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Latinos Urge Solution to Immigration Issue

The debate over illegal immigration in the United States has put the spotlight on Hispanics, who make up most of the people who are in the country illegally. Hispanics are also the largest group of legal immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan spoke with members of the large Latino community in Los Angeles to get their views on the subject of immigration.

The U.S. Census Bureau says there are more than 40 million Hispanics in the United States, making up 14 percent of the population.

Most Hispanics, also called Latinos, are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants, but millions are not. The Pew Hispanic Center says at least 11 million people are in the United States illegally, and more than three-quarters of them are Latino.

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in recent marches, demanding that Congress and the president give them legal status. A half-million marched in Los Angeles.

Journalist Francisco Castro has covered the demonstrations. He understands the immigration issue, since he was once an illegal immigrant.

"I came here when I was 15," he said. "I came here illegally in the back of a truck under some wood. So that's the way I came through the border."

Castro's mother was already in the United States. After she gained legal status under a 1986 amnesty, he obtained residence papers and later became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Today, Castro is married with a three-month old son, who was born a U.S. citizen.

His wife, Maria, grew up in Tijuana, a border city in northern Mexico. Her father lived in Los Angeles.

"He came to work to the United States when I was born," he noted. "He stayed here for a couple of years with some of my brothers. So I came to the United States more than once, just to visit my family."

She decided to move here and came on a visitor's visa, but overstayed it illegally. She later became a legal resident and this year became a naturalized citizen.

Francisco Castro is a reporter for Hoy, one of two Spanish-language daily newspapers in Los Angeles. He says the Latino community in the city is diverse.

"You have recent immigrants, from the person who just came last week, let's say from Mexico or Central America or the rest of Latin America, and you have Latinos who have been here 20, 30, 40 years even, who still have very strong roots in the Latino community," he explained.

The Pew Hispanic Center says there are nearly 20 million Latinos in the U.S. workforce. Many are employed in service industries and some, like Juan Carlos Mendoza, are small business owners.

Mendoza was one of nine children born to a blind couple in Mexico City.

"Since we were little kids, we had to help out a lot by working," he said. "They've always beeqn working people. And I guess that's what we learned from them, to work, to be good people."

He entered the United States illegally at age 16, crossing the border at night through a muddy tunnel. His sister and seven brothers also came northward. Mendoza lost a leg in a traffic accident, but copes well with his disability. Today, he owns a French-style restaurant called Paul's Café in suburban Los Angeles.

He has legal residence papers, and his American-born children are U.S. citizens, including one who is serving in the U.S. army in Iraq.

Mendoza says he is working toward citizenship, and that like others from Latin America, he is proud to be here.

"That's the beauty of this country. It gives you the opportunity," he explained. "In our countries, it would be really, really, really hard to succeed."

Another immigrant named Lorenzo has come here twice from Guatemala, once crossing the U.S. border easily south of Los Angeles, and later making an arduous journey to Texas after controls had been tightened.

"We were lost in the hills, the Mexican hills, around three or five days in the hills, no water, no food, no nothing," he recalled.

He said Mexican police near the border demanded bribes, threatening to kill the Guatemalans. It took the group a month to make the long journey northward through Mexico.

At the U.S. border came more hardship. The group was lost in the desert for two nights, again with no food and water, but they survived. "Maybe God blesses those," Lorenzo says, "who come here with good intentions."

Lorenzo says life in Los Angeles is good for him and his family, but there is always uncertainty.

"You know, there is no peace in your life because you never know if somebody comes and knocks on your door and pulls you out because you are not legal here," he added.

Reporter Francisco Castro says the immigration issue affects nearly all Latinos.

"Whether we have papers or not, because obviously we all know people who don't have those papers, or family members who are back home who would like to come here, perhaps not in the near future, but eventually will want to make their trip over here," he said.

The United States offered amnesty to millions who had entered the country illegally once before, and critics say a second amnesty would be unfair to those who are trying to immigrate legally.

Many Latinos, however, say that a mass deportation would be even more unfair, dividing up many families. They insist a government program that offers a path to citizenship for those already here could solve the problem. That is what they hope the president and congress can agree on.