'Illegals' in US learn about rights - and fight for them

Maria doesn't feel confident going out on the streets anymore in the middle-class neighborhood in San Diego where she's a live-in housekeeper. The young Mexican woman says she can't forget the day at a bus stop when a policeman teasingly asked her if she was ''legal.'' The offhand jibe raised the concern that she might be arrested and deported.

Maria arrived home trembling, says her employer, because she is, indeed, an ''illegal alien.''

Her compatriot, Mr. Hernandez, is more confident in the United States, but no more certain he'll be here tomorrow. The former Tijuana cab driver has lived with his wife and children near Los Angeles for 15 years and has a $1,000 -a-month job at a hardware store. Interviewed at the border-crossing point known as the ''soccer field'' as he was slipping back across the border from a vacation in Tijuana, Mr. Hernandez said he feels like an honest, hardworking family man but that crawling through the border underbrush to get home makes him feel like a fugitive.

The quiet problems Maria (not her real name) and Hernandez have may not be apparent to most people, but they are the kind faced daily by several million people living and working illegally in the US. By some estimates there are more than 6 million illegal immigrants like them - the majority Mexican and Central American - in this country.

The subculture of the ''mojado'' (wetback) blends mutely into the nation's manufacturing backshops, restaurant kitchens, agricultural fields and low-rent districts. But the lives, ideas, and opinions of these people are largely relegated to composite stereotypes that politicians use as ammunition for or against immigration reform.

Whether they are painted as a law-breaking drain on the US economy, resources , and welfare system, or a hardworking underclass that bolsters an economy that takes advantage of them, the ''illegals'' still have rights as human beings. As Los Angeles civil rights lawyer Antonio Rodriquez puts it, ''For better or for worse we're here, the people are here.'' And understanding their position is part of understanding the nation's immigration problem.

The following impressions were gleaned from interviews with more than 20 undocumented immigrants in southern California and several academic authorities on migration:

* The immigrants, most illiterate and poor, come to the US looking as much for higher wages as they are for steadier wages. Though often remaining poor by US standards, they feel their lives are better for having come.

* Most of the undocumented come with the help of networks of immigrants already in the US. They come believing they'll return home, but many do end up staying as they adopt American standards of living.

* Most here illegally don't accept US immigration law as a legitimate reason to stay out of the country, but a growing number of them seek protection under US labor laws and the Fourth Amendment. The longer they are here, the more resentful they are of the restrictions of life as the targets of Immigration and Naturalization Service raids in workplaces, homes, and on the streets. The timid life they lead often leaves them vulnerable to crime and workplace abuse that they can't report for fear of being turned in. Some are even organizing to protect their civil rights.

* Though largely unaware of the political and economic effects of their presence, most illegal immigrants have heard about the debate over their status, and they feel strongly that they are not taking jobs from Americans, and, since they pay into the tax and benefit system, they deserve what social services they can claim. Some do feel discriminated against and believe immigration reform being discussed in Washington could hurt them, while others have guarded hope that the amnesty being discussed could help them.

Guadalupe, a spry, older Mexican who writes poetry and walks horses at a Los Angeles race track, says that coming to the US illegally is morally better than ''staying in our own country and not surviving.''

He sniffs at the US debate over immigration reform. Guadalupe and others like him don't buy the two basic arguments against uncontrolled migration: the nation's need to maintain control of its borders and the economic impact of immigrants.

US politicians speak of the border issue in terms of national sovereignty and the necessity to protect the integrity of law. Immigrants interviewed for this story don't view that concept as a practical reason for what they see as a strong and powerful nation to deny entry to those who come with the goal of feeding their families. In short, they believe human rights come before legal rights.

Most interviewed were only vaguely aware of the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform bill, proposed by US Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming and US Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, that aims to keep illegal immigrants out through, among other measures, imposing sanctions against those who employ them.

But the experience of a group of Mexican women - former workers at a Star-Kist Foods cannery in Wilmington, Calif. - has convinced them that the Simpson-Mazolli legislation would cause the kind of discrimination its foes have predicted. Last spring, when passage of the bill with its provision for employer sanctions appeared imminent, a dozen undocumented workers at the cannery were fired.

The action was immediately taken up by civil rights attorneys, and the workers were rehired because management decided the immigrants would probably have qualified for the amnesty provided in the Simpson-Mazzoli bill.

(As things turned out, the immigration reform bid failed, and the Star-Kist plant was closed.)

Five of those involved in the Star-Kist situation were interviewed by the Monitor. They said that if the civil rights groups had not intervened, they likely would have walked away from the situation rather than call attention to their illegal status.

The groups involved were the Coalition for Visas and Rights for Undocumented Aliens and the Ecumenical Project for Immigration Counseling.

Rosa said that memories of being rousted out of her house by immigration authorities left her in no mood to fight her employers and call attention to herself. But she had worked 17 years at the cannery and was a union member. Surely, a union member with her length of seniority could not be summarily fired , she reasoned.

So when the other fired workers decided to fight management she went along with them. It was a step that has pushed her closer to mainstream America.

''I was very grateful and happy I had that job because a lot of people I know only get the minimum wage,'' says Rosa, who was making $7.50 an hour when the plant closed. ''But it was hard work that I did with pleasure for my children.''

Before, she had no feeling that she had rights to anything but a paycheck, Rosa says. But today she feels it is discrimination when her ''illegal'' status threatens her with the loss of a job or privileges in this country. Yes, she admits, she's here without papers, but she feels entitled to the same rights as anyone else who has worked hard and abided by the rules of the system.

Rosa says she has paid into the tax, social security, and unemployment systems for 17 years. She claims she has not used any free social services here, though her children went to public schools. She is using unemployment benefits now because the plant closed, but she argues that she paid for those benefits.

Her late husband, she recalls, paid into the social security system for 15 years during the 1940s and '50s, but because she doesn't know what name he worked under then as an undocumented worker, she'll never be able to claim the benefits.

Were these women displacing American workers in their Star-Kist jobs? The question draws hoots of laughter from the group as they recall several Americans who came to work in years past and left because they didn't like standing all day smelling the stench of fish. They recall an American named Mabel who left after two days saying, ''This job is for mules.''

The women are among several hundred immigrant families that have paid $50 annual dues to the Coalition for Visas and Rights for Undocumented Aliens, says the coalition's attorney and founder, Antonio Rodriquez. Organized as a support group for immigrants whose roots in this country run so deep that the threat of deportation is a major source of anxiety, the coalition has provided bail and legal services for seven members who have been arrested, he says.

It also runs workshops to educate the undocumented about their legal rights. Often, undocumented immigrants are picked up by immigration authorities, sign voluntary departure papers, and find themselves whisked immediately back to the border. Coalition classes and pamphlets emphasize an immigrant's right not to answer any questions without seeing a lawyer, the right to a hearing and bail, and the right not to have to submit to unreasonable search and seizure.

''We are all immigrants,'' says Mr. Rodriquez, emphasizing that the group does not acknowledge ''legal'' or ''illegal'' status. ''We recognize the one reality we (brown-skinned people) all experience in terms of poverty and discrimination.''

''For every immigrant who knows his rights, there are many more who don't,'' observes Richard Mines, a farm labor and migration expert, who consults for the University of California at Davis.

Mr. Mines says, ''A minority of immigrants in this country are easily exploited'' but ''most don't get abject abuse.'' He has documented family and village networks that provide a support system for immigrants who come to the US.

For example, he says, an immigrant who is being exploited by an employer might ''have an uncle who has been here for a while who says, 'You don't have to take that,' '' and will be encouraged to leave that job and get another.

(Several people interviewed for articles in this series declined to give their full names. Some of the names they gave may or may not be their real names. Where a fictitious name is used, this is indicated. There are no fictitious or composite characters in these articles.)

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