Illegal in Chicago|
BY MARK J. KONKOL Staff Reporter
Wailing police sirens frighten the Barrios children to tears. They know that any day now officers might storm the family's Berwyn bungalow and take "Papi" away -- forever.
And when that time comes, Papi will be sent back where he came from, Zacatecas, Mexico -- a faraway land the kids know only from stories their parents tell. Tales of true love and total poverty.
Martin Barrios escaped Zacatecas after high school. His father was in prison. His mother sold tacos to support the family -- five boys and five girls.
Barrios worked odd jobs, anything he could get to help his family. The money never amounted to much.
When he turned 16, Barrios wanted a different kind of life for himself, and to earn enough money so things could be better for his mother and the younger ones.
He walked away from Zacatecas -- like his older brother before him -- over a mountain pass, up a riverbank and through an avocado field toward opportunity. America.
"That is my only crime," Barrios, 35, says in Spanish, wiping frustration from his brow.
He's among more than an estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants who live veiled lives in Illinois. Many of them share similar stories about jumping the Mexican border. In fact, a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center shows illegals from Mexico account for 56 percent of all illegal immigrants in America. Another 22 percent come from the rest of Latin America. And thousands of others came from oceans away -- Poles, Russians, Irish, Koreans, Indians, Chinese and Italians among them -- to get themselves a good look at this "American dream."
All of them face an uncertain future as Congress debates whether to mark illegals as felons or offer a way for illegals to become citizens.
Their advocates argue America would be worse without these illegal immigrants, who work undesirable jobs, pay billions of dollars in taxes and bolster the Social Security system with about $7 billion a year without being eligible for any of its benefits.
In Illinois, immigrants account for a huge chunk of restaurant and food-service industry employees. In fact, about a quarter of managers are foreign born, according to the Pew study.
"There's not a person in Illinois that has not benefitted from [illegal immigrants'] work," said Josh Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
"No one has eaten on dishes that weren't washed by undocumented workers or eaten bacon from a pig slaughtered by one."
The political battle over whether to banish illegals or offer them a pathway to citizenship promises a backlash some say will mirror the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
Just last month, Latino radio stations mobilized the Hispanic community to protest for immigrant rights. On March 10, illegal immigrants and their allies clogged the Loop in a demonstration 100,000 strong. Weeks later in Los Angeles, 500,000 folks marched decrying a bill aimed at marking the undocumented as criminals. There were similar rallies in Milwaukee, Phoenix, Atlanta and Denver.
In Chicago, some stores and restaurants shut their doors on the Friday of the march here. The proprietors had no choice.
"I can't run the pizza ovens. I can't work the grill line. There was no one to make the dough or cut up all the veggies," one Northwest Side restaurant owner said. "We knew our employees were marching, they felt strongly about it. We decided to close, pretend it was like a blizzard."
Everything to lose
For Martin Barrios' crime -- a boy's frantic dash through Southern California -- he may lose everything he worked for as a man.
When he arrived in Chicago with his brother, Martin Barrios scored a job washing dishes, scrubbing floors and preparing food at Raymond's Tacos in Pilsen. Then he got better work at Sara Lee, starting as a cook, later working on a loading dock and now making $13.77 an hour as a quality control manager. He learned to understand and speak English "pretty good," though it's easier to express himself in his native tongue.
He says he wakes up at 4 a.m. to make his 5 o'clock shift and is on the clock until 9 p.m. five or six days a week. When the boss needs him Barrios works Sundays, too.
His wife, Araceli, a naturalized U.S. citizen, takes care of the kids. Karen, 13; Alan, 12, and Alejandra, 6, are Americans. Born in Chicago.
If Martin is deported, his wife and kids will move to Los Angeles with Araceli's mother. Martin would go back to central Mexico to live with his aging mother, to whom he has been sending money since he left for America.
"In Mexico there's no way I could sustain my own life, support myself let alone my family. If this happens I feel like I'll lose them because I've been the sole provider," he said.
Here, he's done well. He owns that Berwyn bungalow, and recently made a tidy profit selling a house he bought as an investment.
But what he wants more than anything is to be recognized as an American, to stay with his family in the country he's called home for most of his life.
"I am an American, a Mexican American. I don't believe people like me are a burden on this country," Barrios said. "Those of us who come here to improve our condition come here seeking success, to better our lives just like [other Americans] or their families did."
But on the street, they live a second-class life. Some can't get driver's licenses, or even buy car insurance. About 55 percent of Hispanic illegals don't have medical insurance and aren't eligible for Medicare.
Without Social Security cards, illegals have trouble opening bank savings accounts and getting approved for a credit card. Many carry cash, which sometimes makes them a mark for robbers.
Some say they won't report crime to the police, fearing deportation.
They take their lumps, and go back to work.
1.5 million immigrants here
The Chicago area has been flooded with foreign-born residents. At last count, there were 1.5 million immigrants in the region, a 60 percent increase between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Statewide, the foreign-born population doubled in the 1990s and increased another 24 percent since 2000. One in seven Illinois residents is an immigrant, census figures show.
It's hard to say how many of those folks are "illegals," but the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee rights says there are nearly 500,000 illegal immigrants in the state, said ICIRR policy director Fred Tsao.
Illegal immigrants amount to more than 4 percent of the entire U.S. work force. About 25 percent of America's drywall installers, butchers, landscapers and dishwashers are illegal. And about one-fifth of all cement masons, laborers, farm hands, painters, roofers, cooks, maids and hand packers are illegal, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Chicago Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), who was born in Mexico but became a U.S. citizen in 1987, says America's economy "lives and breathes on 'mano de obra' [hand labor]."
"If you've got good hands you'll find a job here. In the '30s and '40s it was the railroads and then steel mills in the '50s and '60s. Now immigrants are janitors, and work at restaurants," Munoz said. "Corporate America is sucking up that mano de obra that the immigrant provides."
Martin Barrios says he found success with his worker's hands and a strong constitution.
"I start from the bottom. The work is hard. Other people born in this country don't want to do that work," Barrios said.
"They would maybe work half the day I work. [Immigrants] contribute economic support to the wealth of this country. We don't take anything from anybody."
'With her, a whole different life'
Martin Barrios and his wife grew up in the same town. Araceli lived down the street. When Martin was 14, he loved her.
Martin left her behind in Mexico, but still wrote Araceli letters and called from time to time. Then she came to America, too, living with her mother in California. He visited her a few times, and then stole her away.
"It was fate. She was coming to be with me," he said.
"At first [Chicago] was all work and it was boring. With her, it was a whole different life."
They were married on New Year's Eve 1996.
Araceli was sponsored by her sister and won citizenship. Martin hired a lawyer who promised him a work permit, at the very least. But the lawyer ratted out Barrios to "la migra" -- immigration. Set to be deported, Barrios paid another lawyer $4,000 to appeal the ruling. Barrios lost. In all, he spent $32,000 trying to become a citizen.
Oct. 27 was to be Barrios' last day in America. He stayed, hoping against hope his family won't be torn apart.
With the help from the folks at Centro Sin Fronteras, an immigrant advocacy group in Pilsen, Barrios is part of a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Chicago) that aims to keep 35 Illinois families with "mixed immigration status" in the country on humanitarian and family unification grounds.
The bill is being considered in a House immigration subcommittee, but has not been introduced in the Senate. Once introduced, those families will be protected from being deported pending a vote.
And like so many folks facing similar circumstances, he's praying for an immigration compromise, one that provides temporary work permits, and hoping that an all important pathway to citizenship surfaces from the debate on Capitol Hill.
"I would learn [English] well and I would pay a fine," Barrios says. "I am not old. I can learn. I want to improve myself. I want to do more. I want my children to be proud of me."
Today, his kids are terrified.
"That's the worst of it, they have to live with my fear. It's very sad and difficult," Barrios says.
"I feel like all my dreams have disappeared."
Contributing: Art Golab