Thursday, July 1, 1999
In 1979, "Antonio" walked "across the mountains" and crossed the Tijuana border into California as easily as an American tourist returning home. He came here, like many other Mexican immigrants, to seek a better life.
Starting his American career as a farm worker, Antonio eventually moved out of the fields and up the ladder into roofing. As a roofer in Monterey County, Antonio makes $50,000 year--plenty to support a modest life for him, his wife and their seven children.
Back in Mexico, Antonio says he would have little opportunity, earning no more than $1,500 a year. His children would receive poor schooling, if any, and would face a bleak future.
Antonio has lived here, worked here and raised his family in the United States for the better part of 20 years. But now, Antonio is being deported.
For all its shortcomings, the United States is still a damn good place to live. To much of the world, the U.S. represents a safe haven, a place to escape to when things at home get too bad.
But partly to protect the American workforce, and perhaps partly due to American xenophobia, the window of opportunity for immigration has slowly been closing.
Despite stringent restrictions on immigration, the steady flow of immigrants pouring into the country continues. In 1996, some 916,000 people legally immigrated to the U.S.; thousands more enter or stay illegally each year. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimates that of the 5 million illegal aliens currently living in the U.S., 2 million live in California. Some enter with student or visitor visas and never leave; others cross through borders without any documentation at all.
Legislation passed in 1986 made it illegal to hire non-citizens lacking government-issued work permits. And the Immigration Act of 1990 eliminated visas based on employment for all but skilled workers possessing qualifications in short supply domestically, such as software engineers sorely needed by the high-tech industry.
Under current law, the only way a nonskilled worker can gain U.S. residency is through sponsorship by a spouse, parent or child who has residency, marrying an American citizen or qualifying for political asylum. Also, those who have $1 million to invest in a business on American soil or are lucky enough to win the "green card" lottery held every year may achieve legal status.
The latest legislation, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which went into effect in April of 1997, tightened borders from within. The 1996 law makes it impossible for immigrants who have lived here unlawfully for six months or more to gain legal status, unless they leave the country and apply for permanent residency, and there are no guarantees.
"The 1996 act is this draconian law that is just a horror story," says Monterey immigration attorney Donald N. Hubbard. "For a large amount of people living here without status, there is nothing that can be done.
"You''re seeing families divided," adds Hubbard, "with no certain date of when the spouse or the parent or adult child can re-enter."
The act also toughens requirements to stop "removal," or deportation proceedings by the INS. Now, immigrants without legal status must have lived here for 10 years--increased from seven years under the old laws--and prove extreme hardship to family members in order to successfully appeal removal.
The Mass Immigration Reduction Act of 1999, currently being considered by Congress, would drastically reduce the numbers of immigrants able to achieve legal status. Introduced by Congressman Bob Stamp (R-Arizona), the legislation would create a "time out" on immigration, cutting the number of legally sanctioned immigrations to 273,000 per year.
But behind the statistics are real people who, for whatever reason, are fleeing their homelands in search of a new life. Many are desperate and willing to do whatever it takes to stay here.
Just ask three local immigrants who have left their homes behind in search of a better life. The Weekly weaves the tale of three immigrants: one searching for opportunity, one escaping economic hardships, one fleeing for his life. One story has a happy ending, the other two are as yet unfinished: Their fates are to be determined by the U.S. immigration system.
Antonio: Caught in the Web
The irony of the crackdown on immigration is that millions of foreigners continue to live here without legal status, working and leading productive lives. Yet someone who tries to immigrate legally, and is unsuccessful, faces removal. Therefore, the system actually encourages immigrants to remain in the country unlawfully.
Antonio was perfectly illegal for two decades. The entire time he has worked in the United States, Antonio has never had a green card. He has no green card and, he says, it was never a problem. He never had a run in with the INS and never feared deportation. Until now.
One day, as he was watching Spanish TV station 67, Antonio saw a commercial for a business called Pronto Dollars. In the commercial, Pronto Dollars claimed they could obtain work permits for illegals based on how long they have been in the country. Antonio says he never really considered getting a green card before because he didn''t think it was possible, until he saw the commercial.
"They said you could get a work permit based on the number of years you have been here. It sounded good, so I called," says Antonio. "I wanted to go straight, I wanted to be legitimate, I wanted to be legal. We want to be here the right way."
"There''s this huge myth that if you have been here for five, 10, 15 years there is some kind of remedy," says California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) Attorney Ruben Pizarro, "that you can get a work permit solely based on the number of years you have been here."
In February 1997, Antonio says he headed down to the Pronto Dollars office in Salinas and slapped $300 down on their counter. Antonio says he was interviewed and asked to sign a form that was written in English and that he didn''t understand. He signed it nonetheless, and the form was shipped off to the INS. Antonio went home and waited for the good news, that he would be granted a green card, legal at last.
Antonio heard from the INS all right, but it wasn''t the news he was expecting. The INS sent him a letter saying that his political asylum application had been rejected. Political asylum? There must be some mistake, thought Antonio. He had not applied for political asylum.
But indeed he had. Pronto Dollars had filled out a political asylum application, and Antonio had signed it. Now, having been reported to the INS, Antonio has been thrown into removal proceedings and is being deported.
Under the new law, Antonio would have to prove he lived in the U.S. for 10 years and prove extreme hardship to family members in order to successfully appeal deportation. Because he lived back in Mexico from 1983 to 1990 and might not be able to prove "extreme hardship," Antonio''s case may be beyond help.
Antonio and five other plaintiffs, along with the CRLA, have filed a lawsuit against Pronto Dollars, alleging fraud and illegal practice of law. Pizarro says Pronto Dollars owners contend that another business, which was merely subleasing from Pronto Dollars, is responsible for the misfiling.
But a lawsuit won''t save Antonio from deportation. In order to stop removal proceedings, Antonio will have to prove that his removal will result in extreme hardship to his family. If his appeal is unsuccessful, Antonio says he will stay in Mexico and "suffer." He won''t try to enter illegally again.
"It would not be so bad for me," he says. "Mexico is my home country." But Antonio is worried for his children, ranging in age from 2 to 18. They will have to be pulled from school and brought back to Mexico with their father. But they only know life in the U.S.
But should Antonio be sent back to Mexico, there is another hope for him and his family. Antonio''s oldest children, 18-year-old twins, were born here and are American citizens. When they turn 21, the twins can come back to the U.S. and petition to have their family brought back across the border, this time legally.
"Antonio''s" story was interpreted by Ruben Pizarro.
Luis Miguel: Elusive Sanctuary
While Antonio and his family face economic hardships back in Mexico, others face even worse conditions in their homelands. Thousands each year flee to the U.S. seeking sanctuary from political, racial or religious persecution. These people are fleeing for their lives.
In 1948, the first U.S. policy granting relief to refugees suffering political persecution was adopted. The term refugee, as currently defined by law, is defined as "a person who is unwilling or unable to return to his country of nationality or habitual residence because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."
Luis Miguel considers himself a refugee. But instead of sanctuary, Luis found in America an impenetrable wall of bureaucracy.
By American standards, Luis is not a wealthy man. In his home country of Colombia, Luis was a zoologist and a partner in a company that operates fisheries. His wife was a civil engineer working as a project manager for a housing development. They lived in the town of Villavicencio where they were raising two young daughters.
But because of their relative affluence, by Colombian standards, and family political ties, this hard-working family became a target of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a terrorist group attempting to overthrow the Colombian government.
The FARC, an entrenched and powerful guerrilla force consisting of an estimated 10,000 to 14,000 soldiers, hides out under the lush cover of Colombia''s rainforests. The guerrillas have, for the most part, taken over rural Colombia. Surviving through extortion and ransom coerced from the pockets of the country''s small upper class, the guerrillas routinely kidnap members of wealthy families. Sometimes those kidnap victims end up dead.
In their 23 years of existence, the FARC has developed extortion into a science. Sophisticated in their fundraising methods, they carry hand-held computers from which they can instantaneously check out anyone''s financial status, obtaining information on their assets or bank balances. The FARC use the computers at checkpoints along rural Colombian roads where they stop cars and check the financial background of the driver and passengers, then demand payments from the well-off or hold them hostage.
The police can''t stop them. The Colombian military can''t stop them--the FARC kidnapped 60 Colombian soldiers in 1996. Those targeted by the terrorists, generally the affluent, live in fear of extortion, kidnapping and death every day.
Luis says he became a target when he began traveling into the country to manage his fishery. Simply driving a new Mitsubishi pick-up truck, says Luis, caught the attention of the guerrillas.
"I was only working and paying my bills, paying for my daughters'' school," says Luis. "But anyone who drives a nice car, wears nice clothes, they become a target."
Further investigation into Luis'' background revealed to the FARC that, not only did Luis have money, his family was well-connected to the Colombian government. Luis'' uncle is a high-ranking officer in the Colombian military.
Luis says the intimidation started with a visit to his fishery. He was not there at the time, but a group of guerrillas questioned his employees and told them to relay a message to their boss: The FARC knows about Luis--his financial status, his connections, his wife, his two daughters--and they''re looking for him.
Naturally alarmed, Luis says he called the police, and the visiting guerrillas were apprehended. But the police released them soon afterward. The police, says Luis, also fear the wrath of the guerrillas.
With no protection from the police, Luis says he did what was necessary to avoid the guerrillas. He would never show up at the fishery on the same day of the week or at the same time of day. He stopped using the radio he used to call ahead to his employees before a visit.
About a year later, Luis says he started receiving letters and phone calls asking for "payments" to the guerrilla army of about $700 a month. Luis refused to pay.
"I didn''t want to be a friend to them," says Luis. "If I [paid] one time, then it would be forever."
To further protect himself, Luis moved the fishery to a plot of land adjacent to a military base in hopes the military presence would keep the guerrillas at bay. It didn''t work. Three years after their initial visit to Luis'' fishery, the guerrillas showed up again, and this time they meant business. Not finding him there, the guerrillas tied up 10 of his employees, locked them in a room and waited for Luis to show up.
However, one of the prisoners broke free and escaped through a window, fleeing to the military base for help. But the military wouldn''t interfere until the next day for fear of ambush. Luckily, the guerrillas released their prisoners unharmed.
But it became increasingly clear to Luis that it was time to make a move. The last straw came when a local businessman from Villavicencio was kidnapped by guerrillas--the third such kidnapping among Luis'' circle of acquaintances. This time, the kidnap victim ended up dead, murdered by guerrillas.
Petrified, "we started selling everything," says Luis.
Luis and his family were able to obtain visitors'' visas to the United States where Luis'' parents and sister live. Luis, his wife and his two daughters, 1 and 6 years old, boarded a plane headed for California. They left behind their careers, their home, their lives, desiring only a safe place to live.
In May of 1997, Luis filed an application with the U.S. government for political asylum. He was interviewed by the INS three months later. He would wait nearly two years for a decision.
In May of this year, the eagerly awaited letter from the INS arrived--and it held nothing but bad news: Luis and his family would not be granted political asylum by the United States government.
The INS stated that Luis did not demonstrate a reasonable fear of suffering and harm. And, while the INS believed his story, it didn''t buy that this middle-class working man was a target of political persecution from a Marxist guerrilla force. According to the INS, Luis failed to prove himself to be a member of one of the categories legally allowed political asylum. As far as the U.S. government is concerned, Luis and his family will have to go back to Colombia.
Luis has appealed the decision, but his attorney, Donald N. Hubbard says it will be next year before a hearing is scheduled. Until then, Luis is allowed to work as a math teacher in Salinas, and he and his family live with his sister. But their future is uncertain. Luis and his family live in limbo.
Michel Chalon: Luck of the Draw
For all the hard-luck stories of deflated dreams, the U.S. still sometimes fulfills the legacy of Ellis Island--at least on a limited basis. Under the Diversity Visa Program, or "green card lottery," the government grants permanent residence visas to 55,000 lucky immigrants. Established by the Immigration Act of 1990, the green card lottery accepts application each year from would-be immigrants living in certain specified countries.
While green card lottery winners do have to have a high school education and be able to support themselves, they don''t need special skills or to be sponsored by resident family members in order to gain permanent residency.
Michel Chalon was one such lucky immigrant. Chalon was born in France, educated in Germany, and worked in Belgium, but he says he "belongs" in America. He knew after his first trip to the U.S. in 1992 that he would live here someday. He didn''t know how it would happen, just that it would happen.
On a whirlwind journey across the western United States, Chalon nibbled his first morsel of Americana firsthand. As scores of tourists do, he drove up Highway 1 from San Diego to Eureka, awed by California''s magnificent coastline. He explored Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, then headed east to Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. He fell in love.
"The climate is very nice, the scenery is exceptional, the people are friendly," says Chalon. "I love the attitude of the people, they''re very positive and very open, much more so than in Europe."
To facilitate a move across the Atlantic, Chalon applied to the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). On a student visa, Chalon entered MIIS in 1993 to pursue a master''s degree in business administration, giving up a successful, seven-year career as a business consultant in Belgium.
Chalon completed his MBA the next year and set about the task of finding a job. With his student visa, Chalon only had a year-long work permit after graduation. In order to stay in the U.S., he would have to find a company willing to sponsor him. That would involve paying a lawyer to facilitate the process with the INS.
But with plenty of American MBAs bouncing around the interview circuit, Chalon never found any company willing to submit to the expense and hassle of pursuing a work permit for him. Chalon has no special skill to offer. After a year of interviewing, he was still jobless and apparently on his way back to Europe.
In August of 1995 Chalon gave up hope. He would have to return to France. His work permit expired Sept. 1, and he had no job prospects and no hope of renewing his permit. Chalon''s dream of living in America was fading.
He had his car and motorcycle shipped back home. He sold all his furniture and most of his belongings. He bought a one-way ticket back to France. "I was ready to cry," he says.
Sitting in his empty apartment one week before his plane left for Paris, Chalon received a letter from his attorney. "Congratulations!" the letter read. "You have been chosen as a ''winner'' in the Fiscal Year 1996 Diversity Visa Program."
Chalon was stunned by the news--he had completely forgotten about his application.
Millions apply for the lottery each year. Chalon''s chance of winning was less than 1 percent. "I knew it was supposed to be," says Chalon. "I was extremely happy."
Once his future was more certain, Chalon set about fulfilling his dream, the American dream of owning his own business. Fashioned after stands that sell fresh-made waffles on Belgian street corners, Chalon created "Le Waf." Le Waf stands now sell waffles to the hungry at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, at Del Monte Shopping Center, and at the Old Monterey Farmer''s Market on Tuesdays, and possibly soon at the Northridge Mall in Salinas. So far, business is sizzling.
Chalon, suited in a white baker''s hat and apron while serving up hot waffles from a street cart, looks like a 19th-century immigrant. But his mindset is all American.
Le Waf, says Chalon, would have never flown in Europe''s saturated waffle market. And governmental red tape and the high cost of labor and supplies would have made his dream impossible back home. Besides, says Chalon, the Old World attitude just isn''t conducive to enterprising start-ups.
"When you start a business over here people say ''oh, what a great idea,'' and they encourage you," says Chalon. "In Europe they say ''it''s not going to work.'' In Europe, if you start a business and you fail, you are considered a loser. Here, they say ''well, you tried, you have the entrepreneurial spirit.''"
What''s next for Michel Chalon? He says he''ll apply for citizenship as soon as he''s allowed by law, the year 2001.
For more on immigration laws, click here..