Undocumented immigrants prefer to live in shadows
SEATTLE - Miguel and his family have learned how to live in the shadows. Among the estimated 8 million immigrants in the United States illegally, the West Seattle residents know they must never draw attention to themselves. They drive the speed limit, resolve disputes without involving authorities and learn not to make enemies on the job or in the neighborhood.
A year ago, when Miguel had a shot at a $35-an-hour temporary contracting job with the city of Seattle, he removed himself from consideration when he learned there would be a full immigration check.
"I've had to let a lot of jobs like that go: Government jobs; jobs at military bases, the airport," the 33-year-old said in thickly accented English. To protect his identity, he asked that his full name be withheld.
"I can't take the chance of being found out. You have to be cautious in everything you do."
Immigrant advocates say that President Bush's temporary-worker proposal, announced last month, presents a real dilemma to longtime residents like Miguel. Not an amnesty plan, it asks them to step out of the relative obscurity in which they've lived for years for a shot at legal existence that may last only three years, possibly six - but with no guarantee of permanency.
The president's temporary-worker plan also would allow more foreign workers to come to the United States when employers show a need. But he expects most of the workers would return home permanently when their jobs are done.
In the modest living room of the townhouse he shares with his wife, 2-year-old son and daughters, 13 and 11, Miguel ponders the impact such a plan would have on his young family.
"For my children's sake, it would make no sense to participate," he said, watching his son play nearby. "My son was born here (and is a U.S. citizen). If his parents have to leave in six years, what will be his life? He would grow up here without parents. Me and my family, we want the same as every other family: A chance to make a good living."
While some employers have praised Bush's attempt to meet their need for workers, immigrant advocates, as well as those who favor stricter immigration controls, have criticized it.
But while politics and pressure are sure to change the details of the guest-worker proposal, the question of how America will deal with its uninvited guests will not go away.
The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates that about 136,000 undocumented immigrants were living in Washington in 2000 - about 2.3 percent of the state's population. That number was up more than 249 percent from 10 years earlier. Current estimates put it near 200,000.
"Regardless of how bad the economy here gets, people will continue to come," said Roberto Maestas, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, an advocate group for immigrants, minorities and other groups.
"For some, it's better to be jailed, to take a chance crossing the desert, than to die of hunger right where they live."
Asians and Latinos, Canadians, Africans and Europeans - they slip into the country unnoticed and quickly learn their way around a vast network that churns out phony documents - green cards (permanent residence visas), drivers' licenses and Social Security numbers - allowing them to find work and begin new lives.
Officials believe more than half of the state's undocumented population finds work in the apple, pear and cherry orchards and asparagus farms of Eastern Washington.
In Seattle, they are among the day laborers who line up along Western Avenue each morning hoping to land jobs or the workers who toil, often unseen, in restaurants, hotels and office towers.
They are dishwashers, construction workers and cooks; office cleaners, housekeepers and yard help. Often they hold two or three such jobs to support families here and at home.
"You can find undocumented workers at every level - from people who hold professional jobs, to those who clean the offices at work," said Hilary Stern, executive director of CASA Latina, which works with Latino immigrants.
The lack of documentation, she said, is not their biggest barrier to employment. Rather, it's language and often a lack of training and education.
"That means they have to fill jobs that don't require them to speak English," Stern said. "Most Americans don't want jobs where they don't have to speak at all. This applies to all immigrants. It just happens that the ones from Latin America are more likely to be undocumented - with no opportunity for them to be documented."
Perhaps no industry in the Northwest is as dependent on this population as farming. Those in the industry estimate that more than 60 percent of the state's 100,000 farm workers are undocumented.
"It costs $120 a day to employ someone in Washington; $4 (to employ someone) in China and $6 in Chile or Mexico," said Dan Fazio, labor specialist with the Washington Farm Bureau. "We can never pay Americans enough to do these jobs." Still, the threat of deportation is never far away for folks hiding in broad daylight.
"Living in the shadows is a euphemism for a minute-to-minute nightmare for many of these folks," Maestas said.
"No matter how long you're living in it, if you're walking or driving and a cop stops you for whatever reason, it could be the beginning of the end. The threat of getting deported is always there. ... And it's worse for those with children. Somebody is picked up while the kids are in school. ..."
As his son plays, Miguel recalls how he first came to the United States - using phony documents to cross the border from Mexico into California. Within days he'd landed a job driving taxicabs in Los Angeles.
A friend told him there were good jobs in Utah - and less competition. Another friend told him about jobs in Portland and later in Seattle.
He liked it here and stayed.
Miguel parlayed a driver's license he bought in California into a legitimate one in Washington. "Everyone knows about the fake cards ... the driver's licenses. You can get them anywhere."
A phony work permit allowed him to obtain a Social Security number from the Internal Revenue Service. Within days of arriving in Seattle he applied for a job flipping burgers at McDonald's.
They hired him on the spot.
He moved easily between jobs; while he didn't have a permanent resident's visa - the so-called green card - his Social Security card got him through many doors. "People would say to me, 'when you fill out a job application, tell them you're a U.S. citizen. They never ask for proof,' " he said.
Now, "I have a work history here. I have a Social Security number that I've kept clean. My credit report is clean.
"If there's amnesty, and I have a chance to participate, I will. I want to be as clean as possible."
Gradually, he learned the language. Five years ago, he landed a job with a building contractor and completed the training to achieve journeyman status. His pay: $21 an hour.
"We make a good living here," he said.
But since Sept. 11, 2001, work has been spotty. He said he has worked about five days this month.
So he has been looking for other jobs, but it is tough to find work in the soft economy. And because Miguel now understands his earning potential, he's reluctant to accept minimum-wage jobs.
"People ask me and I say, 'Why should I take a low-pay job?' " he said. "I know I can get something better."
In South Seattle, in an apartment building filled with toys and the laughter of children, Rosa fusses over her two young charges.
She, like Miguel, won't participate if Bush's plan is approved because it provides no future for her children.
"The only benefit I see from Bush's proposal is that I can travel back to Mexico without a problem," the 30-year-old said, a sadness traced in her voice. "I'd be very happy if I could visit my parents."
Her father suffers from diabetes - a disease that also afflicted two uncles who now are dead. "My parents are very sad; they have only me," she said.
But she shudders recalling the ghastly weeklong passage across the border from Mexico five years ago - with a 4-month-old and a 5-year-old in tow - as her husband waited for them in Seattle.
Twice the people in her group were rounded up by U.S. immigration officers and returned. The third time, they made it through.
"It's a sacrifice for my children," she said. "When I came, I thought I'd stay for two or three years. For many of us, the American dream is to get enough money so we could go back to Mexico and make a business, buy a house. I like the life I have here."
She cleans houses when she can get the work - perhaps a few days a month. Her husband works at a manufacturing facility in Seattle earning about $80 a day. "In Mexico, you work more than a week to make $80," she said.
"I know my kids will grow up here better than in Mexico. I work; I pay taxes; I want a normal life like everybody else.
"That doesn't make me a criminal."