He is a hardworking, self-employed 25-year-old. Leaning against his van outside a North Denver laundromat, Uriel Gallardo says his hours are long — sometimes fifty a week — but that is OK by him. His job, installing new floors, gives him a good life and a means to send money to his mother who remains in Mexico.
For Viviana — who prefers not giving her full name — things are not as good. She is a 52-year-old restaurant worker whose warm smile belies a tough life filled with day-to-day uncertainty.
Work is problematic. As a dishwasher and in the country without papers, Viviana works only when someone fails to show for work. Her paychecks average $100 a week. But, challenges aside, she says living here is still a better life than in Mexico. But she is constantly aware that being in the wrong place at the wrong time could get her deported.
Gallardo, who arrived in 1998, says he is legal and wants to become a citizen. So, he does everything “by the book,” advice he got from an immigration attorney. “I pay my taxes, my tickets; I don’t want any problems.”
The self-employed Gallardo says to avoid trouble, “I don’t even leave home on weekends.” he says. Neither does he drink or do drugs. “I can’t take the chance.” Weekends, he adds with a touch of humor, have just created problems for too many friends who have run afoul of the law. Most importantly, he knows a single stain on his record could ruin any chance of citizenship.
Viviana also stays close to home. Her tether is financial. Everything she earns is also everything she has. She lives with no frills and tries to work within walking distance of restaurants that might call. Bus fare is a luxury.
Gallardo and Viviana are two of the estimated 11 million, mostly Mexican immigrants, whose lives will be affected by immigration legislation now being cobbled together in Congress. If all goes well, the Senate is expected to vote on the first comprehensive immigration reform since 2007
In a sit-down interview with La Voz Bilingüe last September, President Obama predicted that if he won reelection, Republicans would take a different tack on immigration reform.
“I also think that there are going to be Republicans who, after the election, have to do some soul searching,” on immigration. The country is changing and unless Republicans accepted this reality, they would pay at the polls “for a very long time.”
He was right. Within days of the November election, Republicans in Congress as well as a number of conservative pundits jumped aboard the immigration reform wagon. But enthusiasm waned.
Despite the best efforts of the Gang of Eight — a bipartisan group of senators that includes Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and potential Republican presidential candidate and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — the legislation has become water-logged with amendments.
Still, Bennet says, who remains committed to fixing a broken immigration system, “we’ve maintained our principles, including a real and achievable path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have come to this country for a better life.”
The Senate bill now includes provisions for drone surveillance, additional air, ground and waterborne vehicles, infrared cameras, radar, funds for completion of 650 miles of fortified fencing, and, perhaps most dramatic, an added 20,000 border agents pushing the total to 40,000. In all, the bill calls for an estimated $30 billion in fortifications. It also calls for more stringent enforcement of e-verify violations and locating those who have overstayed visas, many
of whom are not Latino.
According to the Border Patrol, there are nearly half a million ‘OTM’ — other than Mexican, as they are officially classified — in the country. One in ten, in fact, is Irish. Most live in the Northeast.
Because most in this category cannot simply be sent back over the border and detention centers are packed, they are given a summons to appear in court in 90 days. Most never do.
Despite months of wrangling, the optimism that Bennet and the Gang of Eight began with has dwindled in Washington and at home. “We still don’t think that border security will be accomplished,” says respected Republican operative Dick Wadhams, now a spokesman for the conservative
Krieble Foundation. It believes that “employer demand” and not “government quotas” should determine the country’s immigration ebb and flow.
Wadhams says the Foundation would like to see a return to something like the Bracero Program, begun after the outbreak of World War II. Between 1942 and 1964 the U.S. allowed in workers — mostly agricultural — on an as-needed and temporary basis. Without it or something similar, Wadhams says, “illegal entry will continue.”
But despite what finally comes from this effort, “they’ll still come,” says Gallardo, who speaks from experience. As a teenager, he made the trek across the Sonoran Desert into Arizona in winter. “It was so cold,” he remembered, “I couldn’t even feel may ears.”
After crossing into the U.S. he hopped a freight that took him to Las Vegas. The misery was overwhelming. “I was ready to die. I was like, ‘why did I even come here?’”
While immigrant crossings into the U.S. are down an estimated 86 percent, according to the Border Patrol, jobs that are not getting filled by Americans are still looked at as opportunity by Mexicans who continue to come north.
Omar Moreno, a legal Mexican immigrant, manages thirty workers at an Edgewater restaurant. He has hired and continues to hire immigrants. “But I tell them, if their e-verify comes back and it doesn’t match, ‘I’m sorry, I have to let you go.’”
He knows their disappointment. The now-29-year-old Moreno, who worked his way from food preparer to manager, waited more than ten years for the paperwork that green-lighted he and his family from Juarez. “It’s sad,” he says. “People just want a better life.”
All signs point to Senate passage of the bill, but perhaps not by the seventy-vote margin originally hoped for. Without that majority, coupled with a wild-horse Tea Party caucus of legislators aiming to please constituents back home and bucking leadership — it just killed the Farm Bill — immigration’s fate is uncertain.
While it is a tactic that even the conservative and pro-business Wall Street Journal calls a loser, it is just fine with people like Betty Blanco, an Otero County Tea Party member and organizer. “I live in farm country and I appreciate people wanting to work,” she says. “But when I see Hispanics doing roofing, they’re taking jobs away from Americans.” Blanco, like many Tea Partiers, just wants a tight grip on the border and a halt to most immigration. “They could be carrying disease. We don’t even know
where they come from.”
The final vote on comprehensive immigration reform is not expected until late July. But already, supporters are disappointed and frustrated that a movement, which sparked so much optimism in January could become so
anemic by July.
“Unfortunately,” says Amber Tafoya, a veteran Denver attorney who has worked extensively on immigration, “there are lot of politics being played.”