Illegal Immigrants Worry about U.S. Policy Changes; Proposals to Fix Contradictions Stall in Congress and Some Fear Election-Year Politics Enter Picture

Article excerpt

Byline: STEPHEN MAJORS, The Times-Union

Maria, Norma, Janet and Nana cannot vote in the November election, but they will pay taxes. Spanish will always be their first language, but their children are taught English from the first day of class.

The four Mexican women are undocumented immigrants on the fringes of society, making about $9,000 a year cutting ferns in Putnam County while their American-born children are full citizens assimilating into the culture of Florida's classrooms.

These are some of the contradictions molded by the nation's immigration policies. The contradictions have only been strengthened, the women think, by the ambivalence of President Bush's temporary worker proposal announced in January. Specific details of the proposal have yet to emerge, and the political considerations of an election year are swirling.

Sitting in the Putnam County Migrant Education Center, Maria, Norma, Janet and Nana are in agreement. They don't want what the president suggests giving them -- a three-year visa, renewable for three more years, if they can prove they are employed and no American workers would be willing to do their jobs. Then they would have to return to their home countries.

Due to their illegal status and facing possible deportation, the four women agreed to talk to the Times-Union if they were identified only by first name.

"I don't want to give them [the government] any information because my kids are American citizens," Nana says, translated by Lucy Robles, the migrant education program assistant. "In six years, I want to establish myself here. I would have to take my kids back to a foreign country."

Robles elaborates. "You're talking about chaos," she says. "Their children are already learning English, and then they have to go back to Mexico."

But legalization, although temporary, would enable businesses to provide undocumented workers with all of the protections of legal workers with no fear of immigration raids.

Alma Defillo, a Jacksonville lawyer specializing in immigration law, said local businesses have been asking for years how to get their illegal workers legalized.

"It's very hard for these people to find good employees," Defillo said. "You give them a paycheck and they will come the next day. They have tried to replace them."

MONITORING MOTIVE

Many have accused the president of simple election-year pandering to voting allies of illegal immigrants. In Florida, there are an estimated 700,000 illegal immigrants, while about 18 percent of the state's population of almost 16 million is foreign-born, mostly Hispanic. The state's Cuban population has been very supportive of the Republican Party, but Mexicans, who now comprise about 7 percent of immigrants in Florida, tend to vote for Democrats.

"Is President Bush a friend of the Hispanic people?" Robles asks the four women. "No," they all agree again.

"They think it is just a political plot because prior to Sept. 11 the president was talking [about immigration] but never produced anything," Robles translates. "Now that it is an election year he is all the sudden coming up with a proposal again to maybe entice Hispanic voters and say, 'Hey, I am doing something for you.' "

Robles is a Hispanic voter but will not vote for Bush. But if she didn't know the details of the proposal, she says, she would probably think Bush was doing something good for her community.

Immigration has long been a contentious issue, and proposals generally inspire criticism from all sides.

"I think we should give the president credit for attempting to solve a very difficult issue," said Mel Martinez, President Bush's former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and now a U.S. Senate candidate in Florida. "I think the proposal has the making of some important issues that need to be considered in the immigration debate. …