Salt Lake City Grapples With Illegal Immigration
— It's hard to imagine what the founding fathers would make of the scene
that plays out every day along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Thousands and thousands of people, mostly Mexicans, steal across the border to be in the United States.
Many of them come to Utah. Latinos are now the largest minority in the country and in Utah. Between legal and illegal immigrants, 19 percent of Salt Lake City, Utah's capital, is now Latino and some area residents aren't very happy about that.
America is rightly called a nation of immigrants, but their welcome has seldom been with open arms. A sampling of recent calls to Salt Lake City's KTALK radio reveals no small amount of antipathy toward Latinos who've eluded the U.S. Border Patrol and settled themselves and their families in the midst of Salt Lake City's predominantly white, Mormon community.
Callers to the station phone in to say they're sick and tired of Mexicans coming to American and having babies, others want to put up a fence along the border, others say they feel like foreigners in their own country.
KTALK host Jim Kirkwood said, "Hispanics who are coming in here and now in a recession are taking jobs away from people who need it. What we have going on is an absolute attack on this country."
'Addicted to the Mexican Worker'
Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans are lured across the border every year by the hope of finding work. Despite the lingering recession that's taking a particularly tough toll on working class Americans, many low-wage service industry jobs go unfilled by white Americans. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson said he doesn't believe the Mexican immigrants are taking jobs away from American citizens. "We have about the same unemployment rate we've always had. It's about 3 1/2 percent. These jobs are not being filled by American citizens," Anderson said.
"The Hispanic community here is at the base of our economic ladder. I often say we're addicted to the Mexican worker," said Robert Bussen of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in the affluent community of Park City. "They're working in the service industries, they're in our hotels, they clean your rooms, they clean the floors, they're in our restaurants, they wash your dishes, they bus your tables. We would be paralyzed without these people," he added.
Like earlier waves of immigrants, such as Italians and the Irish, Mexicans often fill a need here for cheap labor. The immigrants that came to America in the 19th and early 20th century entered the country legally and eventually did become citizens. America needed workers, and the immigration laws, which left the borders largely open, were written with that in mind.
Today, immigration policy favors educated immigrants or relatives of American citizens. Many unskilled Mexicans, coming to find any kind of work, are breaking the law the moment they set foot on American soil.
Looking the Other Way
While many Mexicans are making a choice to break the law in hopes of finding work and a better life in America, many U.S. officials are choosing to look the other way. "Any person in any community knows that you can go to just about any job site in the United States, involving construction, or, or in your fields, or in your hotels, and you can make an arrest. We choose not to, simply, we don't have the resources. And, look, I believe that the Hispanic community is critical to Utah," said Robert Flowers, who headed the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command.
Flowers' point is illustrated by the fact that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has 22 agents in Utah, while the state's illegal population is nearly 75,000.
If an illegal immigrant is working in America but otherwise living a law-abiding life, the chances are small that authorities will find and arrest the worker, according to Steve Branch, who heads the INS office in Salt Lake City.
The message being sent here is simply this: the federal government and the state of Utah are looking the other way. The economy needs illegal workers and the authorities are not about to go looking for them. It is a message that resonates deep into Mexico, and Mexicans find it irresistible.
Father Bussen thinks our powerful economy be enticing Mexicans to break the law. "Our economic vortex was so powerful and our needs for their labor so great, that we have literally pulled out of Mexico their youngest, their best, their hardest-working people."
Who Gets to Be an American?
In a country that defines itself by ideals, not by shared blood, who should be allowed to come here, work here, and live here? In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks these questions have never seemed more pressing.
On Dec. 11, 2001, as part of the effort to increase homeland security, federal and local authorities in 14 states staged "Operation Safe Travel" — raids on airports to apprehend employees with false identification working in secure areas. In Salt Lake City, the site of the Winter Olympics, there were 69 arrests, the most in the country. But the arrests captured people who are anything but terrorists. Most of the individuals arrested were illegal immigrants from Central or South America. Authorities said the undocumented workers' illegal status made them vulnerable to blackmail by terrorists.
Many people in Salt Lake City's Hispanic community were outraged by the arrests and said they felt as if they were being treated like disposable goods.
Mayor Anderson said those feelings were justified to a certain extent. "We're saying we want you to work in these places, we're going to look the other way in terms of what our laws are, and then when it's convenient for us, or when we can grandstand, or when we can try to make a point in terms of national security, especially after Sept. 11, then you're disposable. You and your families. There are whole families being uprooted here for all of the wrong reasons," Anderson said.
If Sept. 11 had never happened, the airport workers would not have been arrested and could have gone on quietly living in America, probably indefinitely. Ana Castro, a manager at a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop at the airport, had been working 10 years with the same false Social Security card when she was arrested in the December airport raid. Now that she, her husband and their two daughters are living under the threat of deportation, Castro said, "Probably everything that we have done is not worth it." Castro's case is currently pending. While she awaits the outcome, the government has granted her permission to work in the United States and she has returned to her job at Ben & Jerry's.
Gilberto Rejon, another airport worker arrested in Operation Safe Travel, is also living in uncertainty in Utah. His wife is expecting a child, and the government is allowing him to stay in the country until his baby is born. However, he cannot work here. A judge will make a decision about his future early next year. "I know I have done wrong. You know, I know have done wrong … but I did not kill anybody. You know, I respect everybody. … I just came here for one purpose: to work, to send my kids to school to give them an education and to help the other ones that stayed behind," Rejon said.
Hoping for Amnesty
Almost every illegal Mexican worker knows the story of President Ronald Reagan and amnesty. In 1986 President Reagan signed a law that gave amnesty to people who had entered the country and were working illegally.
The law required illegal immigrants to register with the government and provide proof they had been in "continuous unlawful residence" in the country for at least five years.
It was intended to be a one-time thing to stop illegal immigration. Instead, it attracted more Mexicans.
"There is a force drawing these people here that all of us are participating in. If there's a lure for them to come here, to work, and we know there is, and yet we don't have any legal avenue for them to be here, then we're not addressing the bigger problem, which is the need for them to be here and the lack of a legal avenue for them to be here," said Sharon Preston, who specializes in immigration law.
A Harvest for Mexico
While many American communities are reaping the benefits of cheap labor, Mexico is benefiting as well. Mexicans who are working in America illegally send more than $9 billion of their modest earnings back to family members in Mexico every year, according to Dr. Juan Hernandez.
Hernandez, who was appointed Mexican President Vicente Fox to be an advocate for Mexicans living in America, said this influx of dollars is vital to the Mexican economy.
Still, Hernandez stressed that recent studies say that only about 15 percent of the illegal immigrants earnings are sent to Mexico. "The other 85 percent they spend right here, investing it right here in the United States, paying taxes right here in the United States," Hernandez said.
President Bush and Mexican President Fox have a friendly rapport and have each expressed a desire to strengthen U.S.-Mexico ties. When Fox addressed the U.S. Congress in September 2001, he said Mexico was "seeking an agreement to address the status of Mexican immigrants already working and living in the United States, already contributing to enrich this nation."
Any thought of an agreement about immigration was overwhelmed when the United States was attacked. It is not a problem, however, that can be ignored for long, not with an estimated four million illegal Mexicans already here, and more on the way.