Undocumented workers hopeful on Bush's plan

Immigrants await details, but some think president is pandering for votes

January 08, 2004|By Oscar Avila | Oscar Avila,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Despite crossing the border illegally from Tijuana, Alejandro Otero has inched his way into the mainstream. He has held a job for 15 years on an Illinois farm, he files income taxes and even has a bank account.

Otero is hardly "in the shadows," as immigrant advocates like to say. But for an estimated 432,000 undocumented immigrants in the Chicago area, President Bush's immigration proposal would open the door to U.S. society a little wider.

Otero, 33, feels as though he is contributing to society. Having papers would allow him to plant roots, move beyond his low-wage existence, maybe even buy "a little house, a nicer car, the things we all want."

"I'm used to getting around here, but you still worry that immigration will get a hold of you," Otero said yesterday at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago. "After all this time, I want to make my future more secure."

Chicago, home to the nation's second-largest Mexican community, would feel the effects of Bush's proposal in a profound way. For now, Mexican leaders and residents here say they are cautiously awaiting details of the plan.

If Bush's proposal leads to a new class of temporary workers with a path to U.S. citizenship, experts say the Chicago area would experience the expansion of a potent Hispanic voting bloc and the formalization of economic relationships that have existed under the table for years.

Meanwhile, those new U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents presumably would be able to solicit visas for relatives, accelerating the increase in Chicago's Mexican-born population. "No matter what passes, economic forces dictate that we are going to have a substantially larger Mexican population in Chicago," said Rob Paral, a demographer at Roosevelt University and expert on immigration. "The question on the table is: Do you want these immigrants here legally or illegally?"

Mexican-born residents of the Chicago area more than dou- bled between 1990 and 2000 to 573,627, according to the Census Bureau. Paral estimated that as many as 75 percent of those who arrived in the 1990s were undocumented.

A Roosevelt University analysis of census data highlights the economic forces that draw the immigrants here. The number of Mexican immigrants in the Chicago area holding down service jobs, such as busing tables or cleaning houses, nearly tripled during the 1990s to 137,096.

In recent years, undocumented immigrants in Chicago have lived a dual existence. On one hand, they have received increased rights, such as the ability to pay in-state tuition at Illinois colleges and universities. But a 2002 study from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that undocumented workers were more likely than legal immigrants to hold jobs with subpar salaries and unsafe working conditions.

"We are working, yes, but we are also being abused and discriminated against," said Elvira Arellano, 29, an undocumented immigrant and prominent activist. "We don't come to this country to steal. We came to contribute. What President Bush is proposing looks good."

Some immigrants, however, say they are skeptical that Bush will follow through on his proposal. The chatter among Mexicans at the consulate was that Bush was merely pandering for the Latino vote.

"He has electoral motivations," said Juan Andres Mora of Evanston, a legal resident. "If he doesn't get to the heart of the real problem of undocumented immigrants, all this talk isn't going to solve anything."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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