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Saturday, June 19, 2004

St. Paul Pioneer Press | 06/19/2004 | Immigration debate plays out on street corner

Posted on Sat, Jun. 19, 2004
Immigration debate plays out on street corner
RUBÉN ROSARIO
It began as an ideological boxing match, albeit from a distance.

On one corner, in a lounge chair, sat William "Willie From the East Side" Sorlien, and next to him a large sign that was attracting some attention from the stone-faced Secret Service agents and the largely Latino spectators across the street.

"Yanquis Go Home,'' it read, except that the word "Yanquis" had been crossed out and replaced with the word "Illegals.''

At the other corner diagonally across the street, Efe Sanchez and a handful of bystanders cast suspicious glances at Sorlien as they stood behind a police barricade.

Both were waiting for El Presidente — Vicente Fox, the president of the United States of Mexico — to arrive at La Academia Cesar Chavez, a charter school on St. Paul's East Side.

To be sure, some folks did not like the sign.

"One guy threatened to kick my a- -, and I believe I learned new Spanish swear words today,'' he said after Fox's motorcade left the school.

If a distinct, visible minority on this street corner on this day, Sorlien is definitely not alone in his views on illegal immigration.

According to a poll commissioned by the Associated Press last month, citizens in the United States and five European nations — Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain — were more likely than not to say they had negative views about immigrants.

The views no doubt are influenced by concerns over jobs and terrorism, as the poll pointed out. The poll, however, did not survey for bigotry, as much an underlying factor as any in this vitriolic debate.

More than 150 years ago, the Irish, fleeing starvation in their country, were described in various articles and newspapers in America as subhuman and monkeylike.

Pioneering generations of many other groups have felt the sting of discrimination and ostracism. That ugly tradition is alive and well.

"Every fall you should be allowed to purchase a Mexican hunting license which would allow you to shoot 2 males, 1 female and 5 kids to help reduce the budget … and the surplus number of illegal Mexicans in Minnesota,'' one e-mailer wrote to this columnist.

"The Mexican in the article" — a June 15 Pioneer Press column about an undocumented restaurant owner — "should be tried and executed on Univision,'' wrote another reader, from Dallas. "That'll teach the little brown maggots to stay on their side of the f - - - - - - Rio Grande.''

The grandson of Norwegian immigrants, Sorlien was taken aback by such feedback. His opposition, he maintained, is grounded in logic rather than hate. Crossing the border is against the law, he noted. A union construction worker, Sorlien also has seen colleagues laid off and contracts nixed by employers who prefer to hire illegals and pay them dirt-cheap wages.

"Maybe three or four years ago, there wouldn't be much of an argument,'' he said. "'But with the economy the way it has been, and people losing jobs, sitting on the bench as we say in the trade, well … "

At the other corner, Sanchez, who came here from Mexico four years ago, reacted angrily at the sign.

"We're all one America and if we are going to send back people, we should remember that this land was taken away from the Indians, and some of it from the Mexicans,'' she said. "So, that guy over there (Sorlien) is also an illegal.''

She then described conditions at an unnamed Twin Cities factory where a brother works.

"The employer can't find Americans to do the jobs,'' Sanchez said. "Everyone who works there are illegals. It's so bad that he has to protect and hide them when he gets word that La Migra (Immigration) is coming."

Sorlien said he is not adamantly opposed to a proposal to grant temporary work visas to undocumented but law-abiding immigrants who are steadily employed and have lived here for at least five years.

"There has got to be a solution, because I'm empathetic, I'm simpatico with their plight,'' Sorlien said. "Coming from a 40 percent poverty-stricken country, with a family to feed, I can't lie to you, I'd be doing the same thing.''

"He said that?'' Sanchez asked, genuinely surprised.

Perhaps there is common ground after all.


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Rubén Rosario can be reached at rrosario@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5454.

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