Special Reports

Illegal immigration: What do we really want?

With illegal immigration in the headlines, the Fresno County Council of Governments decided in June to discuss Arizona's controversial new law.

Local Tea Party members showed up in force. So did activists vehemently opposed to the law, which requires police -- in the course of enforcing other laws -- to question the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally.

Things got tense.

"What is so offensive about [the Arizona law] that everybody's got a problem with it?" one Tea Party member, John Smedley, asked the board and the 70 or so people in the audience. "This is about illegal immigration. ... We're trying to stop it. It's run amok."

A lot of people feel the same, especially in the Central Valley. A recent poll shows that the Arizona law, which has been challenged in court, enjoys support from 55% of Valley voters and 50% of voters statewide.

But polls don't tell the full story. Many of us have competing feelings about illegal immigration. Those who want stricter immigration enforcement also recognize that the Valley's economy depends on cheap labor. Many even hire illegal immigrants themselves as day laborers and housekeepers so they can have more time to focus on careers and enjoy life.

Smedley, the Tea Party member, acknowledged several weeks after the Council of Governments meeting that he may be benefiting from the labor of illegal immigrants.

He said he relies on a crew of yardworkers to tend to a six-unit apartment building that he rents out in Fresno. The man in charge of the crew speaks English, so Smedley assumes he's a legal worker, although he's never asked for his Social Security card or green card. He doesn't know about the other guys who help out the crew manager. Smedley pays the manager in cash: $30 per visit every two weeks.

Smedley, who lives in Madera Ranchos and grew up picking cotton before moving to a career in construction, acknowledged that without illegal immigrants, the cost of yardwork could go up and he might have to take care of it himself.

And despite his angry call for action at the Council of Governments meeting, Smedley said illegal immigrants should be given a chance to be legalized "if they are law-abiding, working, have a family with children born here and comply with any laws and regulations."

Smedley's conflicting feelings illustrate a simple truth: Many of us don't want illegal immigrants here -- but we also find they come in handy. Even Meg Whitman, who portrayed herself during her California gubernatorial campaign as tough on illegal immigration, famously was forced to admit she had employed an illegal immigrant housekeeper.

"When you talk about an illegal-immigrant invasion, it lets you off the hook," Sanger native and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. said at a recent panel discussion on illegal immigration in Fresno. "It says, 'I really had nothing to do with this,' when in reality we have nannies and yardworkers and housekeepers."

Studies show that many of us benefit from illegal immigrants in ways we may not even realize. Patricia Cortes, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, found that the cost of hiring housecleaners, nannies and yardworkers decreased by at least 9% from 1980 to 2000, adjusted for inflation, because of the increase in low-skilled immigrants over those years -- many of them illegal immigrants. She concluded that this allowed highly-educated American women to spend more time on their careers instead of having to tend to household jobs.

Maria-Elena, a 37-year-old illegal immigrant, did odd jobs such as housecleaning to help support her family while growing up in Mexico. Now she does the same thing in Fresno. With some help from a friend who looked up clients on Craigslist, Maria-Elena found three people who wanted their floors mopped, toilets scrubbed and sinks shined once a week. She makes $60 in cash for about five hours of work. Sometimes her clients give her gifts.

"They're good people because they know I am undocumented," she said. "They accept me because they see my need to work and they also need the help."

Then there are the guys hanging out at the Home Depot.

When someone needs a backyard cleaned or some furniture moved -- or when a subcontractor needs a few extra hands -- they often show up at the home improvement store on Kings Canyon Road in southeast Fresno. Here, you can almost always find 15 to 20 Hispanic men loitering on the parking lot medians or leaning against their pickups.

It's 8 a.m. and Sergio, a 31-year-old illegal immigrant wearing brown boots, blue jeans, a white T-shirt and a dusty Yankees cap, has been staring at the parking lot asphalt for two hours, hoping someone will offer him work: $70 for a long day of installing tile, hammering nails or tearing down old walls. Today, he's waiting for a contractor who hired him last week to help install a fence. But if the guy doesn't arrive by noon, Sergio will take the bus back to his apartment in west Fresno.

"Sometimes there's just too much waiting," Sergio said. "You have to go home for lunch."

Californians have mixed views about illegal immigrants. A recent poll showed that a majority of voters believe illegal immigrants are hurting the state, but a majority also said they were taking unwanted jobs.

The polls reflect our conflicted feelings: We condemn illegal immigrants for breaking the law but also recognize that they contribute to our economy.

Take, for example, MaryLou Rodriguez-Bonneau, the daughter of a hard-working Mexican immigrant mother. A spunky 75-year-old retired Clovis office manager and active member of the Tea Party, Rodriguez-Bonneau says she knows many illegal immigrants work hard and do the jobs that U.S.-born workers won't do. Still, she said, that doesn't mean illegal immigrants should be here: "My heart goes out to them because they are my own people, but illegal is illegal is illegal."

Rodriguez-Bonneau gets flak from those who support amnesty for illegal immigrants -- including two of her four sons.

She herself is divided. She believes in the rule of law, but she also understands why illegal immigrants come here.

"They all want a better life, and I don't blame them," she said. "Look at what they go through -- starving on the way here, no water, dying so they can send money home."

In the end, Rodriguez-Bonneau concludes that there needs to be a compromise: If illegal immigrants are working the jobs no one else wants, let them stay. Otherwise, deport them.

Oscar Olguin feels similarly. He and his mother immigrated here legally when he was 6 and moved to Madera in 1962. Olguin worked in the fields picking cotton and cutting grapes until he learned English so he could enroll in public school, which excluded non-English-speakers at the time. He eventually became a U.S. citizen in his early 20s and got a job with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., where he now works as an electrical engineer.

Like Rodriguez-Bonneau, he seems conflicted over what to do about illegal immigrants. He knows farmers depend on them, but at the same time, he supports Arizona's immigration law and says enforcement agencies should continue to deport illegal immigrants.

But Olguin also said he's opposed to worksite raids and believes that illegal immigrants who have been here for a long time should be given amnesty.

"Those individuals who paid hard-earned money to get across the border and put their life in danger so they could get here and earn money for their families, those individuals should be respected," he said.

Sometimes, illegal immigrants' harshest critics are Hispanics who are frustrated with those who broke the law to get here. In Mendota, where perhaps a third of the residents are illegal immigrants, City Councilman Joseph Riofrio said he knows several second-generation Mexicans in town who would like to see their illegal immigrant neighbors go back to Mexico.

"They won't say it in a group of people because they know somebody might get angry," Riofrio said. "But when the moment's right, they'll say, 'I'm sick and tired of these parades and flag-waving and this Mexican music. I'm sick of it. I've got to go to Fresno and River Park to remind myself of where I'm at.' "

Polls show that our opinions about illegal immigrants shift with the economy: The percentage of California voters who thought illegal immigrants had a good effect on the state decreased from 2006 to 2010 as the unemployment rate went up, according to the Field Poll.

"If everything was going swell, I don't think illegal immigrants taking jobs would be an issue," said Dennis Lujan, mayor of Selma. "But you see a lot of people who are unemployed right now, and they're looking for someone to blame."

Finding a way to make everyone happy -- illegal immigrants, low-skilled American workers who compete for jobs and businesses that rely on cheap labor -- isn't easy. Many Valley residents seem torn over what to do.

John-David Schofield, the politically conservative Anglican bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin, says he cares deeply about illegal immigrants in the Valley who live in poverty. But he struggles to offer a solution.

"It's sort of a catch-22," he said. "On the one hand, you need these people, but on the other hand, you can see that not far down the road, government institutions won't be able to handle this undocumented population. We're a state that is already [billions of dollars] in the red."

Hispanics are the fastest-growing part of the diocese -- and many are illegal immigrants, Schofield said. Worried about their plight, he and other church leaders in the mid-1990s began visiting impoverished pockets of Fresno County and established an organization to help those communities.

For Schofield, it's personal. He has a painting of three farmworkers picking beans. Their faces are blurred out -- "We look right through them, we don't see them as persons," he said.

But Schofield doesn't favor amnesty. Many legal immigrants who waited a long time to come here would resent it if others could get a free pass, he said. He's also supportive of Arizona's immigration law, which he said is "simply trying to maintain law and order and protect citizens." He would, however, favor an improved guest-worker program. Also, he doesn't like the idea of deporting all illegal immigrants. In the end, Schofield acknowledged that there's no easy solution.

Because so many of us are conflicted over illegal immigrants, some local politicians would rather steer clear of the issue.

Before the Council of Governments met to discuss Arizona's immigration law, several city councils in Fresno County debated the issue themselves. In Clovis, the council voted 4-1 against writing a letter to Washington, D.C., policy-makers opposing the law. Mayor Harry Armstrong, who was in the majority, said it wasn't the City Council's job to meddle in Arizona's affairs. Asked what he thought about illegal immigration, Armstrong demurred, noting that it is a divisive and "very emotional issue."

"It's not my position as the mayor of Clovis to be discussing this," he said. "It's not a city issue."

The lone councilmember in support of the letter, Jose Flores -- whose parents were farmworkers -- said the city could have drafted a letter asking for immigration reform without mentioning the Arizona law. He is a registered Republican and a captain in the Fresno County Sheriff's Office who has deported several illegal immigrants himself, but he believes that law-abiding and hard-working illegal immigrants should be given amnesty if they are willing to pay a fine.

His biggest frustration is politicians who refuse to discuss the issue.

"If they can punt, they'd rather do that. But I don't punt," Flores said. "We have illegal aliens living in Clovis. We have businesses that depend on their labor. We can't hide our heads in the sand."

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