Wednesday, June 16, 2004

St. Paul Pioneer Press | 06/16/2004 | Seeking 'land of opportunity'

St. Paul Pioneer Press | 06/16/2004 | Seeking 'land of opportunity'

Posted on Wed, Jun. 16, 2004

Seeking 'land of opportunity'

Illegal Mexican immigrants risk all for better life here


Pioneer Press

Maria and her 4-year-old daughter crossed the dusty boundary to opportunity two months ago, fleeing robbers, border guards and hunger.

The 21-year-old is one of Minnesota's newest immigrants, settling in a Dakota County apartment with family members who helped pay her way across the U.S.-Mexico border some 1,900 miles away. Now, she is adjusting to life on the edge, pursuing jobs that help her and her family survive.

"I want to work and help my parents back home," said Maria, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of arrest. She also dreams for her daughter, "so she can get an education."

Those sentiments are echoed by many from Mexico. People grow up viewing the television images of wealth and hear stories about jobs in the United States. Then they follow earlier waves of immigrants from around the globe seeking a better life.

Mexican President Vicente Fox travels to St. Paul on Friday and is likely to stress the need to protect the human rights of Mexicans living and working illegally in the region.

Having arrived in late April, Maria works about eight hours a day at various jobs, from cleaning houses to serving customers at fast-food restaurants. Taxes are taken out of her paychecks and she routinely sets aside about $150 from each check to send to her family in a small town outside Puebla, Mexico.

In addition to the Marias, there are the thousands of Americans of Mexican ancestry and legal immigrants arriving in the Twin Cities from places like Chicago and California. According to census figures, the Mexican population in Minnesota grew 368 percent from 1980 to 2000.

But the great unknowns are people like Maria, who risk everything for a shot at a better life. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services estimated that from all countries there were 60,000 undocumented immigrants in Minnesota in 2000.

The unauthorized immigrant population in the United States increased an estimated 100 percent between 1990 and 2000 to about 7 million, according to federal officials. Nearly four of every five of those newcomers is from Mexico.

The effects can be seen in Minnesota, where new immigrants find jobs working in farm fields, in meatpacking plants, at fast-food restaurants.

And while Minnesota is viewed as generally a welcoming place, there has been some political backlash, such as laws making it harder for immigrants to get driver's licenses and other benefits bestowed upon those with legal status.

"Look at the mechanics of what it takes to live in a place like Minnesota: You need a car, a place to live, a place to bank, a place to shop. For an undocumented immigrant, it can be extremely difficult," said Jorge Saavedra, chief legal officer for Centro Legal, a nonprofit legal service helping Latinos across Minnesota. And since the crackdown on immigration after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it has only gotten tougher, he said.

There has been little change to immigration law in the United States in recent years, despite the Sept. 11 attacks, said Tim Counts, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The focus has been narrowed over the years on the criminal aliens, those accused of other crimes while here. Figures show federal officials are deporting about the same number of people from Minnesota and the Dakotas, 1,600 annually, as before Sept. 11, he said.

Saavedra, though, sees a growing criminalization of the entire process and finds bureaucrats much tougher to work with. Immigration cases handled with ease in the past are burdened with mounds of paperwork, he said. And some people pulled over on traffic stops tell stories of having to show residency documentation, prompting complaints from Mexican-Americans and other legal residents.

In January, Minneapolis Police Chief Robert McManus said his "police department is not the INS, and we will not do their work for them."

"Members of my community here are finding in some ways a more challenging environment to live outside of the shadows than people in the 1920s," said Susana De Leon, an immigration attorney, who emigrated from Mexico almost 20 years ago. "At the same time, the hostile environment that they encountered in the 1920s has moved out of the public theater."

The border that separates the two nations wasn't always such a challenge. In the early 1900s and before, there was little to keep anybody from crossing. Border stations were set up to collect "head taxes," though North Americans, including Mexicans, did not have to pay.

When quotas were set on immigrants from Europe, some Europeans traveled to Mexico and entered the United States on fake documents or by crossing the same paths many Mexicans travel now. The U.S. Border Patrol was set up in 1924 to stem the smuggling of immigrants and restrictions were soon put on the numbers of Mexicans entering the country.

During World War II, U.S. agriculture interests began importing seasonal labor from Mexico. But by the mid-1950s, a public outcry arose over the number of illegal residents in the United States, so federal officials strengthened border controls and began deportation programs. And in 1965, Congress replaced national immigrant quotas with a preference system to attract skilled labor to the United States.

What to do with the undocumented population remains a sticking point between Mexico and the United States. President Bush has considered creating a temporary worker program that would grant renewable three-year labor visas for those already here and those with job offers.

The proposal doesn't go as far as the Reagan-era amnesty program, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 allowed about 3 million undocumented people to apply for permanent resident status if they had been in the country since 1982.

Many Latinos on St. Paul's West Side descend from families that immigrated in the 1910s, fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution. Mexican-Americans as well as newly arrived Mexican immigrants later arrived to work as migrant laborers.

Francisco Rangel worked for the railroads in the United States in the early 1900s and had planned on returning to his homeland, but the revolution made it too dangerous. So he and his wife, Cresencia, went north to Minnesota. They settled on the West Side of St. Paul and he took a job at the Cudahy meatpacking plant.

They gave up their homeland, but not their heritage. They raised a musical family whose bands remain a staple at Mexican-American celebrations in St. Paul. There was always a sense of being different from the rest of their Minnesota neighbors, but the community "created one big family," said the Rangels' son, Francisco "Kico" Rangel, who was born, raised and still lives in the neighborhood.

Their success is what many of the latest immigrants hope for.

Maria watched as one by one her older siblings left for the United States. In April, it was her turn. Arrangements were made through a smuggler, or "coyote." The cost: $5,000. Her family here raised the money.

She and her daughter started out on foot from the desert town of Nogales, Mexico, on the Arizona border. They were told to leave everything behind. It could slow them down.

For four hours they walked across the dusty terrain, often crouching to avoid detection. Be quiet. Follow the plan. Be on the lookout. About 13 miles after crossing near Rio Rico, Ariz., her group met a man with a car who drove them to a house. About 20 people were already inside waiting for their next rides, she said.

Over four days, her handlers drove Maria and her daughter to Tucson, Phoenix and then Salt Lake City, where they caught a flight to Minneapolis.

"It's the land of opportunity," she said of the journey north.


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