3.11.2007

Inside the Immigration Maze

Inside the Immigration Maze, With No Answers (by Peter Applebome of The NYTimes - 3.7.07)

FARMINGVILLE, N.Y. Like a stranger in a strange land, Carlos Morales, a 26-year-old day laborer who came to Long Island six years ago from Mexico, is a perceptive observer of the suburban terrain where he works, goes to school and dreams of a better life.

So as he rides the bus or walks to Suffolk County Community College, past the mysterious signs reading “Rose Riot” (that’s a $7.99-a-dozen sale) or recruiting youths for lacrosse, as he observes the women in their big S.U.V.s and the hostile glares when he enters non-Latino businesses, he takes note of many things.

There are the kids tossing bottles or tomatoes at immigrant workers from passing cars. There are the men who, he insists, protest illegal immigration at night and then turn around and hire the same laborers by day. There’s the policeman who stopped him on the street and demanded to know what was in his backpack (schoolbooks) and who photographs immigrant workers for a running dossier.

There’s the 12-year-old boy he can’t get out of his head, who, when asked by a television interviewer what he thought of immigrant workers, answered, “I hate them.”
But sitting the other day at the Paisa Pan Colombian bakery with a beef empanada and a cup of coffee, he could not begin to figure out the maze that is immigration policy in America.

After all, he lives in a place where the county executive, Steve Levy, has made a national reputation for himself as an outspoken critic of illegal immigration and last week called for a crackdown in the county, including antiloitering legislation and the assignment of federal immigration officials to the county jail, the better to deport people who are here illegally.

At the same time Mr. Morales knows that other communities, mostly larger than Farmingville, like Newark, Trenton and New Haven, have formally or informally set themselves up as safe havens for immigrants, where workers are welcome whether they are here legally or not.

And then there are the Minutemen, the self-appointed border patrol that seems to him a throwback to vigilante justice in Texas 100 years ago.

It is as if immigration policy is not a national issue but a local one, like zoning or the school curriculum. New Haven, sí, Danbury, no. Trenton, sí, Freehold, no.
And that, of course, is pretty much the case. It is, after all, entirely possible that immigration has become an issue with so many disparate constituencies and competing economic interests to please that we’ve given up on a solution. Better to muddle along than make hard, unpalatable choices.

“No matter what position you take, someone is not going to like it,” Mr. Morales said.

He is not sure what will work, either. He thinks a just policy would provide legal status for people like him who came illegally but have worked hard, doing jobs Americans often won’t.

But when asked why he should be rewarded ahead of people seeking legal status through available channels, he doesn’t pretend to have an easy answer. He puts himself inside the mind of his neighbors in Suffolk County and can understand some of their unease about this new population of people living in the shadows, working for less.

THIS is how Carlos Morales came to this country. The youngest of eight children, and hoping to support his family, he paid a coyote the enormous sum of $1,500 to cross the Sonoran Desert. The group of immigrants went without water for three days, finally finding a muddy pond on a cattle ranch that was good enough for the cows and good enough for them.

Since arriving here he has worked construction and odd jobs. He fell from a tree doing tree work, hurt his back and is still paying his hospital bills.

He has passed the English as a second language course at Suffolk and is now working on his G.E.D. He hopes to go to college and study photojournalism or political science. He has seen more at 26 than many of us ever do, so he watches the morass of immigration policy and knows at least two things.

First, he says, this is not new. America honors its immigration history in the abstract but often looks with disdain on its newcomers — the Italians, the Irish, the Chinese, the Jews. Now, it’s Hispanics. Second, it will take more than an antiloitering law or bottles and tomatoes to get him to leave. He fought to get here. He’ll fight to stay here.

“I hear people say they have to go back, they have to go back,” he said of immigrants here illegally. “Well, they’re not going to go back. They’re already here. They’re not going to go back to Mexico and live in the same situation they were before. So that’s being realistic. People are not going to go back.”