by Mario Dintel
(IPS) NEW YORK --
only want to live here for three years, and then return to my city," to Puebla, Mexico, says Elizabeth, 21. Behind her, steam rises out of the pots in the taco shop where she works in the New York City neighborhood of Queens.
Elizabeth cooks tacos, tamales, huaraches, quesadillas, atole and other typical Mexican dishes. But she has no work permit, and lives in constant fear of deportation, which she shares with an estimated 10 million undocumented immigrants who live and work in the United States.
Their workdays usually stretch between 12 and 18 hours, and a day off is a rare treat. The legal minimum wage is a distant dream. And the workers and their families have no right to medical coverage, or legal protections against abuses by employers.
Last week, President George W. Bush presented a proposal that would legalize the status of undocumented immigrants, although analysts say it is unlikely to make it through Congress.
Under the plan, immigrant workers without a visa would be eligible for a three-year work permit, if their application is sponsored by their employer and they are able to demonstrate that no U.S. citizens wanted their job.
While the work visa -- which would be renewable at least once -- was in effect, the "guest-workers" would be able to visit their countries of origin and return to the United States without any problem.
They would also pay taxes, be guaranteed the minimum wage and other protections and benefits like health coverage, and be able to pay into retirement funds and open bank accounts.
Bush's proposal drew varied reactions. While many see it as an election year ploy aimed at drawing the Latino vote, others received the news with mild enthusiasm or indifference.
"This business about legalization of our status is complicated and not likely to pan out," a pessimistic-sounding Elizabeth told IPS.
Elizabeth abandoned her accountancy studies in Puebla, in southern Mexico, to cross the border in the desert with her husband and a group of 20 other immigrants who paid "coyotes" -- people smugglers -- to bring them into the United States.
Bush's plan is not an amnesty, but a system for recruiting foreign labor power that would require immigrants to provide their personal data, which would be put into a registry -- an aspect not welcomed by wary undocumented workers who are used to covering up their tracks in order to keep a step ahead of the authorities.
One of the first pieces of advice that fellow undocumented workers give a newcomer is "never to carry your original documents, because if the police or some other authority questions you, you have to be able to say you are on vacation and left your papers at the hotel," says Guillermo, 43, who left Costa Rica four years ago.
It is also important to be paid in cash and avoid checks: any document can give immigration authorities a lead.
Bush's proposal has placed the question of immigration back on the public agenda and in the media spotlight.
People in the United States have begun to ponder how their own lives would be affected by a mass deportation of the people who flip their hamburgers, pick up their garbage, take care of their yards and flowerbeds, clean their workplaces and homes, and help raise their children.
While other industrialized nations are likely to see their workforces shrink 15 percent by 2030, immigration into the United States will contribute to an 18 percent increase in the economically active population in the same period, which will bolster economic growth, according to a study by the National Foundation for American Policy.
"My dream is to save up a good sum of money as quickly as possible and return to Mexico, to set up a small business. But I don't know if I'll want to stay there after that," says Elizabeth, as she prepares a "torta con chile" and offers her customers a smile.
Although U.S. authorities put the number of undocumented immigrants at between eight and 10 million, non-governmental organizations say the total is closer to 12 or 14 million in this country of 290 million.
At least half come from Mexico, and immigrants from other Latin American nations make up the next biggest number.
"It's really tough. I miss my country -- not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent," says Guillermo, who despite a good education was unable to find work in Costa Rica. Now he works nights, cleaning the bathrooms, windows and floors in banks and offices in New Jersey, not far from Manhattan.
"It was hard to leave my wife and three kids," he tells IPS. "The separation is the most difficult part, because you don't know what you'll find here, how long you'll be gone, or when you'll see your friends again."
But Guillermo was fortunate: he was able to eventually bring his family to New York.
What Guillermo and Elizabeth do for a living -- cleaning and cooking -- are common jobs for many Latin Americans employed by small companies in cities around the country, where they can frequently be seen in restaurants, pizza parlors and shops.
Undocumented Latin American immigrants also find employment as migrant farm workers, domestics -- housekeepers, nannies, cooks and cleaners -- taxi drivers or gardeners.
The minimum wage in the United States is seven dollars an hour, and although some undocumented workers are paid that, or even slightly more, the lion's share earn no more than four or five dollars an hour.
Many find it impossible to get a job without providing a social security number. But a fake one can be bought on the black market.
The right to health care is nonexistent for undocumented immigrants. "The other day, I had a terrible toothache," an elderly woman who did not give her name told IPS. "I had to go to the dentist. He told me I needed a crown. You know how much he was charging? $750. Of course I couldn't afford that. I had to just put up with the pain."
Bush's guest-worker plan is seen by some observers as a means of giving the economy a boost, because it would increase tax collection and enable immigrants to open savings accounts.
But many immigrants are dubious. "Bush's idea wouldn't bring us anything good, it's a trick," says Israel, a 30-year-old Mexican who works at a deli in the heart of Manhattan.
"That's what politicians are like. They promise things to win votes, but then they forget about everything. That's what's going to happen in this case," he says. One of his co-workers nods agreement while serving a customer hot chocolate and a bun.
If Bush's plan, the details of which have not yet been fully developed, does end up being approved by Congress, it would amount to the most far-reaching reform of immigration policy since 1986, when the administration of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) issued an amnesty, granting permanent residency status to nearly three million undocumented workers.
Since the amnesty -- the Immigration Reform and Control Act -- went into effect, Latino activists have been fighting to get the benefits extended to the growing army of undocumented immigrants.
But Bush's plan is not designed to lead to permanent residency status -- the famous Green Card.
"Our entire struggle is aimed at obtaining permanent residency. We aren't interested in accepting a temporary permit," Johel Magallán, executive director of the Tepeyac Association of New York, an umbrella organization that links 40 immigrant groups, told IPS.
The Border Security and Immigration Improvement Act, submitted to Congress in mid-2003, would have granted temporary permits to immigrants who have been "contributing to the nation's economy," allowing them to work towards permanent status for themselves and their families.
Although they would be subject to an investigation and would have to pay a penalty of $1,500 for entering the country illegally, "Many Latin Americans pay the coyotes more than that anyway," said Magallán. "Besides, that initiative came closer to what we have been demanding in our struggle."
As the fate of Bush's proposed guest-worker plan becomes clear, millions of people like Elizabeth, Guillermo and Israel will continue fuelling the motor of the U.S. economy from the shadows.
January 14, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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