Middle-class Mexicans go north. As jobs disappear, many join ranks of illegals in US

ESPERANZA America is 18 months old. In a room full of adoring cousins, the dark-eyed beauty lounges complacently in her great-aunt's lap. She is the only person present (besides a reporter) who is legally entitled to be here. In the last three years, nine of Esperanza's cousins have come to Los Angeles from Mexico. Though members of Mexico's middle class, all are illegal immigrants. Ironically, the child's poetic, two-part name explains why they have come. Esperanza means ``hope'' in Spanish.

Marcos Garcia (not his real name) is her cousin. He lives on a squalid hilltop a few blocks away, sharing two small rooms and a kitchen with his wife and two children, two of his sisters, and a brother. The house commands an impressive, if smoggy, view of Los Angeles, but the street is dirty and poorly paved, with many houses in disrepair.

Asked if he likes living in this house, Mr. Garcia frowns: ``No, there's a lot of poverty around here. It's not a good place for the children. Our home in Mexico City was nicer. It was cleaner, the house was well maintained. Here, we pay $470 a month, and the landlord makes no repairs.''

Garcia and his family are a new breed of illegal immigrant. Unlike the countless poor, undocumented Mexicans, Salvadoreans, or Haitians who slip furtively across US borders, Garcia simply took the bus, presented his passport, and said he was coming to visit his cousin. That was in September 1985.

The Garcias are members of Mexico's dispossessed middle class. In their own country they were white-collar workers, government employees, and teachers. Until recently, family members had never considered emigrating. But when Mexico's economic crisis began to escalate three years ago, they decided to come to Los Angeles.

``It's a trend that's been going on for some time,'' says Xavier Rodriguez of the New Center for Law and Justice, a private agency in Los Angeles which provides services for immigrants. ``The economic situation in Mexico has hurt a lot of professional people. A lot of them are moving to the states.''

None of the Garcias qualifies for amnesty under the new immigration law that grants resident's status to illegals who can prove that they have lived in the US since before Jan. 1, 1982. Illegals have until May 4 to furnish such proof, but at any time those not eligible for amnesty can be detained and deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) - assuming, that is, that the INS can find them. Garcia says that his wife is so apprehensive she rarely leaves the house.

No one in the family speaks English. Though this could make them more vulnerable to detection, it also provides some anonymity in a city whose Spanish-speaking population is estimated to be at least 3 million.

Garcia works in a warehouse for the $3.35-an-hour minimum wage. He says his employer is unfriendly to, and exploits, his 20 workers - all illegal immigrants. Since the workers speak no English, they communicate with their boss through a foreman - also an illegal.

In the two years Garcia has worked there, ``el padron'' has not given him a pay increase.

Garcia smiles when asked how his present work compares with the job he had in Mexico. ``It's very different,'' he says.

Back home, after completing two years of college, Garcia got a job in a government office. He took university courses in the evening. When in 1985 the Mexican government initiated belt-tightening measures, thousands of government contract workers were laid off - Garcia among them.

``The government let a lot of people go,'' Garcia says. ``Lots of factories were closed at that time, and many businesses shut down.'' His wife had already given up her job to care for their two small children.

At first, Garcia expected to get another office job in Mexico City, where he had many professional contacts. Then he tried, unsuccessfully, to open a shop. Finally, reluctantly, he began to think about heading north. His mother had gone not long before, and was living with her cousin, Esperanza America's grandmother, in East Los Angeles.

How do the Garcias like living in the US?

``We miss our customs,'' says Garcia, his three-year-old daughter perched on his lap. ``Although, really, there are so many Hispanics here that we can actually maintain our customs. I guess what we miss is the place and the people.''

Garcia never expected to do what he calls ``heavy'' work. But he got his present job as soon as he arrived. The pay was very good by Mexican standards, so he sent for his wife and children.

His three sisters and brother soon followed. By that time, the earnings of many middle-class Mexicans had dropped below subsistence level. Garcia's sister Marta, who taught typing and shorthand at a high school, was earning $10 a week. Today, all the Garcias except 17-year-old Veronica, a junior in high school who hopes to become a biologist, are working at more-menial - but better paying - jobs than they had in Mexico. (Even with the higher US cost of living, they are better off now.)

Two of the sisters are employed by Los Angeles County as home care workers for the elderly. County officials have expressed no curiosity about their residency status.

``I think that all the Hispanics who are here are important for the United States,'' says Garcia. ``We're helping the economy. We're cheap labor. If employers had to hire workers from here, it would be more expensive. Nobody wants to do the work that we do here.''

But at any time, Garcia and his relatives can be apprehended, charged, detained, and deported by the INS.

``The probabilities are high that Garcia's shop is going to get raided within the next two or three years,'' Mr. Rodriguez says.

According to Rodriguez, if he is apprehended, Garcia will be held in detention until he signs a ``voluntary departure'' form, at which time he will be bused to the Mexican border. He will be entitled to a hearing, and to appeal his case, but the end result will most likely be deportation.

Garcia, however, does not plan to sign the form, or to return to Mexico. He says he intends to get out of detention on bail - at a cost of about $2,500 to his family.

Other family members admit that they are hoping to obtain documents establishing their right to live and work in the US - even if these must be falsified.

Once out of detention, Rodriquez says, ``you can disappear. You can find another job, without informing the Labor Department or the INS, and you can continue working. Perhaps you get deported, but you come back the following day and just submerge yourself even further underground.''

Under the law, employers cannot be held accountable for those workers, like Garcia, who were hired before Nov. 6, 1986. But the intent of the law is to make it virtually impossible for an illegal to get another job: After May 4 it will impose fines on those who hire illegals.

But Rodriquez says that the law will not be able to stop the flow of Mexicans who feel that a job in the US is the only chance they have of providing for their families.

``There is no way anybody is going to stop them coming to the US, with conditions in Mexico developing the way they are,'' Rodriquez maintains. ``Not having the means of subsistence back home, the average undocumented person says, I'd rather come back to the US. The minimum salary in Mexico is about 5,000 pesos [$2.17] a day; a kilo of low-grade meat costs 9,000 pesos [$3.91] right now.''

Despite the uncertainty of his future, Garcia is hopeful. He believes that, somehow, he will be able to legalize his status - even if it is necessary to do so by using false documents. He says he can picture himself in 10 years working at a white-collar job. His children's future, he says, is brighter here.

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