TOPICS > Politics

The Many Issues Surrounding Illegal Immigration

May 18, 1993 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now illegal immigration, one of the many problems tossed at President Clinton during his swing through Southern California. In San Diego last night, Mr. Clinton was asked to defend government programs that provide for illegal immigrants.

KAY GUARINO: I’m a taxpayer. My question is: Why are my taxes going to subsidize the health care and the education of illegal immigrants, while our own citizens are doing without?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: It’s a good question. I think there are two answers to that. One, frankly, is a practical one, and that is that the United States does not have the means at the present time to enforce its own immigration laws.

The second reason is that the United States government sets immigration policy, but for as long as I can remember has left it up to the states to bear the burden of the immigration costs or the localities, so that California, Texas, and Florida, and to a slightly lesser extent New York, pay huge bills for national decisions.

So in spite of all the budgetary problems we have in this budget, we have recommended several hundred million more dollars to come into the state of California, so that your local tax dollars will be freed up for education and the other needs of the people in California. It is not fair the way you’ve been done by the national government, and given our financial difficulties, we’re doing as much as we can to change that.

JIM LEHRER: Actually, the price of immigration is felt on both sides of the border. Correspondent Jeffrey Kaye of public station KCET-Los Angeles has a report on the close personal and economic ties that bind many communities and individuals in California and Mexico.

JEFFREY KAYE: When Francisco Correa first came to the United States from Mexico 20 years ago, he crossed the border hidden in the trunk of an automobile. But you have a green card now, or you’re a citizen?

FRANCISCO CORREA: Yes. I am resident.

JEFFREY KAYE: You’re a resident.

FRANCISCO CORREA: Yes.

JEFFREY KAYE: And so no problems.

FRANCISCO CORREA: Not any problems.

JEFFREY KAYE: Crossing the border. You don’t have to cross the border anymore in the trunk of a car?

FRANCISCO CORREA: No more.

JEFFREY KAYE: Today, the former illegal immigrant works in this family-owned restaurant, El Paco’s Tacos, in the Los Angeles suburb of Huntington Park. Periodically, he visits the Mexican village where he was born, San Diego de Alejandria, San Diego for short. He comes at fiesta time in late December and January. that’s when San Diego, like villages all over Mexico, celebrates Christmas and the welcome return of immigrants who make pilgrimages from around the United States.

JEFFREY KAYE: So how often do you come down here did you say?

MAN: I think every two years.

JEFFREY KAYE: Every year or two. Even though San Diego is 600 miles south of the U.S. border, few in this rural village of 3500 people are untouched by immigration. Migrant workers are so much a part of the community that the annual fiesta pays homage to them during El Dia de Los Ascentas, the Day of the Absent Ones. 80 percent of the families here have members, usually men, who at one time have emigrated to the United States, legally and illegally. Many drive here to San Diego for the occasion. The U.S. license plates on the unpaved and cobblestone streets show how widespread the towns emigrants are.

MAN: I’m going back to Oregon.

JEFFREY KAYE: You’re going back to Oregon.

MAN ON STREET: I’m going back to Colorado.

JEFFREY KAYE: And you’re going back to Colorado.

MAN ON STREET: Yeah. That is my sons over there.

JEFFREY KAYE: Residents of this area started traveling back and forth to the United States over a century ago. There was a labor shortage in the southwest United States and a labor surplus in southwest Mexico. The link was established when Southern Pacific put the railroad through here in the late 1800s. Workers had a convenient form of transportation and started the tradition of migration. Robert Vargas first went to El Norte, the North, in 1954, working as a farm worker under the Resero program. Before him, his father worked in the U.S. Now his three sons work in Los Angeles. One, Roberto, Junior, a gardener, drove down 35 hours to see him.

JEFFREY KAYE: [talking to Roberto] You work in Santa Monica?

JEFFREY KAYE: Vargas said he planned to return to his work in California soon. The wages he sends back are part of the town’s economic life blood.

JEFFREY KAYE: Where will you go?

ALEJANDRO PENA: I will go back to the city, San Marcos.

JEFFREY KAYE: You’re going to go back to San Marcos?

ALEJANDRO PENA: Yeah.

JEFFREY KAYE: Alejandro Pena has worked in California for 14 years, first in the field, then as a carpenter.

JEFFREY KAYE: [talking to Pena] Will you show me your house?

ALEJANDRO PENA: Yeah.

JEFFREY KAYE: His wife and seven children have remained in Mexico in a house financed by Pena’s U.S. wages. Pena says he has no intention of moving his family to the United States. This is his home, he says, proud that he can provide for his children and his wife, Teresa. Teresa says she’s sad when her husband is gone, but she says that if her husband lived in San Diego, they couldn’t afford a house. That’s the way it is for towns and villages throughout Mexico, communities which are dependent on migrant salaries. While the absent men of San Diego have provided a living for their families, there’s been a price. At this immigrant-owned factory, women make leather jackets. Every worker here has a relative in the United States. All but one grew up without fathers at home, and that takes a toll according to Maria Rojas Mena, whose father was a Florida farm worker.

“You go through difficult times when you need your father,” she said. “We derive some economic benefits from the fact that they bring back money, but I think we lose something much more important, more important for the family.”

Because of close personal and economic ties, for many the U.S./Mexico border is more a state of mind than a political boundary. It is for Jesus Hernandez, the mayor of San Diego.

When he first tried to enter the United States in 1966, he was picked up by the border patrol and deported, but he returned and spent 19 years as a meat packer in Los Angeles. Hernandez earned his fortune, at least by Mexican standards, in the United States, then moved home. In a village where the homes of the more successful immigrants are marked by satellite dishes, Hernandez not only has his own dish, he has the biggest house.

JEFFREY KAYE: [talking to Hernandez] This is a beautiful house.

JEFFREY KAYE: This is a far cry from the home in which Hernandez grew up, one without electricity. The Hernandez family symbolizes the village’s strong binational ties. One U.S. born son, Jesus Junior, lives with him in Mexico, another wears a U.S. Army uniform.

MAYOR JESUS HERNANDEZ-ROCHA, San Diego de Alejandria: This is my son.

JEFFREY KAYE: This is your son?

MAYOR JESUS HERNANDEZ-ROCHA: Yeah.

JEFFREY KAYE: In the U.S. Army?

MAYOR JESUS HERNANDEZ-ROCHA: Yeah.

JEFFREY KAYE: Hernandez says he doesn’t find it at all strange that his son serves in the U.S. Army, while he serves as a Mexican mayor.

MAYOR JESUS HERNANDEZ-ROCHA: I like the United States like I like Mexico, and this is my home country, and that is my son’s country, because he was born in the United States, you know. So, I don’t know, I like both countries.

JEFFREY KAYE: It’s all the same?

MAYOR JESUS HERNANDEZ-ROCHA: Yeah. I see both countries like this, one.

JEFFREY KAYE: Both countries are like one for you?

MAYOR JESUS HERNANDEZ-ROCHA: Yeah.

JEFFREY KAYE: Miguel Guiterrez is secretary for Mayor Hernandez. He knows firsthand about the strong ties between San Diego and the US. Guiterrez spent seven years as a California farm worker.

MIGUEL GUITERREZ-NAVARRO: I have family living in the United States. Most people have family here and there. That’s true. And they like to come here to visit, and the people who is here dreams to go there too, and then that creates a situation where we cannot stop now. It’s, it’s a fact.

JEFFREY KAYE: You can’t stop why?

MIGUEL GUITERREZ-NAVARRO: The relationship, the tie, the ties, they are there, and we can’t cut them.

JEFFREY KAYE: Will your children go to the United States?

MIGUEL GUITERREZ-NAVARRO: Probably so.

JEFFREY KAYE: Just like you did.

MIGUEL GUITERREZ-NAVARRO: Just like I did.

JEFFREY KAYE: Today, for many Mexicans, cross border travel is easier than ever thanks to the 1986 Immigration Reform & Control Act. The U.S. law penalizes employers caught hiring illegal immigrants, but its amnesty provisions actually strengthened binational ties. Now millions of immigrants, including many for San Diego, are legal U.S. residents, and they can bring their families into the US.

MIGUEL GUITERREZ-NAVARRO: Before the amnesty, people, as always, used to go to the United States. But they weren’t able to come whenever they want. So even though –

JEFFREY KAYE: They couldn’t go back and forth?

MIGUEL GUITERREZ-NAVARRO: No, they couldn’t, or at least if they did, they, they ran a big race.

JEFFREY KAYE: It was difficult.

MIGUEL GUITERREZ-NAVARRO: It was difficult, yes.

JEFFREY KAYE: And now?

MIGUEL GUITERREZ-NAVARRO: Now, it’s very different, because a lot of the people can go whenever they want, and they usually come during this time, in the fiesta.

JEFFREY KAYE: But it’s made those ties even stronger, is that what you’re saying?

MIGUEL GUITERREZ-NAVARRO: I think so, oh, yes. I think so, very, very stronger.

JEFFREY KAYE: So as a result, this Mexican village which still uses donkeys and carts for some of its local transportation needs now has a travel agency to arrange international trips.

JEFFREY KAYE: So this travel agency –

MIGUEL GUITERREZ-NAVARRO: Yes.

JEFFREY KAYE: — was created in part because of the amnesty law?

MIGUEL GUITERREZ-NAVARRO: I would say so. I would say so, because before the amnesty law, people couldn’t go by plane. They, they used to go just jump over the fence and that was it. Then with the amnesty law, they can go by plane.

JEFFREY KAYE: Such unobstructed travel has helped turn some U.S. communities into neighborhoods that for all appearances could be Mexico. One such area is Huntington Park, site of Francisco Correa’s restaurant, El Paco’s Tacos. The Paco in the restaurant name is the oldest of Francisco’s four U.S.-born children, Paco Correa.

PACO CORREA: That’s supposed to be me up there.

JEFFREY KAYE: When you were a kid?

PACO CORREA: Yeah. That’s me.

JEFFREY KAYE: El Paco’s Tacos was once a hamburger stand. That was in the ’80s, before the neighborhood became mostly Spanish- speaking. As Paco Correa sees it, the U.S.-Mexico border may as well not exist.

JEFFREY KAYE: So you’re saying the border cannot be closed even if you wanted it to?

PACO CORREA: It just, it just was done for a while. They get in, and when you catch them, what are you going to do, put ‘em back? They’ll get back. They’ll try it again and again and again.

JEFFREY KAYE: Yeah.

PACO CORREA: It just costs money. And then you got friends here, friends there, they put enough money together, and then they’ll come up. That’s — I don’t know — here we’re all family; that’s what we do. We help each other.

JEFFREY KAYE: The costs of immigration has become a subject of heated political debate, as it is historically in the United States during economic downturns.

TOM HOUSTON, Former Mayoral Candidate: We know there are gang members and we know there are illegal aliens. Let’s go after the leaders of those gangs.

JEFFREY KAYE: Tom Houston, an unsuccessful candidate for LA mayor, made immigrants costs to taxpayers a main issue in his primary campaign. He demanded that Washington help pay for immigrant services, a call echoed by a growing number of state officials.

TOM HOUSTON: To ask local taxpayers to do it in Los Angeles is really like overloading the lifeboats of a sinking ship. So No. 1, the federal government’s got to give us the money. If they’re not going to give us the money, then they’re going to have to do one heck of a better job of enforcing the border and enforcing the coastline to make sure that this huge increase that’s going on in illegal immigration does not continue.

JEFFREY KAYE: Can that be done?

TOM HOUSTON: I don’t think as a practical matter that can be done.

JEFFREY KAYE: Can’t be done, according to many, because of U.S. policies which have encouraged immigration and long relied on places like San Diego as a plentiful source of cheap labor. And because of that tradition, says anthropologist Jorge Durand, at the University of Guadalajara, the U.S. should feel in debt to its Mexican workers.

JORGE DURAND, University of Guadalajara: They pay for the social security by years.

JEFFREY KAYE: For years they’ve been paying?

JORGE DURAND: Yes, without the service. I’ve seen, there is a – - I don’t know, they — a debit of the government of the United States for all the workers who work in the United States, they pay and they don’t have that service.

JEFFREY KAYE: There are signs that Mexican immigration to the U.S. has slowed because of the recession. Some of the men of San Diego told us they had trouble finding work north of the border. Besides, immigration is creating job opportunities in San Diego. This house is under construction for a would-be occupant who’s in the U.S. working to pay for it. Carpenter Alejandro Pena came to San Diego for the fiesta and was planning on returning to work in southern California, but he extended his visit home when he was asked to build cabinets. He’ll be paid by an immigrant who made his money in the US. As for Paco Correa of Huntington Park, California, he has little interest in going to the birthplace of his parents. When he goes to Mexico, it’s strictly as a tourist.

PACO CORREA: I don’t want to go — I don’t to go to Mexico, not San Diego. I want to go to the touristy stuff, check out the girls.

JEFFREY KAYE: And he has other plans. In the tradition of ambitious immigrant families, Paco Correa would like to expand his business, open more restaurants, and become an American success story.