Immigrants in Maryland feel a bit more welcome

Proposal: President Bush's "guest worker" plan is the hot topic.

January 09, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

As he rang up compact discs at his job at a Prince George's County music store, Yony Martinez felt an unfamiliar feeling yesterday: hope.

"I feel like the government wants me here. I haven't felt that before," said the 27-year-old Mexico native, a day after President Bush announced a sweeping program that will allow undocumented immigrants such as Martinez to apply for three-year work visas.

Martinez, who came to the United States about six years ago, said his life now revolves around working, sending money home to his family in Veracruz and worrying about his illegal status.

He hopes to stop worrying.

"We come here for the money but it's a hard life, and you have to be careful," Martinez said. "Maybe that will change."

Thousands of immigrants nationwide felt similar emotions yesterday, the day after President Bush proposed immigration reforms that could give the nation's 8 million to 12 million illegal immigrants a chance to obtain work visas - and temporary legal status.

The high hopes were shared from Latino households on the Eastern Shore to those in the Fells Point section of Baltimore.

But they were perhaps most deeply felt in the small community of East Riverdale in Prince George's County, where about 40 percent of the roughly 5,000 immigrants are from Mexico, the highest such concentration in Maryland, according to a recent Brookings Institution survey.

Experts agree that Bush's proposal could have the largest impact on the estimated 5 million Mexicans living and working in the United States illegally.

Mexicans have little access to legal protections granted to Central Americans, who have been able to seek temporary protected status because of natural disasters in their native countries.

Audrey Singer, a visiting Brookings fellow who conducted the survey, said of the Mexicans in East Riverdale: "I'm sure they're very happy there."

But she said some might be concerned that they could be deported if they participate in what is essentially a guest worker program.

Mexican flavor

East Riverdale, a neighborhood of about 15,000 that straddles the upper reaches of the Anacostia River north of Washington, has undergone a startling transformation. "I looked up one day and everyone was Mexican," said neighborhood resident Olivia Fuentes.

A McDonald's sits next to a taco stand. Juan Gabriel's newest album gets the same display at a CD store as Britney Spears' latest. And travel agencies promote $323 round-trip flights to Mexico City.

Most residents interviewed yesterday said they were drawn by the area's Mexican influence. The state has about 19,000 Mexican residents, according to the 2000 Census.

"When you live somewhere else, where there are a lot of whites or a lot of blacks, you have to be careful. But here, you can be comfortable," Martinez said.

Martinez said he often walks next door to send money home, across the street for groceries such as Mexican soft cheese and dried peppers, and to the next shopping center if he wants a plate of tacos.

"It's almost like home," he said. "People know each other."

Residents have been talking all week about Bush's proposal, which could face strong opposition from conservatives in Congress.

"It's the most important thing in our lives right now," said Mariana Graciela Leon as she shopped at the La Poblanita store, filling her bag with Mexican sweets and dried guajillo peppers that she says she can't find at Giant.

At a nearby convenience store, a group of men played Keno and chatted about what they would do if they returned to their native countries, as permitted by the proposal.

"I have been here for 14 years and feel that this is home. But I want to visit Mexico one more time," said Florentino Herrera, 58, who comes from a small town in the south of Mexico.

Herrera picked up his Keno card and shrugged, readjusting his Mexican flag baseball hat. "Maybe I can win $25. Then maybe I can use that money to win some more. Then maybe I will have enough to go home."

Yasmine Sanchez also yearns to visit his native country.

"I haven't been home to see my family in three years," Sanchez said as he loaded chairs at a Mexican restaurant. "I wonder how big my brothers are."

Bush proposed Wednesday that illegal immigrants already working in the United States could apply for temporary visas after paying a sizable fine.

He also proposed increasing the number of green cards, which allow immigrants permanent resident status. The United States currently issues about 140,000 a year.

Not done lobbying

Foreign countries, especially Mexico, have been pushing for broad immigration reform for years. Most immigrant advocacy groups are optimistic about Bush's plan, although they all pledged to continue lobbying for more reforms.

"Bringing back migration to the top of the bilateral agenda is very important," said Mireya Magana, press attache to the Mexican Embassy in Washington D.C. "It is a topic that has been a fundamental issue for Mexican foreign policy."

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