For these women, immigration reform clouds the future

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Herminia A., a middle-aged Mexican immigrant, started working as a maid at a local motel last year, she was expected to clean 14 rooms a day. Now, because she is an undocumented worker, Herminia says, she must clean 16 rooms, while documented employees still clean only 14. In addition, she claims, undocumented women are required to wash windows and walls - chores once assigned to male workers.

``If the owner says windows have to be cleaned, the head housekeeper will assign all rooms with dirty windows to undocumented workers,'' says Herminia, who cannot allow her last name to be used. ``Documented workers get easier rooms. The manager tells me, `Well, if you don't like the work, then leave, because there are plenty of other people I can bring in.'''

But losing her $6-an-hour job is what Herminia, a former art and home economics teacher, fears most on the eve of a massive amnesty program, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, scheduled to become effective today. As an illegal alien who came here in 1983, she does not meet the five-year residence requirement to apply for amnesty. And although her boss cannot be fined for employing her - she was hired before Nov. 6, 1986, when the law was passed - he knows she will be unable to find another job.

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``Come May 5, it's going to be very hard to work,'' says Susan Quinlan, coordinator of Latina outreach at Options for Women Over 40, a non-profit service organization. ``So employers are taking advantage of undocumented workers. They can make heavy demands on them. If they did fire a worker, that person would be completely vulnerable.''

Herminia explains her plight: ``I tell the head housekeeper, `I hope God gives me the strength to finish the work, so you'll call me back.'''

Beyond this fear of unemployment, Herminia and other illegals find that employers' heavier demands are creating another challenge: a growing divisiveness between documented and undocumented employees. ``Immigration law has always created these divisions,'' says Ms. Quinlan, ``but the new law further accentuates them.''

With the threat of deportation hanging over them, many illegal aliens express sadness and fear that everything they have worked hard to attain may be taken away.

Herminia, neatly dressed in an embroidered blouse and pink skirt, hides some of her concern behind a friendly smile and animated eyes. But she remains somber as she describes the three stages she has gone through as an immigrant.

The first stage, she explains, speaking sometimes in English and sometimes through an interpreter, was ``complete misery - not knowing the language, not knowing anybody, not knowing how to look for work.''

The second stage she calls ``making connections - figuring out how to look for work, getting on my feet emotionally and financially. I suffered a lot the first couple of years. Now I don't feel I'm suffering. I've established myself and I'm making a meager living. I'm quite happy here.''

That sense of well-being may end soon. Now she is struggling with the third stage: ``the immigration law - knowing I don't qualify for amnesty because I came in after the deadline - and the fear of losing everything. ''

This fear, says Quinlan, ``is something very many people are going through. This law has set them back. They're struggling to keep what they've worked so hard to get.''

Some social workers and legal experts believe the new law may hit women particularly hard. Many female immigrants - even those who were professionals in their own country - have worked for years as housekeepers and babysitters because of their limited English.

``Most people know this type of domestic work is done very informally, with little or no record-keeping,'' says Jose Gomez, executive director of La Raza Centro Legal, a non-profit legal aid group here. ``Men tend to work in employment areas where there isn't that tradition. Women are least likely to be in a situation where those kinds of records are kept and probably least likely to be in a position where an employer would be willing to reconstruct employment records. Employers may just deny that they employ people.''

In addition, says Quinlan, ``Many of the women have been living with family members. They have no rent receipts, and bills are not in their names.'' Because of the women's underground status, even employment records may not be in their own name.

``I live here for almost seven years, but I don't have proof,'' says Maria R., a large, pleasant Mexican woman in slacks and a turquoise blouse. ``I never used my name. Two times in two jobs, I used a different name. I used a different social security number. I worked three years continuous, cleaning hotels. Now I work for a family for three years.''

Even for those who can meet residence requirements, other obstacles remain. Some may be disqualified because they have been convicted of three misdemeanors or a felony. Many legal experts are also advising clients to pay back money they received on welfare as evidence of their financial stability and independence.

``I know for a fact that people are afraid of these new laws,'' says Delia Casillas, a job developer for Arriba Juntos, a non-profit agency in San Francisco's Mission district. ``If they don't meet a whole bunch of qualifications, they will be deported. Some have committed crimes. They don't think that whatever they did three years ago is going to reflect on them now.''

Other applicants worry that they may be unable to pay the necessary legal fees. Although some lawyers are offering their services pro bono, others see the law as a pot of gold.

``This legislation is going to make a lot of attorneys rich,'' says Mr. Gomez. ``We hear a lot of attorneys will be charging $1,000 to $3,000.'' His non-profit organization, the Centro Legal, expects to charge $110 per adult and $40 for each dependent for its services.

Amid all the challenges involved in qualifying for amnesty, some immigrants are finding reason for renewed hope.

``The immigrant and refugee rights movement has been a small movement, but it's really growing right now,'' Quinlan says. ``The repression that's being brought on by this new law has sparked a redoubled effort within the immigrant community to educate the community and the public about the rights that undocumented workers still have. Across the country, people are organizing to defend and expand those rights.''

For Maria, amnesty remains a fervent wish - and a reasonable possibility. Her current employer has offered to write a letter verifying her status. ``They say, `No problem, we will help you.'''

For Herminia, time in her adopted land may be running short.

``I plan to hold out as long as possible,'' she says simply. ``I will try to do housecleaning, but if I can't, I'll just go back. When I find it impossible to support myself here, then I will have to go home.''

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