Photograph by Keith Mosher http://kamphotography.com
During a trip to visit family in Mexico, Manuel, a naturalized United States citizen and a Wilmington resident since 1996, met Juanita. In February 2001 he returned to Mexico, married her, then applied for an alien residence card (ARC), which would make her a legal resident of the United States. He was told it would take five years for Juanita to receive her papers.
It was their dream to live together here, yet Juanita, unwilling to remain separated from her new husband for so long, decided to slip into this country illegally. She made it to Wilmington in January 2002, then, over the next 3Â½ years, gave birth to two children. She also received word that approval of her legal status was ready.
There was one final requirement to fulfill: Juanita had to return to Mexico to obtain her ARC. She would then be able to re-enter this country as a legally documented alien. So in September Manuel bid his wife Juanita and their two children a warm good-bye, expecting to see them again in a few days.
But during an interview at the American consulate in Mexico, Juanita made the mistake of admitting her original illegal entry into the United States.
The hammer came down.
Officials told Juanita that illegal entry would bar her from returning to the United States for 10 years. She could reduce that wait to perhaps one year, provided she obtain a waiver claiming an extreme hardship in remaining separated from her husband.
So Juanita waits in Mexico for that waiver. In the meantime, her children are being Mexicanized rather than Americanized (their births here make them United States citizens), while Manuel fights loneliness and bouts of depression back in Wilmington, wondering when he can reunite his family.
The family made one mistake in trying to immigrate here: They tried to do it legally.
It is a story repeated countless times by what the Census Bureau estimates to be 8 million to 9 million illegal immigrants in the United States. In Delaware, estimates run from 13,500 up to 35,000. Immigrants are driven here by crushing poverty in their homelands, yet the story seems equally driven by a legal immigration system that is beyond repair.
“Most of the legal issues are related to a legal immigrant trying to get a family member into the country now,” says Rich Hogan, a Wilmington attorney who specializes in immigration issues. For him, immigration is as much about family and family law as anything else. And immigration law is not working in favor of family.
“The attempt to reunite family members legally, even when all documentation is in place, can easily take five years or more,” says Hogan.
And depending on your country of origin, it can take a lot longer. According to the U.S. Department of State, Mexican applications filed in 1993 for entry of the unmarried sons and daughters of legal residents are only now being considered. In other words, parents who left newborns in Mexico in 1993 are still struggling to bring them here legally. Those newborns are teenagers now.
Even some of “illegal” immigration’s most vocal critics express surprise at the delays faced by legal immigrants who are trying to reunite their families. Elsmere councilman John Jaremchuk had introduced two measures to curtail the flow of undocumented immigrants into his town. When presented with data on the lengthy delays in processing legal documentation for entry into the country, Jaremchuk expressed surprise and sympathy. His solution, however, was a short and simple one.
“It should be fixed at the federal level,” he says. “The problems are unfortunate, but with the consequences we’re suffering, it shouldn’t have to become our problem. It’s also unfair to those who have come here following the legal process.”
Through Elsmere Police, Jaremchuk, chief of investigative services for the Court of Common Pleas, can cite first-hand accounts of criminal activity he claims is on the rise in Elsmere as a result of illegal immigration.
“There have been gang-related murders involving illegals, as well as an increase in sexual predators,” he says. “And there is an increase in violations related to unregistered vehicles, invalid or no driver’s licenses and proof of insurance.” Jaremchuk also points to the increased congestion and eyesores caused by multiple occupancies of single-family residences and automobiles parked on lawns.
“I’ve knocked on a lot of doors in campaigning for the state Senate, and it is darn near unanimous that people here in the 13th district are angry about illegal immigration,” he says.
Jaremchuk believes there is a litany of ills associated with illegal immigration, including job losses, depressed wages, strained social services and health care, and rising crime. What makes Jaremchuk different from critics who rely on the stereotypes and prejudices against foreigners is that he bases his position on personal experience and the experience of others to whom he has spoken.
“I know African-American bricklayers who lost their $10-an-hour jobs to temporary agencies hiring unskilled and undocumented aliens for $6 an hour,” Jaremchuk says.
Undocumented immigrants in Delaware received an estimated $7 million under Medicaid programs for pregnant women and children under 19. A recent Pew Hispanic Center study calculated $52 million in additional costs to educate the children of undocumented immigrants in Delaware. This compares to a 2004 Federation for American Immigration Reform estimate of $53.8 million for Delaware to educate both undocumented immigrant children and the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. (The Delaware Department of Education has no statistics.)
Yet those who support Delaware’s immigrant population, legal and undocumented, cite experiences that cast a very different light on the issue.
“My experience with undocumented immigrants is that they come here simply to work, because they realize if they don’t work, they don’t eat,” says Margaret Reyes, a member of the board of La Esperanza, a Georgetown-based group that helps immigrants find employment, get education, and achieve self-sufficiency and citizenship.
“The crimes they commit are ones of necessity,” Reyes says. “Motor vehicle violations related to registration, licensing and insurance are all due to undocumented status. Being in this country without documentation makes it impossible to change that status under current law. So they must live with the constant risk of being caught for violations of law they’re unable to comply with in the first place.”
As an analogy, she cites the looting that took place in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “Would anyone want to see those people who looted stores for milk, food, diapers and other necessities for their survival prosecuted as criminals? It is out of necessity only that these other laws are being broken.”
Further, Reyes does not believe undocumented immigrants are taking jobs from Americans. “There’s been no rise in unemployment, and since reputable employers must pay either federally established minimum wages or those set by terms of immigrant work visas, there is no evidence that wages are being depressed.”
She also believes undocumented immigrants do not avail themselves of many social services or free medical assistance, for fear their status will come to the attention of authorities. “My experience is that most undocumented immigrants will pay cash for emergency room services,” Reyes says.
Reyes’ and Jaremchuk’s experiences, perceptions and conclusions are very different. Perhaps both are right. The first lesson of this experience with the country’s history of immigration is that no one set of facts fits every reality. The stories, conditions, behaviors and effects of undocumented immigration are as varied as the immigrants are individual. But most stories seem to begin and end with family.
Vicente arrived in Georgetown from Mexico eight years ago. He had planned to work a year to send money home to his parents and six siblings. “I wanted to earn enough money to help my parents buy some land, build a home and then farm it to feed ourselves.”
The family earns the equivalent of $8,000 a year. Vicente sends them about $15,000 a year of the money he earns as a line supervisor in a Sussex County poultry plant. But he has not seen his family since he left Mexico, and he no longer views going home as an option.
“I did not learn English when I first came here because I did not believe I was going to stay,” Vicente says. “Now I am learning English in order to get a better job here.”
Others describe their native home as one of overwhelming poverty, where working from five in the morning until 10 at night still does not provide enough income to feed a family, even on a subsistence diet of beans and rice.
Guadalupe could earn, at most, $60 per week as a housekeeper in her native El Salvador. Here she earns $400 per week. She has been able to provide a home for herself here, as well as two for her extended family in El Salvador, where they had previously been able to rent a home about half the size of a school classroom. “My mother is sick and needs expensive medicines, which I can only provide by working in this country,” Guadalupe says.
Guadalupe lives here under a temporary protected status visa. It can be revoked at any time, and her future legal status is not guaranteed. If her visa isn’t extended upon its expiration in September, she could fall into undocumented status.
And this is one of the under-reported facts of undocumented immigrants: They arrived with legal status, but have since lost it through no fault or action of their own. Facing dim prospects upon their return home, many choose to remain, taking a chance that the system will not catch up with them.
Maria’s mother fled civil uprising in El Salvador, where both her mother’s husband and her father had been killed by rebels. Her mother’s application for asylum was denied in 1991, so she came here illegally. She remained separated from Maria and the rest of the family for almost 10 years. “My mother considered bringing us in illegally, but did not want that kind of life for us,” Maria says.
Her mother finally obtained legal residency in 2000, allowing her to bring Maria and others into the country legally. “But I was separated from my mother for all that time,” Maria says. “It’s very hard to get back to being a family again after being separated for so long.”
Estrangement from family is the theme that binds all immigrant stories. For a country that trumpets its commitment to family values, the United States immigration system often disintegrates family ties with the same effectiveness slavery once did.
Delaware may be one state where the pain of separation may be softened. Latino immigrants come because the state seems to share the same values and environment many immigrants had to leave behind, according to Maria Matos, executive director of Wilmington’s Latin American Community Center.
Matos says the two hours it takes to traverse the state and the lack of big cities create a “sense of smallness” most Latino immigrants find comfortable. “In communities such as Georgetown and Elsmere, you can walk from one side of town to the other,” Matos says. “It’s that kind of size that makes Delaware attractive to Latinos.”
Along the main drag in Elsmere, new businesses with names such as El Amigo, Taqueria Laras, Mariscos Los Del Fines, Manos Latina Restaurant and La Columbianita show that our newest immigrants are here to stay and working their way up the economic ladder—the way previous generations of immigrants did.
“Latinos of all nationalities are drawn together by their common language and culture,” Matos says. “And they enjoy sharing their national differences such as food and music.”
That sense of community transcends the matter of documentation, Matos says. “Undocumenteds are quite open about telling their fellow Latinos they have no papers,” she says. “And the legal immigrants embrace them even more intensely, perhaps because they are aware of how some have been treated.”
This would seem to undermine the argument that legal immigrants resent illegally arriving