American Renaissance

By Including Children, Proposal may Increase Strain on Schools, Health Care

Jerry Kammer,, Copley News Service, Feb. 9

LANHAM, Md. - For Sergio and Rebecca, life in this working-class suburb is crammed with 80-hour workweeks at Wendy’s and McDonald’s, squeezed into the dingy two-bedroom apartment they share with 10 other illegal immigrants, and weighted with melancholy about their children far away in Mexico.

In early January, however, a new immigration proposal from the White House lifted spirits at their run-down apartment complex just outside the Capital Beltway, where during the past two years immigrants from Mexico have crowded into nearly half the 320 units. Most of the immigrants who live there are in the United States illegally. Many - like Sergio, 33, and Rebecca, 25 - have children back in Mexico whom they desperately want to bring to the United States.

President Bush’s plan would grant temporary legal status to Sergio and Rebecca because they already have U.S. jobs.

Most important to the couple, however, is a provision that would allow them to bring their children to live with them.

“It is a great sadness to be away from them,” said Rebecca, who keeps a stack of telephone cards to call Dennis, 8, and Daphne, 4, every other day. “It would be a great benefit to be able to bring them here.”

The hopes of this immigrant family illustrate a rarely mentioned feature of the Bush proposal, which is expected to get its first congressional hearing before a Senate committee this month. Many of the millions of immigrants who would get temporary work visas under the plan would bring their children, causing added strains on schools, community health agencies and housing.

Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., predicts that a large-scale legalization program would trigger a major influx of children - probably hundreds of thousands - to join their parents.

Although nobody knows for certain how many illegal immigrants have children in their native countries, Passel estimates there are already 1.6 million undocumented immigrant children in the United States and 3 million U.S.-born children of undocumented parents.

Indiana University professor Jorge Chapa, who has studied immigrant communities in California and Texas, warns that the immigrant parents themselves will face daunting, child-rearing challenges.

“When you have parents working around the clock to make ends meet, that means the kids will be left to raise themselves, to a large degree,” Chapa said. “If you look at conditions that cause kids to become gang members, they have a marginalized existence, marginalized from their families and from their schools.”

Move to Maryland

Sergio arrived in Maryland in early 2001, drawn by telephone conversations with relatives who had come a year earlier. They told him minimum-wage U.S. restaurant jobs paid more in an hour than the $4 a day he earned as a bus driver in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

A former schoolmate smuggled Sergio across the Arizona border and on to the Washington suburbs. The price: $2,500 door to door, payable with a loan the former schoolmate-turned-smuggler also provided, charging 10 percent interest per month.

Sergio quickly found work at a Wendy’s restaurant. A year later he returned home and bought passage for Rebecca. That trip cost $5,000, about four times what the couple would have paid in airfare from Chiapas if they could have made the trip legally.

Twice the Border Patrol arrested them as they walked through the Arizona desert toward a rendezvous point with a van. The third time they made it.

Today the couple share a two-bedroom apartment with 10 relatives, all of whom also are illegal immigrants. Mattresses line the living room wall during the day, behind a sagging sofa and a threadbare chair they retrieved from Dumpsters outside. The closet is used as a bedroom, so jackets and caps hang from nails driven into the living room wall.

Most of the building’s residents work in fast-food restaurants, frequently more than one.

Sergio and Rebecca begin their days in black McDonald’s T-shirts emblazoned with the peppy slogan: “Makin’ it happen.” At 5 p.m. they switch uniforms and head for a Wendy’s, where they frequently work until 2 a.m. Then they return home for a few hours of sleep before returning to the Golden Arches.

Sergio says he wants to save enough money to return home, attend a university and become a lawyer.

But if Daphne and Dennis start school in the United States, he knows the family would start down a path that does not lead back to Mexico.

“Here they could have many opportunities,” he said. “It might be very difficult to leave.”

Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, says most young immigrants become attached to life in the United States.

“The mythology is that they will earn enough that they can go back to their village, but it doesn’t happen that way,” she said. “How can you call six years temporary? People form families, they meet people, employers want to advance the good ones.”

Under the Bush proposal, most of the workers would be expected to return home, perhaps after six years. Bush has rejected proposals for a blanket amnesty. Yet, without providing specifics, he holds open the possibility that some could become permanent residents.

National repercussions

In the past decade, so many illegal immigrants have moved into the U.S. interior that even temporary legalization would carry enormous national repercussions.

“It used to be that illegal immigration was concentrated in California, Texas, Arizona and Illinois,” the Urban Institute’s Passel said. “But the number (of illegal immigrants) in the other states increased from about a half million in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2003.”

The schools in Prince George’s County, where Sergio and Rebecca’s children would be enrolled, already provide summer programs for students learning English as a second language, or ESL. Seventy percent of the children are Hispanic; 60 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches because of their parents’ low incomes.

“We get some federal grants, but the needs far outweigh the money the feds allocate,” said Supreet Anand, who runs the county’s ESL program.

County spokeswoman Lynn McCawley ticked off the expenses: ESL teachers, parental liaison, translation at PTA meetings, newsletters printed in Spanish and English.

“It gets costly,” said McCawley, who doesn’t expect the federal government to step up to meet the costs of federal immigration policy.

“I’m sure they’ll fund it as well as they do the No Child Left Behind law,” she added with a touch of sarcasm. “That’s an unfunded mandate.”

The Prince George’s Hospital Center has no figures on the cost of providing health care to illegal immigrants, according to a hospital spokeswoman. Carla Luggiero, spokeswoman for the American Hospital Association, said communities outside the border region are just beginning to come to grips with the problem of paying for immigrant health care.

“Anecdotally, we are hearing about this issue more and more often,” Luggiero said. “It is a growing problem.”

A study released by a coalition of border counties reported that in 2000, they spent more than $200 million to provide emergency health care to undocumented immigrants.

For Rebecca and Sergio and the other immigrant parents who share their apartment building, health care and schooling are abstract issues that don’t factor into their daily lives. Their concern is more basic: to be reunited with their children.

As Rebecca stands at the fast-food grill every day, she said she turns her mind to Dennis and Daphne.

“I wonder how they are,” she said. “I wonder if they’re happy.”