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Abandoning life in the shadows

Illegal immigrants in R.I. eye citizenship

By Cindy Rodriguez
The Boston Globe, August 17, 2000

NEWPORT, R.I. -- It was a dirty little secret in this seaport city. For years, illegal immigrants filled the restaurants and hotels, working laborious jobs the locals didn't want. Everyone knew but looked the other way: government officials, restaurant owners, police.

But last September, when a Newport police officer said an illegal immigrant bit him during a scuffle, the issue exploded. Newport police called the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the raids began.

A week later, during two INS sweeps, agents arrested 10 people. Three have since been deported. The cases of the others are still pending.

The effects reverberated throughout Newport, causing dozens of undocumented workers to flee. But the raids had another effect, one that few had imagined. Illegal immigrants came out of hiding, risking arrest, and banded together to protest what they called "selective enforcement" by the INS. Without their help, the immigrants say, Newport's economy would crumble.

This summer, they're taking it a step further: pressuring Congress to grant them amnesty. They seek a repeat of the 1986 congressional act that allowed 3.7 million illegal immigrants to become US citizens. And their cause is gaining momentum.

"A few years ago, I would've thought it was impossible," said Oscar Rodriguez, 32, a Guatemalan immigrant, one of the men arrested during the raids. "Now I think it's a possibility."

Rodriguez is one of the estimated 6 million workers without documentation living in the United States. He has been in Newport for 12 years, working night shifts in restaurants as a prep cook. He and his wife, also Guatemalan, have raised two children here.

In the past, Rodriguez had shied away from joining political organizations. Now, he's a member of the United for Justice Committee, an organization of both documented and undocumented Latinos whose focus is convincing Rhode Island's congressional representatives and other influential people that amnesty makes sense. But it's a difficult undertaking, one that politicians such as Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed aren't quickly embracing. Another general amnesty, Reed has said, would give a signal to would-be immigrants around the world: Sneak in and we'll eventually accept you.

Rodriguez and scores of other illegal immigrants live tucked away, in ramshackle apartment houses a short distance from the mansions on Bellevue Avenue. Many work a morning shift in one place, then walk a few cobblestone streets away to work a second eight-hour shift elsewhere. They save their money, wads of cash, and tuck it under their mattresses - money they later wire back home.

The raids galvanized some of them to abandon their quiet existence. Dozens of people like Rodriguez and his wife, Alba, say they'd rather be out of the shadows even if that means risking deportation.

They belong to a coalition of organizations in Rhode Island that has collected 6,000 signatures so far for a national petition that will be sent to President Clinton, and they plan to join thousands of other demonstrators from the East Coast at a rally Oct. 14 in New York City.

"We are changing people's minds," said Juan Garcia, 47, of Guatemala, who holds a green card, which allows for permanent US residence. "People need to realize that our economy is sustained by these immigrants."

Last month, US Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, sponsored a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for permanent residence if they can prove they have been working here since 1986. Other members of Congress have signed on - most of them black and Latino.

A counter-movement is lobbying against the immigrants, saying it's dangerous policy.

"It makes no sense for the US to grant amnesty," said Yeh Ling-Ling, of the Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America, a California-based organization that favors decreased immigration.

Ling-Ling said amnesty would result in further burdening of public schools and social services programs, would take jobs away from Americans, and would heighten ethnic tension.

Nonetheless, United for Justice Committee members continue to push. Garcia says the US government owes it to immigrants from Central America because the United States destabilized the economy in countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, by supporting dictatorships and allowing US companies to exploit workers and pay little in taxes.

But in Newport, a tourist city, if the illegal immigrants all left tomorrow, the restaurants wouldn't survive, said David Quiroa, a US resident who emigrated from Guatemala and works as a maitre d' at a swanky Newport restaurant. He heads the United for Justice Committee.

Although the INS won't estimate the number of undocumented workers in Newport, Quiroa puts the tally at about 200. Various organizations that work with immigrants give state estimates at 5,000 to 50,000 illegal immigrants.

Immigration officials say employers who need workers can bring in those with special work visas. Restaurants and hotels may hire illegal immigrants unknowingly, but often those people have fake documents.

If people want to enter the United States to work, officials say, they should apply for visas. Rodri guez, the prep cook-turned-activist, says he couldn't apply for a visa. When he fled Guatemala because a guerrilla military group threatened to kill him if he didn't join, he didn't have time to look into visa programs, pay the fees, and wait.

"Every day, before I leave my apartment, I always look out of the window to see if there's a police car or immigration officers," Rodriguez said. "I don't want to go back to my country. There is nothing for me there."

Although he doesn't want to bump into INS agents, he doesn't plan to move or change jobs. The INS knows where he is and if they come after him, he won't run.

"I'm going to keep working until the day immigration comes for me. If they come for me, here they will find me," he said. "In the meantime, I'm going to do what I can to help my people."