Aliens without amnesty face life in the shadows. Children become breadwinners as employer sanctions dry up jobs
Austin, Texas — ``La Huala de Oro'' - the Golden Cage - a song about life for illegal aliens in the United States, has played frequently over the past year on Spanish-language radio stations throughout the Southwest. With the first phase of the nation's landmark legalization program completed Wednesday, more than 1 million illegal aliens are expected to receive amnesty and be freed from that cage. But for millions of others, who either did not qualify for legalization or who for a variety of reasons did not apply, the cage will become more restrictive.
Jobs will likely become more difficult to find and keep, as Immigration and Naturalization Service begins in June to levy fines, and even criminal prosecutions, rather than just warnings against employers who hire illegal aliens. While most immigrant advocates say they still expect work to be available to illegals, they anticipate that more of it will be in underground industries where pay is often below minimum wage, and other forms of exploitation are more common.
When the INS began the legalization process a year ago, the agency adopted the slogan, ``Out of the shadows'' to describe the program. Yet many immigration experts across the country say they are concerned that the majority of the nation's estimated 4 million to 7 million undocumented aliens will now retreat deeper into those shadows. A surreptitious underclass of frightened and highly exploitable people - something the amnesty program was designed to alleviate - may now find life growing darker in the golden cage, they say.
``There are two categories that will remain in the shadows: those already here who didn't receive amnesty, and those still coming in,'' says Rodolfo de la Garza, director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. ``In both cases, they will be driven further underground, and their life will be more difficult.''
``The most serious problems facing them will be employment related,'' says Linda Wong, national director of the immigrant civil rights program of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles. Many aliens, accustomed to good steady jobs, will increasingly find themselves relegated to day-labor status in construction, agriculture, repair work, or fringe assembly operations, she says.
Evidence is surfacing that illegal aliens are already taking steps to retreat further from the mainstream, according to Ms. Wong. She says an unprecedented drop in enrollment in some inner-city schools in Los Angeles is being attributed to the 18-month-old immigration law.
``Younger children are being taken out of school so the parents can't be traced through them,'' Wong says, ``and older citizen-children are dropping out to find work to replace the jobs their parents lost. There is increasing pressure on children to become the primary breadwinners.''
Unscrupulous employers are already devising means of benefiting from the pool of illegal labor despite the sanctions they face. Some citrus growers in Florida have been promising laborers their pay at the end of two weeks, and then at that point telling them they can receive their pay only with proof of legal status, according to Dr. de la Garza. Others are reportedly requiring illegal employees to post up to $1,000 to defray the cost of sanctions in the event they are discovered.
``What the sanctions seem to be doing is creating the very real threat of a shadow population of employers,'' says Muriel Heilberger, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
Despite the hardships, most observers believe illegal immigration will continue, primarily because the factors pushing foreigners from their countries - poor economies and strife - have not changed.
After some decrease last year in apprehensions of illegal aliens along the southern border of the US, INS reports that the numbers are beginning to climb again. Apprehensions in Texas during March rose 16 percent over March 1987, with increases in some border sectors up more than 60 percent.
Part of the increase may reflect the larger number of Border Patrol agents operating along the Rio Grande. But some immigration experts report that aliens who left last year when publicity of sanctions and legalization was high are beginning to trickle back into the country.
``Priests in East Los Angeles parishes are confirming the return of people who left last year,'' Wong notes. John Korcsmar, a Roman Catholic priest in Austin, says a colleague of his in Monterrey, Mexico, told him recently of a parishioner who left to return north, ``and within two weeks he called to say he was working in San Antonio.''
Proponents of the immigration law say employer sanctions, if enforced, can work to stem the flow of illegal aliens into the country.
But many immigrant advocates remain doubtful. With labor shortages beginning to crop up in different parts of the country, these advocates believe pressure may be put on Congress in the future to extend and broaden alien legalization.
``Employers have yet to really feel the effects of this law,'' notes Rick Swartz, president of the National Immigration, Refugee & Citizenship Forum. When people from factory owners to families with alien housekeepers and child-care providers begin losing employees, he says, ``we may see a whole new set of middle-class voters with sudden interest in an expanded legalization program.''
Whether the pressure is from civil rights activists or business owners, immigration experts predict that the issue of illegal aliens has hardly been laid to rest.
``If members of Congress think they've dealt with the problem of a large class of people living in the shadows,'' says Ms. Heilberger, ``they're going to find they're mistaken.''
As of Tuesday, according to the Associated Press, 1.4 million people had filed applications nationwide, and 475,000 people were seeking legal status under a separate program for seasonal agricultural workers, the INS said. The deadline for that program is Nov. 30. There were no figures available yet for Wednesday and Thursday.
``At this time, it appears we will break 2 million'' for the combined programs, INS spokesman Greg Leo said in Washington, D.C.
Illegal aliens who have lived in the United States continuously since before Jan. 1, 1982, were eligible for temporary residency and amnesty from deportation under the program. They must apply for permanent residency with 18 months and can eventually apply for citizenship.