Thin line

Immigrants question Bush's guest worker proposal

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Cecilia Flores Lee thanks God every day that her Mexican mother was able to hold on long enough to sneak across the border and give birth to her in an Arizona hospital so she could be born on the "right side of the line."

If the contractions had started any sooner, Flores Lee, a translator for Steamboat Mental Health, would have been born into a life where the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor because the population far outnumbers the jobs available.

But Flores Lee was born in America. It's a place where cars idle in fast-food driveup lines, where people go shopping for fun and if you get an education and work hard enough, you are promised a trip up the ladder

toward the American Dream.

Now, a new immigration proposal presented by President Bush is promising Mexican laborers a piece of the pie. It's not a promise that all Latinos are jumping at, however.

When Craig resident Carlos Cabrera first read Bush's proposed "guest worker" policy, he was furious.

If anyone has been able to achieve the American Dream, it is Cabrera. Under Bush's proposal, life as he now knows it never would have been possible.

Cabrera works for Yampa Valley Psychotherapists as a counselor for Latinos arrested on domestic violence charges or for driving under the influence. He teaches anger management and alcohol treatment classes in Steamboat Springs and Craig.

He wears a tie to work, owns a home in Craig and is sending three of his four children to college. His oldest daughter is getting her master's degree in counseling and his son, Brian, is studying to be a social worker -- both following in their father's footsteps.

But it wasn't always like this for Cabrera.

In 1976, he was working as the circulation director at a newspaper in Guatemala City when an earthquake shook the country.

"There were no jobs then. So I came to America," he said.

Cabrera was smuggled into America by a "coyote," a person paid to sneak immigrants across the border. He was hidden in the back of a van in a custom-made compartment designed to hold four or five people. On the other side of the border, his cousin was waiting.

Cabrera was 25 years old and didn't speak a word of English.

He took a job in the oil fields outside Riverton, Wyo., and worked the occasional restaurant job. He listened to English-language cassette tapes for four to five hours a day. In two years, he was speaking English.

"I tried so hard because of my desire to communicate with the American people. I wanted to express my feelings and my opinions," he said.

In 1988, he became a U.S. citizen.

Cabrera met and married an American woman and worked another three years in Wyoming's uranium mines. When the uranium market went down and Cabrera lost his job, he was recruited by Empire Energy to work in the coalmines outside Craig.

Then, a knee injury made him reconsider the path of his life.

"The doctor told me that I had two choices. I could go back to the mines and destroy my knee or I could go back to college," Cabrera said.

Cabrera sat down with Gary Gurney, director of Yampa Valley Psychotherapists, for advice. Gurney told him that there was a need for Latino counselors and he explained what degrees and certifications the job required.

Cabrera enrolled in Colorado Northwestern Community College for his associate's degree, all the while volunteering at Yampa Valley Psychotherapists. After graduation, he transferred to Regis University in Denver. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in 2000 and began the certification process to become a counselor.

Cabrera doubts he would have gotten this far under Bush's guest worker program.

Instead of allowing someone like Cabrera to work his way up over time, the proposal creates a revolving, legal underclass of residents who can never work their way toward the "American Dream," Cabrera said.

The proposal also undercuts those workers' long-term ability to support families in their home countries. A recent study of five Latin American countries indicated workers from those countries living in the United States and other countries send $5.4 billion home annually.

"This policy may be good for employers, but it is not good for the Latino people," Cabrera said. "You have three years and then the American Dream is over. You go back to Mexico. You go back to reality.

"The Mexican economy is not in good shape. What if all those people were sent back to Mexico? There will not be jobs for them, and what happens to all the families that rely on the money that is sent back to them?"

Questioned motivation

Bush's proposal comes just in time for Election Day. For Cabrera, the motivation is obvious.

"Bush needs to win California. He needs the Hispanic vote," Cabrera said.

Eli Vega, former diversity specialist for the Colorado Workforce Center, agrees with Cabrera's suspicions.

"The timing of it all smells like election-year strategy disguised to look like a 'liberal' idea to undecided Latino voters," Vega wrote in an e-mail. "This plan will have the most benefit to small, medium and large employers who rely and depend on cheap unskilled labor to maximize their competitiveness and increase their profit margins. They can now hire 'them' without fear of breaking the law by hiring 'illegals.'

"They will not have to increase their rate of pay in order to attract American workers."

Paying less for more, Vega wrote, is what Bush seems to mean by the American Dream.

Reform is needed, but how?

Bush's new policy is aimed at documenting the millions of illegal workers already in the country. For many of Flores Lee's clients, it will be a welcome chance to step out of the shadows. At a birthday party Wednesday, she asked their opinion of the proposed guest worker program.

"They are sick of being afraid that they could get caught any minute," she said. "So they think it will be a good idea."

But Flores Lee knows that many who apply for the three-year guest worker permit will just come back illegally after their permit expires.

"I know people who go back and forth all the time. They are deported and three days later, they are back with a different name or social security number. It's about survival," she said. Her clients would like to be given more permanent, legal status.

"They do all the dirty jobs that no one else wants to do, like cleaning and picking fruit," she said. "If they're good enough to do the dirty work, they are good enough to live here."

In a Jan. 7 White House speech unveiling his proposal, Bush admitted the current system has created a structure where "we see many employers turning to the illegal labor market.

"We see millions of hard working men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive, undocumented economy," he said.

Flores Lee sees Mexican families that live in fear of reporting exploitation or crimes that are committed against them.

"If someone steals from them or wrecks their car, they don't call the police," she said. "I hope that a new policy would help to protect those people.

"It makes me glad I was born here."

Cecilia's dream

Flores Lee loves to recite the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," she said from memory. Then she started to talk about her dream.

In her dream, a Mexican mother gives birth to a baby on the American side of the border. That baby grows up to become the president of the United States.

"As president, she tells someone that once she had a teacher who told her she could do anything she wanted because she was born in America.

"I have a dream," she said.


To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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