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La vida Utah: Legal or illegal — status is problem

Illegal or legal, Hispanics ignored

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A group of youngsters laughs as a children's fairy tale is recounted to them at Centro de la Familia Migrant Headstart in Salem, Utah County.

A group of youngsters laughs as a children’s fairy tale is recounted to them at Centro de la Familia Migrant Headstart in Salem, Utah County.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Manuel is not so different than other 19-year-old high school graduates. He works two jobs, scrimping and saving enough for college that someday, he hopes, will lead to a lucrative career.

A talented artist, Manuel wants to be a graphic designer.

But while Manuel keeps one eye focused on waiting tables at a posh local club, the other watches the door, haunted by the thought that today might be the day his world comes crashing down.

"It could happen today, it could happen tomorrow," he shrugs.

That's because Manuel, a Utah resident since he was 10 and an honors graduate of Granite High School, is an illegal resident of the United States. One misstep, one traffic stop, one employer suspicious about his lack of a Social Security number — any of these could result in his deportation to Mexico, the country of his birth but little more.

"There is nothing for me in Mexico," he said. "My family is here and my friends are here."

When Manuel talked with an attorney to resolve his residence status, he was informed he really has only three options: He could go back to Mexico and apply for U.S. resident status, which could take up to 10 years. He could apply for a student visa and then go back to Mexico after four or five years in college. Or he could marry an American citizen.

"All three are off limits as far as I am concerned," he said.

These are also unrealistic options for the 50,000 to 100,000 Hispanics now living in Utah illegally. Most find themselves working menial jobs for minimal pay, part of a shadowy subculture fraught with abuse and destitute of any real hope.

American citizenship remains but an elusive pipedream for most, and without it most will remain forgotten by a system that ignores them as law-breakers, as illegals.

"To the system, I am a nobody," Manuel said. "They don't even know my name."

Illegal Justice

Manuel has it better than most caught in this bureaucratic limbo. His fluency in English deflects suspicion, and with an economy in desperate need of bilingual workers he has always been able to find employers who will overlook his lack of documentation.

For now.

Mike Martinez, a civil rights attorney and advocate for Utah Hispanics, says Manuel's situation is hardly unique. In fact, the nation's long-standing immigration policy has created "a problem no one ever anticipated."

"We have had, over the years, a lot of people who are undocumented who are clearly illegal and deportable," he said. But these immigrant workers have managed to elude the system, in the process raising families, sending their children to public schools and watching their English-speaking children embrace everything from Teletubbies to American football.

"In five to 10 years, our schools will be filled with kids who are not American citizens but who are not really Mexicans and have no connection to Mexico. But the system says they are not Americans," Martinez said.

Martinez says one-third of all Hispanics are first-generation immigrants and two-thirds of them are here illegally. Not only are children brought by their parents considered to be "illegal" by the government, but children born in the United States to illegal immigrants are by law citizens of the country of their parents.

Strict limits have been imposed on the numbers of immigrants who are allowed into the United States from Latin American countries. Yet the economies of many states, including Utah, are inherently dependent on abundant cheap labor.

As the demand for cheap labor mounts, the enforcement policies of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service have become unofficially accommodating. Companies desperate for workers are also becoming increasingly brazen in their hiring of undocumented workers.

As one orchard owner observed, "when the apples get ripe, you don't have a lot of choice. You hire those that that will do the job and do it fast."

There is no longer a real risk given Congress changed the law several years ago so that employers of illegal workers are no longer subject to fines.

INS raids still occur, and illegal residents are still deported. But deportations these days tend to be focused more on those arrested for crimes. For those whose only crime is a willingness to work, enforcement is more of a wink and nod these days, they say.

Reality bites

From St. George to Logan, Hispanic workers — legal and illegal — have become inextricably intertwined with Utah's booming economy. In Park City, the number of Hispanics has increased 300 percent in recent years. In St. George, there has been a 200 percent increase.

Similar increases have been reported in rural enclaves like Millard County and Sanpete County, all places with a critical need of farm laborers. In Tooele County, Utah Hispanics constitute the vast majority of workers in the casinos in neighboring Wendover, Nev.

Growing pains have been unavoidable. In Wendover, Utah, 89 percent of the public school students are Hispanic, yet there are no minority teachers there.

Across the state teachers complain there simply aren't enough resources to address the problem of children who can't yet speak English.

Some 62 percent of all Hispanic students drop out. "They aren't graduating because they aren't there," said Leticia Medina, director of the state Office of Hispanic Affairs.

Alicia Suazo, a second-grade teacher at Salt Lake's Lincoln Elementary School for the past 15 years before transferring this year to Parkview Elementary, has watched as many as 50 percent of her students leave her class before the end of the school year.

"They leave, they come back and they leave again. It is so hard on them when they know they are not staying," she said. "With their literacy, they are constantly playing catch-up."

In response, the Salt Lake City School District, with a 25 percent Hispanic population, has invested heavily in bilingual education programs. Several schools teach basic survival English classes in first through sixth grades.

There are mentoring programs and Spanish-speaking counselors and after-school programs. In Utah County, a Head Start program was started just to address the needs of children of migrant workers.

And still almost two out of every three Hispanic students do not finish high school.

An identity struggle

Advocates say Hispanic children are dealing with more than just language problems that impede their education. They are dealing with social problems inherent in family situations characterized by absent parents, intercultural conflict and a basic need for social acceptance.

In many cases, Hispanic children are English-speaking, all-American kids by day, Spanish-speaking Mexicans and Cubans and Colombians by night.

"Hispanic kids struggle with their own identity, with who they are and how they fit in (a predominantly white culture)," Medina said.

The social problems spiral as they get older and pressure mounts for them to contribute financially to their extended household, she added. Because they are bilingual, they often get better jobs at 16 than do their adult, non-English-speaking parents.

But even those jobs offer little prospect of breaking the cycle of poverty. And the lack of proper documentation can doom even the brightest student to a lifetime of menial labor.

Educators and community activists alike find the social cycle morally disturbing, and they all agree education is the great equalizer.

"If a kid shows up at school, we do not ask if they are citizens," said Steve Hess, Granite High School principal. "We educate children, and (U.S.) citizenship is not a criteria for getting an education."

The same cannot be said of institutions of higher education, where proper identification is required. No Social Security number, no admittance. The same is true of the military.

Theresa Martinez, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah, said it should be embarrassing to the U. that she is the first Hispanic woman to ever be tenured there, and that didn't come until 1996. Other activists say the university should be embarrassed that only 3 percent of the student body is Hispanic.

A digital divide

But education is only one egg in the proverbial basket, Martinez cautions. There also have to be employment and business and community opportunities, and business leaders and philanthropists need to step forward with money and programs to foster computer literacy for minority children.

"One of the things that scares me is that we will have a generation of kids that has nothing more than high school education, . . . that does not have good training in advanced technology and is unable to discourse in the business world," she said.

And that, she said, will result in a digital divide as onerous as any racism.

Latino advocates shudder at the thought Utah voters might actually pass an initiative making English the official state language. They fear a large Latino population already underrepresented politically will become even more disenfranchised if the law is applied in such a way that government offices would no longer have to print documents in Spanish or schools were no longer required to teach English as a second language.

Martinez suspects the measure will pass overwhelmingly. "The silent majority is uncomfortable with people who are different," he said. "They will not say it, but they can in the voting booth. It will be a psychological measure for the silent majority."

Nevertheless, it is a majority that is dwindling as Hispanics grow in number. As their political might matches their number, change will be inevitable.

Businesses have already begun to cater to Hispanic consumers, and some companies now offer special training for their Latino workers. Some city agencies have begun active recruitment of minorities to better reflect the demographic diversity of their communities.

Some see the day not too distant when there will be a Latino mayor of Salt Lake City or Ogden. Latinos dream of a day when their numbers are properly reflected in the makeup of the Utah Legislature and on city councils.

"No growth occurs without pain," Theresa Martinez said. "Some will become angry and violent and insecure, and others will harness it."

The Deseret News chose not to reveal Manuel's entire name. Because of his status as an illegal resident, he could be arrested and deported.

E-MAIL: spang@desnews.com