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|Posted January 18, 2008|
Facing Deportation but Clinging to Life in U.S.
SALLY RYAN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
|Shop owners in Waukegan, Ill., say that the crackdown on illegal immigrants has kept their mostly Hispanic customers away.|
By JULIA PRESTON
WAUKEGAN, Ill. She is a homeowner, a taxpayer, a friendly neighbor and an American citizen. Yet because she is married to an illegal immigrant, these days she feels like a fugitive.
Whenever her Mexican husband ventures out of the house, it makes me sick to my stomach, said the woman, who insisted on being identified only by a first name and last initial, Miriam M.
Im like, Oh, my God, he took too long, she said. Ill start calling. I go into panic.
Over the last year, thousands of illegal immigrants and their families who live here have retreated from community life in Waukegan, a microcosm of a growing underground of illegal immigrants across the country who are clinging to homes and jobs despite the pressure of tougher federal and local enforcement.
From Illinois to Georgia to Arizona, these families are hiding in plain sight, to avoid being detected by immigration agents and deported. They do their shopping in towns distant from home, avoid parties and do not take vacations.
They stay away from ethnic stores, forgo doctors visits and meetings at their childrens schools, and postpone girls normally lavish quinceañeras, or 15th birthday parties. They avoid the police, even hesitating to report crimes.
When we leave in the morning we know we are going to work, said Elena G., a 47-year-old illegal Mexican immigrant and Waukegan resident of eight years who works in a factory near here. But we dont know if we will be coming home.
Last year, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested more than 35,000 illegal immigrants, including unauthorized workers and immigration fugitives, more than double the number in 2006. They sent 276,912 immigrants back to their home countries, a record number.
Since about three-quarters of an estimated 11.3 million illegal immigrants nationwide are from Latin America, and many have spouses, children or other relatives who are legal immigrants and citizens, the sense of alarm has spread broadly among Hispanics.
A survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, found in December that 53 percent of Hispanics in the United States worry that they or a loved one could be deported.
Stores catering to Hispanic immigrants in places like Atlanta and Cincinnati have closed because of the drop in customers. Michael L. Barrera, president of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said anecdotal reports had indicated that small storefront businesses had been the hardest hit by a sharp decline in spending by immigrants.
The raids have really spooked them in a big way, said Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton demographer who has studied Mexican immigrants for three decades.
Based on his own surveys and recent reports from other scholars doing field research in the Southwest and in North Carolina and other states, Professor Massey said the palpable sense of fear and of traumatization in immigrant communities was more intense than at any other time since the mass deportations of Mexican farm workers in 1954.
Federal immigration officials say that stepped-up enforcement over the last year by the Bush administration and some local authorities has persuaded growing numbers of illegal immigrants to return home. But in places like Waukegan, a racially mixed middle-class suburb north of Chicago, most have chosen to stay, held by families and jobs.
This city has been an immigrant landing for generations. Latinos have been coming since the 1960s and now are 40 percent of the population of 91,000. The number of illegal immigrants among them swelled in the last decade.
Despite their illegal status, those immigrants found steady jobs in factories and landscaping. Lacking Social Security numbers, they used Internal Revenue Service taxpayer numbers to open stores and businesses, enroll in the community college and take out bank loans to buy cars and homes.
The welcome began to fade four years ago, when the city government increased fines and penalties for driving without a license. Since Illinois requires a valid Social Security number for a license, many illegal immigrants lost their cars when they could not afford the fees for impounded vehicles.
Last summer the City Council voted to enter an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency, to train Waukegan police officers to initiate deportations of immigrants who were convicted felons. While city officials insisted the officers would handle only cases of imprisoned criminals, rumors spread that the traffic police would check the immigration status of anyone they stopped.
Also, in recent months federal immigration agents conducted two big raids nearby.
People came to me and said, Father, when did we become the enemy? said the Rev. Gary M. Graf, a Roman Catholic priest whose Waukegan parish includes many Latino immigrants.
City officials said that the tougher traffic ordinances were not intended to single out illegal immigrants or Hispanics, but to reduce accidents with uninsured drivers.
The only reason we did it was for safety, Mayor Richard H. Hyde said. We dont want anybody on the road that doesnt have a license.
Nonetheless, for many residents fear has become a daily companion. One woman, a 37-year-old naturalized citizen who was born in Central America but grew up in Waukegan, has decided to stay away from the city even though her mother still lives here. The woman, a lawyer practicing in the Chicago area, fell in love with an illegal immigrant from Guatemala.
After they were married in 2004, she realized that under immigration law it would be difficult for him to become legal, even though she is a citizen. Because he had crossed the border illegally, seeking legal status would require him to return to Guatemala for years of separation, with no guarantee of success. She abandoned plans to move back to Waukegan. She and her husband feel safer in Chicago, with its large Hispanic population.
I know everything about Waukegan; its my town, said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous because of her husbands status. I know the high school, the first Mexican restaurant. I should feel free to go in and out whenever I want to. But its not the same freedom anymore.
Raimundo V., 30, an illegal Mexican immigrant who has lived here for 13 years, said he canceled repairs on his home, which he owns, stopped buying in local stores, and was trying to save as much money as he could in case he should be arrested and deported.
My expectation here is to be prepared for anything that comes, Raimundo said.
Miriam M. and her husband, married in 2004, own a tidy house on a peaceful street and are raising four children from previous marriages, all United States citizens. He runs his own landscaping company, paying business and property taxes.
Even though Miriam M. is a citizen, it is difficult for her husband to obtain legal papers, since he entered illegally from Mexico 12 years ago. She did not focus on her husbands illegal status when she first met him.
Boyfriend and girlfriend, you dont think much about it, she said. All right, maybe I didnt want to think much about it.
Now he stays close to home and avoids downtown Waukegan, driving around the city limits when he can.
Another immigrant, L. Gómez, 36, a Colombian recently on her way to becoming legal, said she had gone to the police and the courts in years past for protection from a violent husband. Since the crackdown, she said, she has avoided the authorities, even when her husband threatened her.
Hispanic business owners in Waukegan complain of a sales slump that they said went beyond the effects of a sluggish national economy.
People are turning away from Waukegan business and going elsewhere to invest or to buy, said Porfirio García, a Mexican-American who is president of Exit/Re-Gar Realty, a real estate brokerage firm.
At the Belvidere Mall, which caters to Hispanic customers, María Sotelo, a legal Mexican immigrant, said she was closing her store there after 17 years because her sales dropped in the last six months to $500 a week from $5,000. She sold satin and voile dresses for quinceañera parties and T-shirts from Mexican soccer teams.
Since it all started with immigration, people dont come here anymore, Ms. Sotelo said.
Mr. Hyde and other city officials said they expected to wait several years before Congress adopted new laws to control illegal immigration. Meanwhile, the mayor said, he will do what he can by enforcing local law. Do I believe in closing the borders? Mr. Hyde said.
Do I believe in putting troops down there? You bet your life. Illegal is illegal, and thats the end of the conversation, really.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, National, of Friday, January 18, 2008.
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