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El Otro Lado / The Other Side

Demonized on one hand, exploited on the other, illegal immigrants say they deserve better than the treatment they are getting from Republicans

El Otro Lado / The Other Side
Scott Fabean says some politicians are instilling "unjustified fear" into Americans and illegal immigrants for political gain.

Arelin's left arm gently holds her eight-month-old daughter, who smiles and swings her Winnie the Pooh pacifier through the air. Her right arm holds her daughter's pink blanket, which she uses to wipe away her own tears.

"It's really hard to make money in Honduras," says the 27-year-old woman, speaking through a translator inside a large recreational hall at Oakland's St. Hyacinth Church. "That's why I came here."

Arelin, who would not use her real name for fear of arrest, has been living in Pittsburgh since coming to the United States one year ago. In Honduras, she says her mother supported her family by making tortillas. But as her mother aged, Arelin and four of her siblings decided they would seek work in the United States so they could support the family by sending money back home.

"My mother is very tired of making tortillas," she says.

Arelin's brothers, who left first, sent money back to Honduras for Arelin to pay her way across the U.S. border. After leaving Honduras, Arelin took a bus through Guatemala, then hiked through the mountains of Mexico and hopped a train with a group of about 50 other people headed for the States.

"We were hungry and thirsty as we passed through the mountains," she says.

Along the way, Arelin was raped, an experience she declines to talk about except to say, "That was the hardest part of the trip for me."

Yet Arelin was one of the lucky ones. Of the group of 50 she traveled with, she says, about half were caught. She and a few of the other travelers paid coyotes -- those who, for a fee, help smuggle people into the country -- about $5,000 to guide them across the border.

When her month-long journey was complete, Arelin finally found herself on el otro lado -- "the other side," as the United States is called by many immigrants from Mexico and farther south. But after contending with thieves, rapists and coyotes, she must now contend with people much more powerful ... people like state Reps. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Cranberry), and Mark Mustio (R-Moon), who say Arelin and illegal immigrants like her are the real criminal threat.

In some ways, Metcalfe and Mustio are unlikely adversaries.

Mustio, for example, says he's never knowingly met an illegal immigrant. If he did, he says, the conversation would consist of just one question:

"When are you leaving?"

Metcalfe says he met illegal immigrants years ago, during a stint in the Army patrolling the border along El Paso, Texas. However, he had little interaction with them.

The reason? "I don't speak Mexican," he says.

Nor is it likely that the politicians will encounter illegal immigrants while traveling in their southwestern Pennsylvania districts.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research organization, there are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Nearly 80 percent of them are from Mexico or another Latin American country. But less than 1 percent reside in Pennsylvania -- and only a tiny portion of those have likely ever set foot in Mustio's or Metcalfe's district. Bill Riley, a federal Immigration Customs Enforcement investigator, says the number of illegal immigrants is "much higher in the Philadelphia area" than in the western part of the state.

Yet Metcalfe especially has become one of the state's most strident voices denouncing what he calls an "illegal alien invasion."

"We have hundreds of thousands of people coming across our border uninvited, unchecked and knowingly violating our laws and violating our border," he says. "This illegal alien invasion is a huge cost to my constituents, to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania."

More than that, he says: Immigration is dangerous.

In September, Metcalfe and three other Republican state legislators unveiled a report titled "Invasion PA." Compiled from media reports and testimony given at a series of legislative hearings last year, the report documents 3,100 crimes allegedly committed by illegal aliens statewide.

The report, Metcalfe said in a statement, detailed the threat posed by "first-degree, black-hearted murderers, addictive drug dealers, cop-killing gang members, child-molesting sexual predators and terrorists in waiting, who deserve swift and immediate prosecution, punishment up to and including the death penalty and at the very least deportation, rather than the dignity and respect of being called immigrants."

One section of the report even cited immigrants for the offense of dying at taxpayer expense. Under the "Welfare Fraud/Social Benefits Abuse" section, the report noted the July 2006 death of Noe Lopez-Vilchis, who drowned at the Dormont pool. Lopez-Vilchis' "emergency services and medical care totaled more than $57,000," the report contended.

"I'm not concerned with the illegal alien invaders," says Metcalfe. "I'm concerned about the Americans who are having losses because of the illegal alien invaders. ... The human face that we all have to be concerned with is ... our American citizens who are being victimized by those who are coming here illegally."

Indeed, Metcalfe isn't even concerned with the children of "illegal alien invaders" -- even when those children are born in the United States. If it were up to him, both Arelin and her daughter, Michelle, would be sent back to Honduras.

"Foreign nationals that are in our country illegally, that are having children in our country illegally should take their children with them and go back to their homeland," he says. "In Pennsylvania, we spend over $20 billion a year on our educational system. Some percentage of that is going to educate illegal alien children, and it ... would be better in the pockets of our own taxpayers."

Ousting American-born children would violate the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which holds that "[a]ll persons born ... in the United States ... are citizens of the United States," and that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privilege or immunities of citizens of the United States."

But Metcalfe says the 14th amendment "was made to cover individuals who were actually under our jurisdiction -- those who actually immigrated here legally or were citizens."

Metcalfe has sponsored five House bills -- part of his "National Security Begins at Home" agenda -- which he says are designed to "shut off the economic faucets that illegal aliens sustain themselves on." Introduced this spring, the measures would: require employers to verify Social Security numbers of job applicants or risk losing business licenses or permits; authorize state police to enforce federal immigration and customs laws; require law-enforcement officers to report citizenship status of people they arrest; revoke the professional licenses of people who knowingly employ illegal immigrants; and eliminate public benefits for illegal aliens.

"We shut off the illegal jobs and illegal benefits, and they'll have no choice [but] to go home on their own," Metcalfe says.

El Otro Lado / The Other Side
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (at podium) fronts the coalition, "State Legislators for Legal Immigration."
The potential impact of these bills is unclear. After all, says Jackie Martinez, a Downtown attorney who specializes in immigration matters, "If someone is here without documentation, they do not get benefits." Citizen children of illegal immigrants are eligible for food stamps, she says. But their parents can apply for only the amount that will cover their children, not themselves. Otherwise, illegal immigrants can receive only emergency medical assistance, which kicks in if a person is in danger of losing life or limb, or if a person has communicable disease that could potentially harm the public.

"Aren't those enough?" Mustio asks. "I mean, emergency medical benefits that aren't paid for? Who's paying for those? They're not paying for them."

Mustio and Metcalfe aren't the only ones in Harrisburg who feel this way. Metcalfe's bill prohibiting the employment of illegal immigrants, for example, has 39 co-sponsors, including five Democrats. His measures are among more than a dozen bills dedicated to immigration that have been introduced in Harrisburg so far this year. And he isn't just connecting with legislators in Harrisburg. Earlier this year, Metcalfe founded a coalition called "State Legislators for Legal Immigration," which seeks cooperation between federal, state and local governments to stop the "unlawful invasion" of illegal immigrants. Representatives from 31 state legislatures have joined.

One of Metcalfe's allies is Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta, who stirred up national controversy last year after enacting local laws to evict illegal immigrants. The Hazelton ordinances sought to penalize landlords who rent to illegal immigrants, as well as businesses that hire them.

A federal judge ruled Barletta's ordinances, which are similar to Metcalfe's bills, unconstitutional. In a 206-page decision, U.S. District Judge James Munley said, "The city could not enact an ordinance that violates the rights the Constitution guarantees to every person in the United States, legal or not."

Still, that courtroom setback hasn't hurt Barletta much. He is now being touted as a potential Congressional candidate next year. Already his likely opponent, incumbent Democrat Paul Kanjorski, has been intensifying his own anti-immigrant rhetoric to compete with Barletta. As reported in the Allentown Morning Call newspaper, Kanjorski recently sent out a mailing to constituents illustrated with a photo of troops building a fence. "We need to ... stop illegal immigration and protect Pennsylvania jobs," the mailer asserted.

"Politicians are not averse to making political hay out of [illegal immigration]," says Susan Hansen, a University of Pittsburgh political-science professor. "It's a bid for some political advantage."

Metcalfe acknowledges that his stand plays well to his constituents. "If you come up to Cranberry Township and you pull together a group of people, you'll hear cheers," he says. "You'll hear a lot of people clapping and agreeing with the idea of stopping the illegal alien invasion."

Such hostility toward illegal immigrants, oddly enough, is most common where immigrants are rare.

In 2006, the Pew Hispanic Center studied attitudes about immigration in Republican-leaning counties versus those that tend to vote Democratic. Roughly half of the residents in Republican counties said immigration is a "very big" problem, even though the foreign-born population of these counties -- which, like Mustio's or Metcalfe's district, tend to be rural or suburban -- is just 7 percent of the total. By contrast, foreign-born residents make up 17 percent of the voters in Democratic counties -- but just over one-third of voters there see immigration as a "very big" concern.

According to Hansen, the study's findings aren't surprising.

"If people are working and living with immigrants, who are usually extremely hardworking, they will have a much more positive view of them," she says. "But many Republican citizens from rural places are concerned about culture and language."

Whether those concerns translate into legislative action, though, is another matter.

According to Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs and director of the Keystone Poll at Franklin & Marshall College, immigration is likely to be a key issue in next year's presidential campaign, and in other races. Immigration "is simmering," he says, "with the potential to burst into a major issue at any moment."

Still, he says, legislation like Metcalfe's faces a difficult road. The state House is controlled by Democrats, he points out, and Gov. Ed Rendell would likely veto the measures if they ever reached his desk.

Rendell "believes that it is the federal government's responsibility to protect our borders," says Rendell spokesperson Chuck Ardo. While promising that "if legislation reaches his desk, he will consider its merits," Ardo says Rendell "doesn't believe that new laws are required. There are ample laws in place to deal with illegal immigration."

For example, there are already laws barring employers from hiring undocumented workers. And the federal Immigration and Nationality Act already authorizes state and local police to cooperate with the feds. One section of the act permits designated officers to enforce immigration law. But Riley, of Immigrations Customs and Enforcement, says no police agency in Pennsylvania has requested such a designation.

In fact, many police agencies are on record as saying they don't want to enforce immigration law. In June 2006, the Major Cities Chiefs Immigration Committee, which includes chiefs from Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, issued a statement urging that local police not be tasked with the added responsibility.

"Only when the federal government takes the necessary steps to close the revolving door that exists at our national borders will it be possible for local police agencies to begin to consider dedicating limited local resources to immigration enforcement," the statement reads. Until then, the statement argued, immigration law is too complex -- and the risk of alienating immigrant communities too high -- for local police to get involved.

"Metcalfe approaches issues more ideologically than practically," Madonna says. "I don't think there's politically much to be gained or lost."

Moreover, he adds, because "illegal immigration is not a huge issue in southwestern Pennsylvania, what's the point" of the bills in the first place?

To some Metcalfe critics, the point is obvious: "A lot of it is purely political," says Scott Fabean, the vice president of Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, a coalition of about 35 religious organizations. "Metcalfe would be an absolute no-name if he wasn't taking this kind of hard-line stance.

"How does this jive with your family values that we hear so often about?" Fabean asks. He finds it "highly peculiar" that religious, family-value Republicans are stirring up such controversy over a population that, he says, is predominantly Catholic and trying to support their families.

Indeed, even Bishop David Zubik, the newly installed head of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, opposed local ordinances against illegal immigration when he was a bishop in Green Bay, Wis.

"[Zubik] is wrong," says Metcalfe, who identifies himself as a Christian.

"It's not an issue of politics; it's an issue of policy," he adds. "It's an issue of government doing what's right and protecting its citizens."

But either way, Madonna says, giving state and local agencies the ability to set their own immigration policies opens up a whole can of worms.

"There will be sanctuary cities right next to cities that are trying to kick illegal immigrants out," he says. "Nobody would know what the freaking rules are!"

In fact, that confusion may already exist.

Ask Natalie, a 34-year-old Mexican who came to the U.S. in 2003, and who says she's seen local police take immigration law into their own hands.

Earlier this summer, she claims, she was pulled over and harassed by a police officer on the North Side. Although she doesn't speak English, a passenger in the car, Alfonso Barquera, who is a legal resident of the United States, helped translate.

"Instead of asking for my driver's license, [the officer] asked for my papers," Natalie says, speaking through a translator. "I asked him if he was an immigration officer or a police officer.

"He said, 'Shut up, stupid bitch! You're an illegal.'"

El Otro Lado / The Other Side
As a volunteer translator at St. Hyacinth Church in Oakland, Rebeca Dosal witnesses the hardships illegal immigrants face in the Pittsburgh area.
Natalie says the officer called federal authorities. But once immigration heard that her two young sons were with her, she says, they told local police to let her go.

Barquera is currently on vacation in Mexico and could not be reached for comment. But shortly after the incident, he was quoted in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story, saying that those in the car "were asked for 'documents,' cursed at and held for an hour in the car."

"I feel a lot of fear being here illegally, a feeling I've never felt before," Natalie says.

According to Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board, no formal complaints have been filed about this or any other allegation of profiling. But, she says, members of the Latino community did raise concerns during a September meeting with Pittinger and Police Chief Nate Harper at St. Hyacinth Church. (Harper did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story, but he has told the P-G that police do not profile citizens because of their ethnicity.)

Several attendees "alleged that they have been treated poorly because of their ethnicity," Pittinger says. "Some said police made dehumanizing kinds of comments and used hateful speech." Harper, she says, has since told officers that "it isn't in their power to enforce immigration." She also says the department has established a liaison to the Latino community.

In June, Fabean led a group of about 40 immigration advocates to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office to discuss complaints about local law enforcement. After meeting with Ravenstahl, Harper and County Executive Dan Onorato, he feels confident that "there is no direction from the top to profile Latinos in the area." But Fabean and other immigration advocates do worry about the effect of Republican rhetoric.

"This crazy Daryl Metcalfe is saying 'illegal alien invaders,'" says Martinez. "That is really incendiary. It's like crying 'fire' in a movie theater."

Martinez faults Metcalfe for generalizing about the entire immigrant population based on the criminal actions of a few. "Take a pool of individuals who have been screened and prepped and have gone through military training," she says. "These individuals committed Abu Ghraib."

"From my experience here, I don't see any criminals," says Rebeca Dosal, 40, who volunteers as a translator at St. Hyacinth's. (Dosal herself is Mexican, in Pittsburgh on a medical visa while being treated for pulmonary hypertension.) "I don't see people trying to do bad things to this country. ... I only see hardworking people and families."

"There is a basic human tendency to fear the other," says Sister Janice Vanderneck, who works full time providing social services to Latinos at St. Hyacinth Church. "To fear the one who is different and to be afraid when someone is speaking in other languages."

"I don't think there's any fear," Metcalfe counters. "There are many [illegal immigrants] that have come across the border that have murdered Americans, that have raped Americans, that have stolen from Americans, so it's not a matter of fear."

In many ways, Lou Gilberti sympathizes with both Metcalfe and the immigrants he's targeted. On the one hand, says the council representative for the Greater Pennsylvania Regional Council of Carpenters, union members are competing for jobs with contractors that use cheap, illegal labor.

"There is a small group of employers and developers making profits on these illegal workers," Gilberti says. "They are disrupting the moral fabric of society." As an example, Gilberti cites a dormitory construction project at Slippery Rock University last summer. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, immigrants working for one contractor were being paid roughly $10 an hour less than the prevailing wage -- and they were working 50-70 hours per week, without overtime.

"It's kind of scary that this could happen at a state project," Gilberti says.

Still, "You definitely feel for [the illegal immigrants]," says Gilberti, who says his uncle was an undocumented when he came to the United States from Italy. "No matter how bad it is for them here, it's still better than down there."

In fact, one rare area of agreement in the immigration debate is that "[e]mployers ought to be held responsible for their part in the crime," as Metcalfe puts it.

For many, the obvious answer is to punish employers. Paul Quarantillo, president and business manager of the Laborer's District Council of Western Pa., says existing sanctions aren't severe enough.

"If you're an employer, and you're paying hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars less than what you would have to pay an American citizen," he asks, "why would you stop if the only thing that they made you do was pay a $200,000 fine?

"Anyone would trade that for $1 million. And if you don't get caught, you don't have to pay that cost."

But others favor a different approach: Instead of punishing people more harshly for breaking the law, they say, make complying with the law easier.

"We want there to be some way for these 12 million people to be authorized for work," says Vanderneck. "People pay a coyote thousands of dollars to bring them over the border," she continues. "Pay the government! Pay the United States for a temporary work authorization."

"If we just cleared up this problem and allowed more visas, it would release so much of the pressure on the illegal immigration," Martinez agrees.

Currently, Martinez says, hiring a legal immigrant worker isn't worth the hassle. To hire, say, an electrician costs employers more than $2,000 in visa fees and administrative fees. And that's just for an application.

"Some employers are more than happy to pay for that," she says, "but Congress only gives out 65,000 visas per year to hire skilled workers. These visas are gone in a day."

Last year, Martinez says that more than 130,000 applications were made, and there was a lottery for the 65,000 visas. The supply of visas for unskilled workers is also inadequate, she says -- a year's worth of visas are usually snapped up within three months.

"There is a tipping point for employers," Martinez says. "They will reach a point where they will say, 'Forget it, we're not even going to bother, and we're just going to hire undocumented workers. And let the chips lie where they may, but come find us.'

"Employers need to get some guts and ask for legislation to be changed," she adds. "It's the economic argument: You need these workers, you want these workers, but you don't want to pay for it."

Under the current law, she says, immigrating to the United States legally is easier said than done.

"Everyone thinks, 'Oh you file this, and you file that.' No," she says, placing her hand atop a large stack of immigration documents. "The tax code is easier to understand than the immigration codes."

Martinez says that immigration involves numerous bureaucracies: the Border Patrol, the departments of Labor and State, Immigration Customs Enforcement -- "and none of them are on the same page."

As a result, she says, immigrating to the U.S. illegally is just about the only way to do it: According to October 2007 federal immigration data, an unskilled Mexican laborer hoping to enter the U.S. must wait six years for an employment visa.

"If his family is dying, if they don't have any food, if they don't have any way to live, he's going to do whatever he can to help his family," Martinez says. "He has no other way of getting here other than crossing the border."

"That's not our problem," Mustio says. "That doesn't give them the right to break our laws.

"We are a country of laws," he adds. "If we're just going to disregard those laws, then we're going to have chaos."

But for now, the immigrants are as afraid of us as Mustio and Metcalfe say we should be of them.

"That whole community is living out of fear of being deported," Fabean says. "That's no way to live. That's no way to get people functioning in your society."

"I am afraid of immigration [authorities]," says Arelin, the 27-year-old mother from Honduras. "I feel unsafe. We keep thinking all day long that immigration is going to come after our apartment."

Arelin says people threaten her husband at the laundry where he works. "They say, 'We're going to bring immigration here. Bye-bye, go back to Honduras.'

"When we speak Spanish, some Americans ignore us from the top to the bottom of our bodies."

Still, Arelin has no one to legislate on behalf of her fears. So when Americans ignore or berate her, she can only ask for their forgiveness -- and their help.

"I would like to apologize to Americans, because I am crossing a country that is not mine," she admits. But, she says, "Americans should support me by letting me be here legally, so that I can work and not have to hide."

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson