DALLAS - What's odd about the man wearing a "Bourbon Street University" T-shirt is that he doesn't even drink. His co-workers at a small screen-printing company in Dallas describe him as clean and quiet, a man who doesn't waste time or money on drugs or alcohol. Sure, he cashes his checks at the Lone Star Liquor store down the street, but most of the cash goes back to Mexico to pay for his 21-year-old daughter's education and food for his 19-year-old son.
Armando Gonzalez, 43, is an illegal immigrant. He's not afraid to describe, in quiet, assured tones, how he waded across the Rio Grande nearly naked on Sept. 15, 1999, and waited until the Border Patrol wasn't looking. How he sprinted into the border city of Laredo, Texas, and hid in a local restaurant. How he jumped on a Greyhound bus headed from Laredo to Dallas and had a woman with sharp fingernails scrape his face over and over. (He needed what looked like a scar on his cheek to match the "distinguishing characteristics" item on his stolen passport.)
Mr. Gonzalez recounts the bus ride out of Laredo full of illegal immigrants: At a Border Patrol checkpoint "it was chaos. . . . Everyone with a fake green card got carried off." But he made it and he's not ashamed. Despite the debate currently raging over undocumented immigrants, Mr. Gonzalez says he'd do it again-because he sees it as the way to provide for his two children in Mexico City. Like many other illegals, he left his home to meet financial needs at home, and to keep doing that he feels he must break the law.
As Congress debates what to do with Mr. Gonzalez and the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States (and the millions more who want to come), communities and Christian charities also face a dilemma: Harsh new penalties will mean denying aid to those in need, while blanket amnesties encourage lawlessness and overwhelm communities already swamped by the influx of illegals.
If migrants like Mr. Gonzalez face a cold reality-how to provide for loved ones back home beneath the law's radar-lawmakers face their own challenge: growing anger from constituencies lobbying for everything from a border wall or security fence along the southern border to total amnesty for undocumented workers and open borders. National polls suggest Americans want action. According to a CNN poll released on April 3, 88 percent of Americans said their views on immigration reform will affect how they vote in midterm elections this November.
"We can't go home in November with nothing," said Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican whose district includes part of the southern border. "That would be unthinkable to our constituents, particularly my constituents." Mr. Pearce voted against a House immigration reform bill put forth by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) that eventually won approval in December, saying it was unfair to make employers distinguish between real and forged documents under the penalty of incarceration.
That bill would, among other things, build 700 miles of border fences and step up manpower levels on the southern border. It would increase penalties both for immigrants and for those who hire them. It would rewrite the current law to make a criminal out of anyone who "assists . . . harbors . . . encourages . . . or transports" an illegal alien.
That last provision was the last straw for Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles. The Catholic prelate decried the Sensenbrenner bill, saying it would criminalize acts of charity like offering a glass of cold water to a migrant dying of thirst. Such a law, he said, would violate "our gospel mandate, in which Christ instructs us to clothe the naked, feed the poor and welcome the stranger."
That call was particularly poignant because many migrants trek across Arizona's vacant Sonora desert and die trying. During the 12 months beginning in October 2004 and ending last September, 267 migrants died while crossing through the Yuma and Tucson regions in Arizona.
Left-wing mission groups like No More Deaths and Border Action Network also protest the House bill, vowing that they will continue to give aid to stranded migrants who may otherwise die in the desert. Both groups place water stations in the desert. Even such basic assistance is controversial, with some arguing that the water supply only encourages migrants to brave the Sonora.
Meanwhile, evangelical Christians have largely been silent, in part because it's not clear exactly what the House bill would change if enacted. Will Adams, spokesman for Rep. Tom Tancredo, a co-sponsor of the Sensenbrenner bill, called Cardinal Mahoney's claims "bogus." Mr. Adams said the House bill simply clarifies the current law, which has provisions against citizens rendering aid to illegal immigrants, and is targeted at U.S. citizens who act as smugglers. But No More Deaths, the liberal Christian advocacy group for migrants, states that last July two of its volunteers picked up three stranded and apparently dying migrants and were driving them to their church when they were stopped and arrested. The Border Patrol says the two volunteers were smuggling illegals and had been warned not to do so.
The confusion in Washington about what to do (or even about what needs to be done) doesn't compare to the mixed emotions on the actual border where the mass influx of migrants can mean anything from cut fences for ranchers to tearful reunions for family members. "I sometimes chuckle at the politicized realities that you hear on talk radio," said Dennis Hermerding, the pastor at Desert Springs Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz. "It's a lot more complicated down here."
Mr. Hermerding says the alien influx forces people and organizations to make tough choices: His church declined to give financial aid to one of the students in his Bible study because he was an illegal. Rep. Pearce notes the strain on social services, since border towns provide taxpayer-funded medical care and education to any migrant who shows up-and even those who simply cross the border. "We want to enforce the law here, but we also must be humane," Mr. Pearce said.
Armando Gonzalez, after seven years in Dallas, still sees a conflict between being humane to his family and obeying the law. Though he's speaking more and more in English, now he follows the Spanish-language news very closely. He doesn't want to miss any details on the guest-worker program that has been stalled this month in Congress. He says if Congress passes a guest-worker program, he'll pay the penalties and work to be naturalized. He's already got some money saved up for it.
Mr. Gonzalez hopes the guest-worker plan becomes law, noting that he would like to be able to move freely so he could visit his children. He hasn't seen them in six years. If the guest-worker plan dies, Mr. Gonzalez still plans to stay in the United States: "This is a country of opportunity. Even without the papers we can pay taxes, run businesses, and have a good life."
Mr. Gonzalez claims he's doing jobs few U.S. citizens want to do: "In the companies where I've worked, there are maybe two with papers and 200 who don't." That's one of the reasons President Bush supports a guest-worker program: "Listen, we got people coming into this country to do the jobs Americans won't do. It seems like to me it makes sense to have a willing worker be able to work with a willing employer on a temporary basis."
Mr. Gonzalez relishes the educational progress made-with the money he wires home-by his 19-year-old son and his 21-year-old daughter, who is now studying sociology at a Mexico City university.
Mr. Gonzalez has found a quiet place to live in a house in Dallas that is generally away from the drugs and lawlessness of the barrio.
He's worked steadily in the United States, but in Mexico he was an out-of-business printer, ruined by the collapse of the Mexican economy in the mid-1990s. He was also in deep debt because he spent everything he had to pay for his wife to have an operation to remove an ovarian tumor. In Mexico he was feeding his family on free food samples at the grocery store.
What if he's caught? What if he's deported? The question reminds him of his two weeks in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in 1999 trying to find forged official papers to grease his way into Texas. He spent two weeks in a coyote's (smuggler's) home before finding a cocaine addict who could doctor the passport of the coyote's husband to give him a shot at fooling U.S. authorities. Wouldn't the husband of the coyote need his passport back? Mr. Gonzalez waves his hand dismissively: "He had dozens." How would he get back into the United States? There are always passports.
"Guest-worker" provisions to make some illegals temporarily legal are at the heart of immigration battles on Capitol Hill.
The House bill (H.R. 4437) would:
- step up expedited extradition programs;
- add 700 miles of border fence and boost enforcement officer numbers;
- require employers to verify legal status of potential employees at penalty of criminal prosecution with fines from $7,500 to $40,000;
- make the act of illegal immigration a felony and restate provisions against assisting, harboring, encouraging, or transporting illegal immigrants.
The Senate bill (S. 1033) would:
- fund a five-year, comprehensive Homeland Security border protection plan;
- create a guest-worker program that would be available to 400,000 migrants every year, including provisions for naturalization; illegal immigrants would have to pay up to $3,000 in fines to enter the program;
- reimburse states and municipalities for costs related to caring for undocumented migrants;
- increase the number of skilled and educated immigrant workers allowed into the United States every year from 65,000 to 115,000.