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Vox Populi on Immigration Proposal - 2004-01-23

Earlier this month – and again in his State of the Union address last Tuesday – President George Bush outlined a proposal for immigration reform. Today on New American Voices, immigrant workers offer their reactions to the President’s proposal.

Many details of the immigration reform proposal remain to be worked out. As it stands, the Department of Homeland Security would operate a temporary worker program, granting temporary work permits to undocumented immigrants already in this country who have a job, or people who want to come to this country and have a concrete job offer. The work permits would be valid for three years and could be renewed, but, the President cautions, would have an end. At that time the workers would be expected to return home, unless they had been approved for citizenship under the existing process. People with temporary work permits would have the same legal protections as American workers. They could also travel between the United States and their home countries during the time they worked here.

Herman Martin, an undocumented construction worker from Guatemala who has been in this country for four years, likes the idea of the work permits. His comments are translated by Elsa Riveros, an organizer for the Tenents’ and Workers’ Support Committee in the Washington area.

“He said, I have heard on the radio and seen on TV these people talking about this proposal. Mister Bush is promising us legal papers, so I think it is a good idea, because when we want to go to our countries, we can’t. In other words the law says, you can go back, but you cannot come in again. So I’m happy for this idea, the idea of being able to have legal papers to go visit our countries and come back. I think it’s a good idea, and I like it.”

Ms Riveros explained that Herman Martin has a very personal reason for giving the reaction he did.

“He had to pay like a lot of money the first time he came to the United States, and then somebody told him, ‘Your mother is very sick, she’s dying’, and he said, ‘I have to go back, I cannot stay here knowing that my mother is sick.’ So he went back, his mother died, and he had to pay again, and he came all over again. That horrible trip - he did it twice.”

Miguel Fuentes came to the United States from Honduras six years ago. His wife also made the trip, leaving their children -- one of them five, the other six years old -- with an aunt. They have not seen their children since then. Mr. Fuentes is a carpenter, but for the last four months he has been unemployed. He hopes the President’s proposal will help him and those like him to improve their situation.

“Mr. Fuentes says that he’s very grateful for the proposal. It’s better than nothing. But he thinks three years is not enough. He doesn’t agree with that part of the proposal. Latinos work more than anybody else in this country. Really, we work very hard. We come to this country due to the situation and the crisis in our own countries. We come here to feed our children in our country, to help our families over there. So he thinks that he will feel more comfortable being legal in this country with a permit, but he would like to stay here three, and three more and three more, longer, and if you could become a resident, that would be great.”

Jose Rivera came to the Washington area from El Salvador nine years ago. He says he came, simply, so that he could stop being poor. Having worked as a landscaper for many employers in the years he has been here, Mr. Rivera has some practical concerns about the President’s proposal.

“I know that this is only a proposal. But I’m going to give my opinion. I’m afraid that if we’re going to be attached to an employer, I’m afraid of not being treated like a human being. I’m afraid that maybe this employer is going to take advantage of this situation and do with us whatever he wants. People like me are very, very hard workers. There are many people like me, who always obey the law, we do what the law says and we are always doing our best. But I’m afraid of being treated bad by an employer.”

Jose Vanegas, a Latino community activist in the Washington area, welcomed the President’s proposal, but he looks at it with the realistic eye of someone who deals with immigrant workers on a regular basis.

“Right now if they’re underground and they’re making money, and they go and register, and then they know they’re going to be kicked out in about three years, it doesn’t give them no incentive for them to register in the first place. Now if you give them permanent residency then that's going to be a different story. If it’s only going to be temporary, it doesn’t give too much incentive to people to participate in this program.”

Lieutenant Raul Castillo of the Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department immigrated to this country from Mexico with his parents when he was a child. He has a good career and leads a typical American middle-class life, but he sympathizes with the people who are less fortunate, and strongly supports the President’s initiative.

"As it relates to immigrants, I feel strongly that there are so many people that are coming and want to do a good job just to do well, to help their families whether locally or in their home countries. There is a large population of immigrants who are doing the jobs that other people don’t want to do, low-paying jobs, construction jobs, I think any help that relates to them, any opportunity that is for the immigrants I would enjoy.”

It is estimated that there are between eight and ten million illegal immigrants in the United States, the vast majority of them from Latin America. The President’s proposal has intensified the national debate on how to deal with this issue.

English Feature #7-38276 Broadcast January 26, 2004