hispanic population, which numbers about 660,000, is foreign-born, he says. Of those who are foreign-born, about 280,000 — or 62 percent — are illegal.

The highest number of illegal aliens are in California and Texas, but since the mid-1990s, the most rapid growth of illegal aliens has occurred in “new settlement areas,” including Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, according to a report released in March 2005 by Pew.

Not monolithic

Many immigrants from Central America are in favor of pro-immigrant U.S. policies, even if they did come to the U.S. legally.

Gustavo Velasquez, 32, came to the United States from Mexico in 1996 on a student visa. He married a U.S. citizen, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and now works for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams as the director of the Office of Latino Affairs.

“What you have in the United States, you have here the most vibrant economic society, and that means a lot of jobs that can accommodate everybody, so we Mexicans, or Latin Americans … come here to work the jobs that other people wouldn’t take,” Mr. Velasquez says.

“The U.S., with its anti-immigration policies, is punishing us when we come here, and we give in return much more than we receive. We clean the hotels and the buildings, we build the homes and the offices, we serve the food in expensive restaurants, in return for living in fear, with extremely low wages, with very little rights,” he says. “But we’re just doing what the rest of people do, making a living, and in very difficult circumstances.”

While attitudes about immigration differ between Central and South Americans, this distinction is not often made in policy discussions.

Immigration specialist Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank, says the idea of a monolithic Hispanic culture is more political construct than reality.

“We have created a thing called the Latino or Hispanic. … It’s an artifice,” Mr. Papademetriou says. “I do not believe there is solidarity across ethnic groups within the Latino community.”

Lenny Campello, 44, emigrated from Cuba in 1971 with his parents as political refugees. The retired U.S. naval officer, who owns two art galleries in the Washington area, says, “It’s always interesting how Mexicans become Hispanics when it’s convenient to them.”

Mr. Campello says that when Mexicans need political leverage on immigration issues, they align themselves with other Hispanic groups, but the political unity is not heartfelt.

He acknowledges that “there is an agricultural and working need for [illegal aliens], so it’s not an easy problem,” but says aliens put “a strain on the system” by not paying taxes while using services. He says border security is a matter of safety and fairness.

“We are punishing people who try to do it the right way,” Mr. Campello says.

Mariana Garcia, 27, came to the United States from Argentina in 1998 on a three-month work permit. She left behind her widowed mother, who had worked multiple jobs to support her and her two sisters.

A friend in Gaithersburg put her in touch with the manager of a hotel in that area, and Ms. Garcia has worked there since the spring of 1999, mostly in management. She waited tables four nights a week for two years and now works another part-time job at the Shady Grove Pregnancy Center.

Ms. Garcia has waited more than six years for her green card, after which she will have to wait at least another five years before becoming a citizen — a typical wait period.

Except for a two-year period during which her mother came to live with her, she has not seen her family because she has not been able to leave the country. If Ms. Garcia does leave, she would have to start the entire process again.

Ms. Garcia had been promised a green card by August, and planned to visit her family for Christmas.

But in September, her immigration attorney told her the government was only reviewing green-card applications filed prior to March 31, 2001. Ms. Garcia filed hers in April 2001.

“I was crying,” she says.

By the time she gets her green card, Ms. Garcia will have spent more than $5,000 in lawyers’ fees and other costs, compared with the $3,000 to $5,000 most illegal aliens have to pay smugglers who know the routes into the United States.

“Going through all this, it’s hard,” she says.

The immigration process, while complex and hard to understand, does have three distinct steps.

To enter the United States legally, a visitor must have a visa. Temporary visas are granted for travel. Permanent visas are granted to immigrants who are accepted into universities in the United States, who marry a U.S. citizen, or who have an employer or immediate family member sponsor them.

Visas also are granted to foreign workers or artists recognized as outstanding in their field.

Once a visa is obtained, an immigrant must apply for a green card, or adjustment of status. The current wait for a green card ranges from three to five years. Tighter security restrictions since the September 11 terrorist attacks have created a backlog of applications for green cards.

Since the early 1990s, the State Department also has run a visa lottery for select countries that allows 50,000 immigrants to enter each year, and grants them a green card. But Congress is considering eliminating the program.

Once a green card is obtained, an immigrant can stay in the United States indefinitely. But they must wait a few more years before gaining full citizenship.

Immigrants are tested before becoming U.S. citizens, and must be able to read, write and speak English, understand some U.S. history and government, have “good moral character” and be favorably disposed toward the United States.

‘Underground work force’

Ms. Garcia says she is sympathetic to the many illegal aliens who come and “do horrible jobs that nobody else wants to do.”

“I don’t think they’re better off here,” she says.

When Ms. Garcia lived in Argentina, many illegal aliens came from Bolivia and Peru, and she was concerned about losing jobs to them. She understands that concern here, but says illegal immigration “works for the countries that the people come from, and it works for the United States.”

However, Ms. Garcia’s Christian faith gives her pause.

“If you’re not [legal], you’re breaking the law,” she says.

Patricia Campos understands that sentiment, but her focus is on the unfair labor practices of employers who pay low wages to illegal aliens.

“If we continue with undocumented workers, then they become like an underground work force. Employers can pay them less, and that lowers the wages of all workers, so American workers are disadvantaged,” she says.

Ms. Campos, 32, joined her parents in the United States in 1988, a few years after her parents left El Salvador during that country’s long and bloody civil war. They came illegally, but found an employer who would sponsor them as workers, allowing them to stay in the country.

An employer must demonstrate that there are no citizens who want the jobs he gives to immigrants. However, those laws have been loosely enforced, and enforcement has decreased significantly since the early 1990s, according to a study in September by the Migration Policy Institute, Mr. Papademetriou’s group.

President Bush has called for an end to this loose enforcement, and the issue is a focus as Congress tries to draft immigration-reform legislation.

Once Ms. Campos’ parents were in the country legally through their employer’s sponsorship, they then petitioned the government for Ms. Campos and her brothers to be able to join them in the United States. The government granted that request.

“We do have a problem with immigration,” says Ms. Campos, who works for Unite Here, a Washington-based union for minority workers in textiles, and industrial and food-service industries.

“There is a mismatch between the economic labor markets of the U.S. and the immigration laws,” she says. “The U.S. and Mexico have refused to talk, so that has created a disincentive for people to come legally.”

Mr. Bush first endorsed in January 2004 the idea of a guest-worker program, which he said would match workers with employers who had made a genuine effort to find American workers for their jobs.

The president cautioned against giving amnesty to illegal aliens and said that laws passed by Congress “should not give unfair rewards to illegal immigrants in the citizenship process or disadvantage those who came here lawfully, or hope to do so.”

‘Just a dream’

Francisco Castro, 43, says he doesn’t think the Bush administration has any plans to reform immigration laws. He thinks the United States benefits from the “underground work force” Ms. Campos described, and has no incentive to make cheap labor more expensive by legalizing illegal aliens.

Mr. Castro came to the United States from El Salvador in 1980, and his sister introduced him to an apartment-complex owner in Fairfax. Mr. Castro applied for and received a work sponsorship.

He is now a project director at the apartment complex, and he also works with Salvadoran community groups in Northern Virginia, helping legal immigrants and illegal aliens.

“Many people are coming here for work. If I can help them, I help them. I support everybody always,” Mr. Castro says. “If people are breaking the law, those people need to be deported, but if people are working hard and have two jobs and a family, they’re never taking away from other people. … They don’t come to take a position from anybody.”

Jose Memjivar, 44, is an immigrant from El Salvador, but his conscience leaves no room for illegal immigration, even though he has a tough time criticizing it.

“I feel sorry for the people who have to leave their country and come through the desert, but I don’t think it’s right,” he says.

Mr. Memjivar came to the United States in 1989 on a visitor visa, and one year later was given temporary protection status because of the civil war in his home country. He became a permanent resident in 1998 and was sworn in as a U.S. citizen last July 4.

Phyllis A. Howard, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Washington district, swore in Mr. Memjivar and 41 other new citizens in Arlington.

“The process of becoming a United States citizen is an undertaking of serious commitment and great responsibility for the freedoms we cherish, and the liberties we are afforded as citizens are an honor which few are granted the ability to enjoy,” Ms. Howard told the new citizens.

Mr. Memjivar, who is a supervisor for a landscaping company in Fairfax, says he feels loyalty to illegal aliens, but still thinks it is wrong.

“I feel sorry saying this, because most of them are my people, but it’s not right,” he says. “It creates too many problems for the system because you don’t have control, and you don’t know who is coming in and out.”

For immigrants like Mr. Velasquez, the mayor’s aide, the “American dream” that draws so many illegal aliens is nothing more than an illusion.

“It’s just a dream,” he says. “If you put in a balance, let’s call it the cheating in illegal immigration and you put in the other balance the benefits [to the United States] from illegal immigration, there’s going to be a huge weight on the side of the benefits, rather than the costs to the economy, which is why, by the way, the federal government does not enforce it.

“At the end of the day, the losers are the workers,” Mr. Velasquez says.

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