President George Bush and his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, met this month to discuss issues of concern to both countries. A hot topic was the continuing migration of Mexicans and other Hispanics into America. A few days earlier, President Bush had proposed sweeping changes in America?s policies for immigrant workers and President Fox gave them qualified support. VOA?s Rich Kelley picks up the story in an unlikely place ? a small town in America?s heartland. From Washington, here is Serena Parker.
In 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 50 Hispanics lived in Beardstown, Illinois. The 2000 Census noted that almost 2,000 Hispanics lived in the town, or about one-third of its residents. What accounts for the dramatic increase in 10 years?
When asked why they moved to this small town on a Midwestern prairie, Hispanics answered they were seeking trabajo, which is Spanish for work. The work they found in Beardstown is in a pork processing plant run by Excel Corporation.
?Pork processing? is a polite term. In the plant, live hogs are killed and gutted. Pork products -- such as meat and skin -- are carved by hand and sent to market. The work is hard and unpleasant. Workers say the odors of the plant are difficult to wash off at night. The starting wage is $11 an hour. However, the workers say this is far more than they earned in Mexico or in other Latin American countries. Also, several said they prefer working in Beardstown rather than in the farm fields of California.
A worker who moved to Beardstown from Mexico in 1995 tells a typical story. ?I?m sure that in many cases, the economy in Mexico is not very promising,? he says. ?I was 17 years old and I had to work from six in the morning to six in the evening and the pay was only about $4. There was no future.?
On January 7, President Bush outlined a program that would make undocumented foreign workers legal for a period of time and possibly move them toward permanent residency and citizenship.
The plan is controversial and far from going into effect, but the president says action is needed. ?Reform must begin by confronting a basic fact of life and economics,? the President says. ?Some of the jobs being generated in America?s growing economy are jobs American citizens are not filling. Yet these jobs represent a tremendous opportunity for workers from abroad who want to work.?
Father Eugene Weitzel is pastor of Saint Alexius Roman Catholic Church in Beardstown. Father Weitzel has several years of experience helping Hispanic immigrants. His church provides many services to them, including two masses held in Spanish every week. But he adds the church cannot help workers who have run afoul of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS., because they have entered the country illegally.
?One of the real problems is one we cannot solve,? he says. ?These people have to lie and cheat to stay in America. The INS does not recognize them. We had a raid here about two months ago, when they broke into homes where people were selling documents and papers so workers could come to America. About nine people were arrested at that time. So we want them to come because they do the work that the Anglo will not do, but we don?t treat them fairly.?
President Bush echoes the argument that the current system forces U.S. employers and millions of Hispanic workers to break the law. ?We see many employers turning to the illegal labor market,? he says. ?We see millions of hard-working men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive, undocumented economy.?
It is not clear how many Hispanics live in America illegally because they obviously want to avoid detection. The U.S. government says there are about 8 million, while Mexico estimates 10 million. It is easy to acquire identification that looks authentic, as the workers in Beardstown have shown. They tend to use assumed names to procure documents such as a work permit and a driver?s license. When asked their name, they would smile as if telling a joke. Only the church knows their real names, which are needed for church functions, such as getting married or baptizing a child.
The Mexican government is reluctant to help track down its citizens who are in the United States illegally. These undocumented workers send back hard cash vital to the Mexican economy, as much as $10 billion a year. That constitutes Mexico?s third largest source of foreign income after tourism and oil exports. Small wonder President Fox calls these workers national heroes.
President Bush has not called Hispanic workers heroes, but in his January 7 announcement he said they can make excellent citizens. ?As a Texan, I have known many immigrant families, mainly from Mexico, and I have seen what they add to our country,? he says. ?They bring to America the values of faith in God, love of family, hard work and self-reliance.?
Some Americans are skeptical of the President?s proposal. Dan Stein is executive director of Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington lobbying group.
?The proposal doesn?t have any credibility,? he says. ?Our immigration system isn?t working. Everyone knows that since September 11 we don?t have the interior enforcement structure. We abolished the Immigration Service two years ago because it was completely dysfunctional -- not working, broken from top-to-bottom. It was folded into the new Department of Homeland Security. They?re not only trying to get themselves organized, they?re trying to meet a rigorous set of statutory deadlines that Congress laid out for a whole variety of new programs for security, biometrics and document reform. How in the world could they administer a massive guest worker amnesty program given that everybody knows ? everybody knows ? that our immigration system does not work.?
The outlook for the President?s proposed change is uncertain. The status quo is acceptable to many: better jobs for illegal immigrants who manage to stay in America as long as they like; greater profits for businesses that can employ these workers at low wages.
This report was written by Rich Kelley, from Washington, this is Serena Parker.