• U.S.

IMMIGRATION: Getting Their Slice of Paradise

15 minute read

The U.S. is being invaded so silently and surreptitiously that most Americans are not even aware of it. The invaders come by land, sea and air. They fly commercial and private aircraft; they jump ship or sail their own boats; they scale mountains and swim rivers. Some have crawled through a mile-long tunnel; others have squeezed through the San Antonio sewerage system. No commandos or assault troops have shown more ingenuity and determination in storming a country that tries to keep them out. They are the illegal immigrants who come not to destroy but to enjoy the blessings of the most prosperous nation on earth.

Vast Scale. What was once a trickle has become a flood. Exact figures are hard to come by, but U.S. officials estimate that between 6 million and 10 million illegal aliens are living in the U.S. Last year alone, between 500,000 and 1 million arrived—while another 750,000 were caught and deported. If these numbers are added to the 400,000 legal newcomers who enter every year, it is apparent that the U.S. is experiencing an immigration on the vast scale of that of the turn of the century.* Last week, while concentrating on energy, the Carter Administration was studying the implications of the invasion and trying to solve the problems it raises.

The growing population and unemployment of the Third World countries are propelling people to a better life in the U.S. Some 80% of the illegal aliens now living in America came from Mexico, where the population is growing at the rate of 3.5% a year, the jobless rate approaches 40%, and a man lucky enough to find work may be paid $1 a day. Small wonder that close to 10% of all Mexicans actually reside in the U.S., and Los Angeles has the third largest concentration of Mexicans (after Mexico City and Guadalajara).

In the past few years increasing numbers of Haitians, Colombians, Jamaicans, Greeks, Filipinos and Nigerians have joined the migration. The aliens used to do mainly farm work in the South and Southwest. But they have now established enclaves in major urban centers. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates, there are 50,000 illegal aliens in Washington, D.C., more than 500,000 in Chicago and 1.3 million in the New York metropolitan area. Says Leonard Chapman, who stepped down last month as commissioner of the INS: “We have become the haven for the unemployed of the world. I think it’s going to be catastrophic.”

This incessant invasion presents the U.S. with a basic dilemma. A nation of immigrants is reluctant to reject other immigrants, particularly those who want to get ahead in the best American tradition. Few come for a handout; they are anxious to make a living. An illegal alien who is currently employed as an industrial painter in Brooklyn used to live on a South Pacific island where he dreamed of the American paradise of hard work. “It is the obsession of every islander,” he says, “to come and be rewarded for what he does”—a dream shared round the world.

But there is growing apprehension that the illegal immigrant’s dream-come-true may turn out to be a nation al nightmare. The AFL-CIO argues that the illegals not only take jobs away from Americans but force down wage levels by being willing to work for low salaries. The INS estimates that the newcomers cost the American taxpayer $13 billion a year in social services, and aggravate the already unfavorable balance of payments by annually sending home $3 billion—or more.

Getting into America illegally is one of the easiest crimes to commit and one of the least punished. Says Chapman: “An illegal alien who is caught has to be one of the unluckiest fellas in the world.” Most of the illegal immigrants who arrive in the U.S. cross the 2,000-mile-long Mexican border, where a small number of federal agents are overwhelmed by the size of their job (see box page 30). Professional smuggling rings provide guides for a fee ranging from $100 to $1,000, forged papers from $300 to $1,200, depending on the quality of the forgery and the affluence of the immigrant. Last year the INS apprehended 9,600 smugglers and figure at least twice that number got away.

Brisk Trade. Finding work is seldom a problem, as long as the immigrants are not fussy about what they do, and few are. All they have to show an employer is a Social Security card, which is about as hard to acquire as a Popsicle. They can either borrow one, buy a forged one or get a genuine one by submitting a driver’s license.

If they are reasonably cautious, they will probably never be detected. The undermanned INS, whose enforcement staff numbers fewer than 2,900, operates mainly on tips it receives. No government agency is under any pressure to report the “undocumented” aliens it comes across. Even if an immigrant is caught, he is often released on his pledge that he will leave the country; he may renege and simply move to a different job in another area. Criminal penalties are seldom imposed by courts with overcrowded dockets.

Once an alien is settled in America, he seeks legitimacy as fast as possible. The easiest route is marriage. If he weds a U.S. citizen, he can become a legal resident. A brisk trade flourishes in quickie, temporary marriages; for a fee of around $1,000, many American men and women will offer to wed an illegal alien. The couple are soon divorced; the alien wins the right to stay in the country while the American is ready for the next match. If a marriage partner is not available, an illegal alien can use another close relation to gain legality. Gino Ciampa, 28, a hairdresser in Boston, preferred not to wed in order to stay in America. “I wanted to marry for love,” he explains. Instead he persuaded his mother to come from Italy to live for a year with her brother, an American citizen. That made her a legal U.S. resident. Once she was legal, so, with the proper filing of papers, was Gino. Then Mama returned to Italy.

The illegal immigrants often have more to fear from exploiters, or “coyotes,” as they are called, than they do from American authorities. They are fair game for every kind of shyster lawyer and racketeer, many of their own ethnic background. The victims of the fleecing can scarcely complain to the police, lest they give themselves away.

Unshaken Resolve. To survive, the aliens gladly accept lower wages than Americans; their average hourly rate is often one-third or more below the standard. U.S. officials have found farm laborers in the West who were paid $15 a week. Unscrupulous employers threaten to turn over the illegals to the INS if they complain. Kickbacks to the boss are commonplace; migrant workers often bed down in open fields. “We live the life of a concentration camp,” says an illegal Mexican in California. “It is cruel here, but one can at least eat.”

Whatever the costs, most illegals are determined to have their slice of paradise and nothing shakes their resolve.

> “Juan,” 48, an illegal Mexican immigrant who now works in Florida, has crossed the border so often in search of work that he has lost count. He has been arrested at least a dozen times and lives in constant fear of being sent home again. Just last month he narrowly escaped detection when a border patrol questioned him at the nursery where he works, but the officers did not ask for his papers. Says he: “I will work like this until I die.”

> Jorge Guerrero, 24, is an Ecuadorian who jumped ship in San Francisco at the age of 16. Three years later he was caught and deported. He returned by paying a smuggler $200 and enrolled in a federal job-training program in Massachusetts, hoping to become an engineer. Discovered once again, he is now in jail on a charge of illegal entry. Will he try to come back to the U.S. still another time? “Why not?” he shrugs. “I’ve nothing to lose.”

> Giaccomo Fosse, 32, arrived in Boston from Italy on a 30-day visa and stayed on when he could not get it extended. One Sunday after Mass, he paid $1,000 to a priest who promised to help him. Two weeks later the priest had disappeared and Fosse was arrested and deported to Italy. Undeterred, he went to Germany, obtained another 30-day visa to the U.S. and returned to Boston. He looked up a girl he had met on his first trip and married her. That set up Giaccomo to become a legal resident, although INS agents checked the hotel to make sure the couple had spent their wedding night together.

> Andre Tassy, 30, was accused of plotting against the Haitian government and imprisoned for 2½ years. After his release in 1974, he and his wife and 31 others fled in a leaky 14-ft. boat. First they landed in Cuba, where the craft was repaired. Then they pushed on to Florida. As soon as they had beached the boat, the men were jailed for illegal entry. Tassy was released on $500 bond and is now awaiting a court decision on his deportation. Unlike Cubans, most Haitians are not recognized as political refugees by the U.S. and are not permitted to stay. Says an embittered Tassy: “Cubans get papers, money and food stamps. Nothing for the Haitians.”

> Guillermo Morales, 28, lived with a dozen brothers and sisters in a Mexican border town. He learned to weld but could barely make a living. Finally, he heard about an outfit that would supply him with an American wife for $100. He paid up, crossed the border and married the woman in Laredo. After working as a welder for three years, he saved enough money to marry the Mexican woman he really loved. Unfortunately, he forgot to get a divorce from his first wife. He barely escaped to Mexico with the border patrol on his heels.

A curious mixture of groups—civil rights and Mexican-American organizations, large farmers and the Wall Street Journal—is sympathetic to the illegal immigration. They claim that these foreigners fill the kinds of jobs that most Americans shun. The aliens serve as busboys, dishwashers, laundrymen, porters, sweepers. They have been found painting the Statue of Liberty and cleaning up the INS offices in Washington. Desperate for domestics, many affluent households hire illegal aliens, and some housewives in Beverly Hills even forge documents for their maids and pay for their secret trips back to Mexico. Farmers—particularly those in Florida and California—are especially dependent upon the newcomers. Asks Perry Ellsworth, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers: “Do you know how many Americans are interested in stoop labor? Without that labor [of the ah’ens], many farms would have to mechanize or fold.”

Nick Capous, a former illegal alien from Greece who now owns a $5 million-a-year painting firm in New York City, has discovered that U.S. citizens are unwilling to perform high-risk, low-paying jobs. After Americans spend a few weeks up in the rigging painting bridges or towers, he says disdainfully, they quit and try to collect unemployment.

Yet there is evidence that illegal aliens are taking at least some jobs from Americans because of their willingness to work for less money. Unemployment, for example, is high among union carpenters in Houston even though the city is in the midst of a building boom. The reason is that contractors are holding out for Mexican immigrants who will accept less than the minimum wage. Says Labor Secretary Ray Marshall: “We work hard to create a few jobs, and these are swamped by people crossing the border.”

Cursory Proof. The INS figures that in 1975, 1 million jobs that were held by illegals could have been switched to Americans: 150,000 of them in heavy industry, 214,000 in light industry, 301,000 in the service trades and 335,000 in agriculture. That would be enough today to reduce the unemployment rate from 7.3% to 6.3%.

There is also mounting concern about the additional pressure that illegal immigrants are putting on already overburdened social services and facilities. For the most part, illegals avoid welfare since they come to the U.S. to work. But increasingly, as they bring their families along with them, the newcomers are taking advantage of relief programs, which are all too easy to apply for. In 1975, 370 of the 21,039 il legal aliens who were apprehended in New York City were discovered to have received $500,000 in welfare payments, although they owned $1.4 million in assets. Aliens manage to get on the rolls for Medicare and Medicaid, and they get free emergency treatment at hospitals. They also send their children to school as required by law. As they register for various programs, they are asked to give only cursory proof of their legal status and take a small risk of detection. Some court decisions, in fact, have made it harder for the INS to check up on aliens. In 1975 a California court ruled that school officials cannot release the names of illegal immigrants.

Illegal aliens are probably among the most law-abiding people in America, if only to avoid coming to the attention of the police. But like other groups, they are becoming more involved in crime, ranging from muggings to narcotics smuggling. Last week in New York City, an illegal Panamanian immigrant shot two policemen when they tried to arrest him in the course of a drug sale; one was killed. Says Charles Knapp, a troubleshooter for the U.S. Labor Department: “We’re setting up a whole new underclass of people who are essentially outside the law.”

This week Cabinet members are submitting a broad-gauged attack on the problem for President Carter’s consideration. The program is expected to offer a considerable concession to illegal immigrants now in the U.S. Those who arrived before a certain date—perhaps 1970—would be offered complete amnesty and recognized as U.S. citizens. “Some element of amnesty will be mandatory,” says Carter. “Some of these illegal aliens have been here for 15 or 20 years. They are American citizens in the practical sense of the word.”

To control the number of illegal aliens entering the U.S. in the future, the Administration is considering sanctions—presumably stiff fines—against employers who knowingly hire such immigrants. This approach is supported by the AFL-CIO, but has been bitterly resisted in Congress by farm-state representatives, notably Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which would have to approve the bill.

More money and manpower would go to the hard-pressed INS, and the Federal Government could take other steps to tighten the net against the flood of illegal aliens. The U.S. could follow the example of other democracies and scrutinize aliens more closely at ports of entry. At the same time, border patrols must be increased to head off the far greater number of immigrants who enter the U.S. without ever being seen. The Social Security Administration could check on an immigrant’s status before it issued him a card. As in Britain and France, local police might be authorized to help the INS apprehend illegal aliens. More immigration judges could be appointed and empowered to levy fines as well as to rule on deportations.

Continuing Burden. As he prepares his amnesty along with his crackdown, Carter made another gesture of good will toward the immigrant community by nominating a Mexican-American, Leonel J. Castillo, 37, to be INS commissioner. Born and raised in Texas, Castillo served in the Peace Corps, then returned to Texas to lead a desegregation fight in Houston. He was elected Houston controller in 1971 and was twice reelected. Although he has yet to be confirmed by the Senate, Castillo has already worked with Attorney General Griffin Bell on the new program.

Castillo will have the job of trying to persuade Mexico to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants to the north. As an incentive, Carter’s program is expected to include economic aid to Mexico to help set up labor-intensive projects, with an emphasis on farming, that will reduce the nation’s chronic unemployment. That may help some, but certainly not enough. In the years ahead, the U.S. is likely to continue to be burdened with the fact that it is still pre-eminently the land of opportunity and promise—and that hundreds of thousands of people who cannot immigrate legally will try everything in their power to cross the border somewhere, sometime, somehow, and stay as long as they can.

* The immigration law provides an annual quota of 170,000 for the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 for the Western. Another 110,000—primarily relatives—are permitted to enter under special provisions. In the Eastern Hemisphere, each nation has a quota, and immigrants are accepted largely on the basis of their skills and family ties to U.S. citizens. There are no national quotas in the Western Hemisphere; immigrants are accepted on the basis of first come, first served.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com