As many as 12 million illegal immigrants, most of them Latinos, are believed to be living in the United States. The tide of undocumented immigrants coming over the border has become a matter not only of national importance but international scrutiny as well. How do we deal with this often emotional issue in a nation that was itself built by immigrants? The issue is complex, and there seem to be as many opinions as there are people. Over the past several weeks, Connect Savannah listened to some of these voices in order to shed some light on the problem. Some of the voices are Latino, some are adopted Latino, some are elected officials, some are clergy, and some are just concerned citizens. But they all share a stake in answering the issue’s central question: What makes an American an American?
Melody Ortiz immigrated legally to the United States to attend school, and currently works at Armstrong Atlantic State University as a Hispanic student recruiter. Ortiz -- who’s quick to point out that she keeps her advocacy totally separate from her job at AASU -- has put down roots in the community and is proud to show her love for her adopted country. “We’re from everywhere, not just Mexico and Central America,” she says. “We’re a group of very hard-working people that values family life. We support a conservative lifestyle. We’re people of faith. We just want to work hard and provide the best for our kids.” Ortiz’s grandparents were American missionaries who worked in Venezuela for 41 years. “My mother was born there and my father is Venezuelan,” she says. “I lived in Venezuela until I was 16, when I came to the United States to attend high school.” Culture shock soon followed. “Everything was different,” Ortiz says. “I experienced a lot of racism, not against myself, but against other ethnic students.” Ortiz has not experienced the same problems some immigrants do, in part because her English is flawless. “My family was very supportive of secondary education,” she says. “Education was what brought my father’s family out of poverty. I was told very early I would have to go to college. My dad had a media business. I started producing a radio program at a very early age.” Despite these advantages, when Ortiz first came to the United States, she was “very poor.” “I cleaned houses at age 16,” she says. “I worked in a McDonald’s, where I became the manager. My Latino friends were migrant workers,” Ortiz says. “They were from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, all sorts of places.” However, there was one vast difference between Ortiz and her friends. “They weren’t pushed to look at post-secondary education,” she says. “They were encouraged to look for work after high school. The guidance counselors didn’t feel Latinos should look at higher education. I was encouraged because I spoke English well and because my parents attended college.” Ortiz says she’s been accepted here in a way many other Latino immigrants have not, and this lack of empathy troubles her. “Everyone goes out and supports Mexican restaurants,” Ortiz says. “They love our culture, our music, our movies, everything about us, but why don’t they love our people?” Ortiz says immigrants come to the U.S. simply to seek a better life. “Most Latinos don’t come here because they want to,” she says. “They come here because they want a better life for their children. All they want is the opportunity to live and work.”
Hard-working, family-oriented, just here to seek a better life. These are common refrains, voiced again and again by talking heads on TV and by the millions of Latinos and reform advocates who’ve filled the ranks of pro-immigrant rallies all over the nation the past few weeks. But however often these points are repeated, not everyone agrees with them. Hispanic immigrants, particularly those who are here illegally, are being looked at more closely than ever. Last December, the U.S. House passed House Bill 4437 -- the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. Critics interpret its most controversial provisions as making it a crime for social service agencies, churches and individuals to assist illegal immigrants. Recently, the Georgia General Assembly passed a similar measure, the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act. It prohibits tax-funded benefits for illegal immigrants and penalizes employers who hire them. As for the U.S. Senate, it has struggled -- as of this writing unsuccessfully so -- to pass immigration reform legislation that would provide enhanced border security and open the way to legal status for many illegal immigrants. Georgia’s legislators in Washington are divided on many aspects of immigration reform. But on one thing they’re united: The borders must be closed to illegal immigrants. “New programs that attract people to come here illegally will only compound the problem,” says Sen. Johnny Isakson. “If we don’t secure our borders first, we’ll only accelerate the volume of illegals entering our nation.” Isakson has proposed an amendment that would prohibit the implementation of a guest worker program until border security enhancements are made. “If my amendment is not voted on or does not pass, there’s no way I can support this legislation in its current form,” he says bluntly. The last time significant immigration reform was enacted was the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. “If we do not incorporate measures that will secure and seal our borders, we’ll have recreated the problem we created in 1986 when we granted amnesty to three million, but failed to first secure the border,” Isakson says. “Only this time, we’ll deal not with just three million illegals coming, but millions and millions and millions more -- all because we looked the other way.” Isakson’s Republican colleague in the Senate, Saxby Chambliss, has been focusing on the impact legislation would have on agriculture. He supports a guest worker program to ensure that Georgia farmers have a large enough pool of migrant workers. “The workers come and perform the work and go back,” Sen. Chambliss says. “We need to streamline the program, make it work for farmers. I don’t want to have farmers worrying about the government looking over their shoulders to determine if they have illegal workers on their farms.” The responsibility of patrolling the border should not belong entirely to the U.S., Chambliss says. “We aren’t getting the cooperation of the Mexican government we should have,” he says. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Savannah) says “there’s no quick fix to defuse the current crisis of illegal immigration. The issue is complicated in Congress by geo-specific problems where states on the border want the border controlled immediately, and where agriculture-heavy states like Georgia want to ensure that there’s a stead supply of available labor,” he says. “While the challenges to address this issue are clear, it is time for America to secure its borders first and then develop a non-amnesty temporary worker program,” Kingston says. “The House passed a strong border enforcement bill last year. It is now time for the Senate to act.” Rep. John Barrow (D-Savannah) says amnesty would be just plain wrong. “It isn’t reform to adopt a bill that allows people to cheat. Any action that results in amnesty invites more of the same. It’s important for us to recognize that we cannot solve the problems by legalizing illegal immigrants,” he says. “We must close the borders first. We cannot deal with the other problems if we don’t stop the flow,” Barrow says. “Around 1.2 million illegal immigrants were stopped by U.S. Customs and the Border Patrol last year. Of those, 500,000 got through. No country can take that year in and year out. We can do better.” Barrow supports construction of a fence along the border. “I don’t like the image of a fence,” he says. “But as much as I dislike the idea of a fence, experience has shown us fences make good neighbors.” Like Chambliss, Barrow says Mexico should do more. “We aren’t the only ones who should be responsible for enforcing immigration law,” he says. “Mexico has responsibility in this, too.” The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is in part responsible for the increase of illegal immigrants, according to Barrow. “NAFTA has helped the Mexican economy, but hurt the Mexican workers. It’s a huge foreign aid program that benefits Mexico,” Barrow says. “Mexico is coming out like gangbusters and should take their share of responsibility for patrolling the border.”
Sue Martinez teaches English as a second language and helps Latinos find the services they need to survive. Although not Hispanic by birth, she says she certainly knows Latino culture. “I married it, raised it and divorced it,” she says. “I find the culture intriguing.” Martinez’s interest in Latino culture dates back to elementary school. “I starting taking Spanish in New York in the third grade,” she says. While the experimental program was successful, there was a backlash from the community. Parents decided they didn’t want their children to learn Spanish. However, since Martinez’s class had already had instruction in Spanish, the lessons continued through the seventh grade. “My exposure to the language definitely piqued my interest,” she says. “I started to meet people from Latin American countries. My first serious boyfriend was from Puerto Rico. My next serious boyfriend was from Honduras.” Martinez was on vacation in Mexico in the 1970s when she met her husband-to-be, who was working at his family’s store. “He invited me for coffee,” she says. “He introduced me to his family the next day. We were married in 1978 and lived in Miami.” The couple had two sons, then after five years of marriage, divorced. “It was a typical divorce,” Martinez says. “But I remained intrigued by Latin culture.” Martinez herself knows what it feels like to be labeled as different. “My father was Jewish, my mother Catholic,” she says. When her parents married, the families were upset, Martinez says. Later in life, when she married a Mexican, the families were also upset. One of Martinez’s sons felt ostracized when he attended Valdosta State University. “Some people there believed Mexicans should be migrant workers,” she says. “Now he’s a graduate student at New York University, and his experience there has been totally different.” Interestingly, there are problems among Latinos that the rest of society does not see, Martinez says. Immigrants from one country may look down on immigrants from another country. “Racism is pervasive in the Latin community,” she says. “I often hear people from Colombia, Peru, and Panama say disparaging things about Mexicans.” Martinez believes that may be due to differences in educational levels. “My experience as an English teacher has shown for the most part that people who come from some parts of Latin America have better educations than people who come from Mexico,” she says. “People without an education may have a lack of cultural polish.” They also may have more problems assimilating. Martinez was approached about a young woman who was pregnant and needed prenatal care. She was startled to learn how little the woman knew about Savannah. “How do you deal with a whole population that doesn’t know its way around the city, much less the culture?” she asks. “The immigration process has to be so exhausting, so daunting. They have to adjust in so many ways. They can’t read the signs on the streets. They can’t talk to everyone they meet.” Language isn’t the only barrier. “They’re often fearful of the consequences of revealing too much about themselves,” Martinez says. “I’ve never been in a place where I was afraid they would throw me out. Some people live that way every day. Those people aren’t likely to put down roots.” Martinez says there are a lot of different opinions about what immigration reform could mean. “I’m against any legislation that seeks to criminalize the immigration experience,” she says. “And I don’t think 9/11 is sufficient justification for it. I think there is more to it, perhaps a fear of the browning of America.” Martinez knows there are others who feel illegal immigrants are criminals. “I’ve talked to a few people who think it’s comical that people who are breaking laws are protesting,” she says. “I think the United States has taken advantage of its position of power,” Martinez says. “Much of the hardship the rest of the world faces is at least partly attributable to American power. We buy bananas cheaply and sell them dearly.”
Carmen Alarcon is a journalist who is originally from Bogota, Colombia. She’s been in the U.S. for seven years. “Yellowstone National Park was what brought me here,” Alarcon says. “I used to work in the national parks at home.” Alarcon was particularly interested in the thermal activity at Yellowstone, which is similar to activity in a park in Colombia. “They had a summer program that brought in people from all over the world,” she says. After their truck broke down, Alarcon and her husband came to Savannah and fell in love with the city. “This city crawls into your blood and never leaves,” she says. Alarcon says her own immigration experience went smoothly, other than dealing with the red tape. “I have a large amount of time in waiting and money spent in visas,” she says. “I’ve never had any type of experience that was really anything bad,” Alarcon says. “Then again, it seems I’m always in the right place at the right time.” Alarcon writes for Las Voz Latina, which is distributed throughout Southeast Georgia and coastal South Carolina. She supports immigration reform. “It’s needed for the Hispanic community to become one, so people can see the faces of the people they are talking about,” Alarcon says. “It’s important that people see immigrants as human beings.”
Helping others in need is a virtue that normally is praised. But in March, Georgia’s Roman Catholic bishops expressed concern that pending immigration reform could cause serious problems for people who seek to help Hispanics in need. On March 1, the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, Archbishop of Atlanta, and the Most Rev. J. Kevin Boland, Bishop of Savannah, issued a six-page letter that calls for legislation that would protect undocumented workers. On April 3, the bishops criticized the passage of the state immigration bill and urged Catholics to continue to reach out to help Hispanic immigrants, even illegal ones. Father Michael J. Kavanaugh is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Port Wentworth. Every Sunday, he conducts a Mass in Spanish for Latino families in the community, with between 150 and 170 attending on a typical Sunday. It wasn’t easy launching a Hispanic ministry. “I had little background in Spanish,” Kavanaugh says. But Kavanaugh saw the need for such a ministry. And the response was immediate. “They love the opportunity to get together,” Kavanaugh says. “About once a quarter, we have lunch after mass and everyone comes.” Even now, Kavanaugh’s Spanish can be shaky. At one church event, he inadvertently added some humor. “I had the parents and children get in the front pew and told the others to get ‘underneath’ them,” Kavanaugh says. “We all laughed. They’re amazingly patient with a priest who isn’t fluent in Spanish.” As to potential punishment for helping illegal immigrants, Kavanaugh says much depends on the wording of a new bill. “If being present in this country illegally is turned into a felony, it would cause many concerns,” he says. “Particularly in terms of how it would divide families.” Kavanaugh has great respect for his Hispanic parishioners. “They’re very patient,” he says. “They also are very grateful. They’re generous and they’re very hard workers. They wouldn’t like to sit around and collect welfare.” Yet there is often what Kavanaugh terms “a terrible xenophobia” Americans have for Latino immigrants. Also, there has been heightened fear of foreigners since 9/11, he says. “Is it possible to deport 7 to 15 million people?” Kavanaugh asks. “It isn’t possible. And we can’t make life so uncomfortable for all undocumented persons that they’ll pack up and go home.” The Rev. Alvin Jackson is president of the Liberty County Ministerial Alliance, “We help people in our community,” Jackson says. “We don’t ask people if they are breaking the law. On the other hand, I don’t think people should be breaking the law,” he says. “That is not to say we should turn them away. We should look at it on a case by case basis, how it affects the church according to the law.” Bishop Larry Shaw, pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church of God in Christ in Hinesville, knows firsthand the importance of helping others. “Our church burned to the ground. The community helped us. I feel we owe this to the community,” he says. “We have a strong food program, and we give away clothing in our outreach program. Many people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina have come through our church. “It’s obvious they’re in need, so we don’t charge them anything,” Shaw concludes. “We don’t ask a lot of information. We deal with the immediate crisis they’re in.”
Melody Ortiz helped organize a rally in support of fair immigration reform that was held in Forsyth Park this past Sunday, April 9. The intent of the rally, which police estimate attracted at least 1000 people, both Latino and non-Latino, was to show peaceful support for immigration reform. “Integration and assimilation should be part of any new immigration reform. We can’t separate families. Most families have children who are citizens even though the parents aren’t. Some children are citizens even though their older siblings aren’t,” Ortiz says. “Compassionate, moral and just immigration reform needs to take place,” she concludes. “We need to assimilate these folks and integrate them into the community. That’s what the American dream is all about.”
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