Part 4: Lisandro's Promised Land : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Part 4: Lisandro's Promised Land Sunday, 2 September 2001 17:09 (ET)

Part 4: Lisandro's Promised Land By NICHOLAS HORROCK, UPI Senior White House Correspondent

(Part 4 of UPI's 14-part Mexico-U.S. immigration series)

SILVER SPRING, Md. (UPI) -- Lisandro is talking about how he came to the United States, a tale he will tell his grandchildren, a land voyage of danger and deliverance, a trip that carried him from the Third World to the wealthiest country on earth.

He is a wiry and handsome 17-year-old with the dark straight hair and open face of his native Guatemala. Except for the old baseball cap and the red sweatshirt, he looks remarkably like paintings of his ancestors, the ones who welcome the Conquistadors and were betrayed by them.

At this moment in time, Lisandro is stateless. His native Guatemala doesn't know he's gone and the U.S. government doesn't know he's here. He has no passport, no driver's license, no Social Security card, no Green Card; in fact no identification except for a card the Casa of Maryland, Inc., a private social agency, issued him to help him find employment.

Lisandro has been in the United States four-and-a-half months. He is breathless with anticipation. He has only a sixth grade education, but here, he believes, he will be able to go back to school and make something of himself. Silvia, a Guatemalan friend, thinks he's smart, and his quick manner and rapid speech suggest she's right.

In the short time he has been here, he has already worked, already bought tools to put up siding, already taken home wages and already been victimized because he is an illegal alien. He worked for a Korean contractor, he said, for two weeks and was paid one check. He then worked another three weeks for the same man and received no money. The man disappeared with his tools as well.

Lisandro is one of the perhaps 9 million illegal aliens living in the United States. He lives 11 miles from the White House and he is one of the people President George W. Bush is trying to figure out what to do with.

After meeting with Mexico's President Vicente Fox, Bush on Thursday is expected to announce some ideas on how to "regularize" the existence in our midst of this vast pool of stateless people. The president has already said his program will not be an "amnesty" that would let Lisandro present himself for citizenship.

American employers want Lisandro. Every morning at the Casa, which helps immigrants find employers, dozens of people come to hire help. Casa lawyers, like Steve Smitson, try to protect the immigrants against exploitation.

But Lisandro and the others live without civil protection, without health insurance, without education opportunities or medical care. If things go wrong, they become a sudden and unexpected burden to the communities where they end up, seeking public assistance and flooding local facilities.

The massive influx of illegal immigrants, particularly from Mexico and Central America, has often sparked a backlash. This was the genesis of Proposition 187 passed by voters in California in 1994, which barred illegal aliens from welfare and other social services.

Any program that Bush or Congress now proposes will have to take into account the controversial crosscurrents of the immigrant question.

That Lisandro can exist openly as an undocumented alien in Silver Spring is another outgrowth of the tangled U.S. immigration policy.

Under a reform of immigration passed by Congress in 1986, U.S. employers must ascertain if the prospective employees are citizens or legal residents. It is illegal for an employer to knowingly hire an illegal alien.

Most working Americans have experienced this procedure. They present a passport or perhaps a Social Security card and driver's license to the employer, who must fill out an I-9 form and send it to the Immigration and Naturalization Service within three days affirming they have seen this identification.

Lisandro works now because many employers, particularly of day laborers, dodge the I-9 rule by hiring workers for stints of one or two days and then never sending in an I-9. Lisandro may soon obtain a fake Social Security card and driver's license to work at more regular jobs. Fake IDs are all over the place, available for $25 to $50 dollars for teenagers who want to buy a drink or aliens who want to get a regular job.

Though Lisandro may worry that his fake cards and deception will be found out, he shouldn't. The INS, one of the most overtaxed agencies in government, virtually abandoned enforcing laws against employers more than two years ago. At present, according to congressional staff members, there are only some 300 to 400 INS agents nationwide investigating firms that hire illegal aliens.

The overwhelming portion of budget increases that the INS has received from Congress since the mid-1990s has gone to strengthening the southern border of the United States with Mexico. By building walls and defenses in Texas and California, the U.S. Border Patrol reduced illegal immigration and, by 2000, had funneled illegal aliens to the vast open desert of Arizona and eastern California.

When you ask Lisandro through a translator - he speaks only Spanish - how he got to Silver Spring, his first answer is "by crossing the desert," which is only part of the story; a story of determination that should be as cautionary to Bush and Fox as it is to immigration experts.

Lisandro was born in northwestern Guatemala, the son of a potato farmer and his wife who bore 12 children, of whom nine survived. Lisandro has four brothers and four sisters. He had to leave school in the sixth grade and go to work as a laborer at $5 a day.

Several years ago, one of his brothers following the same illegal trail, came to Silver Spring. Last spring he sent for his 18-year-old wife and his brother Lisandro. The passage was not cheap. The smugglers wanted $8,500 each for Lisandro and his sister-in-law. His brother made a down payment of $4,500 for his wife, and Lisandro's father borrowed $4,500 for down payment to get Lisandro to the United States.

Now Lisandro must pay off the additional $4,000 and send money home to help his father pay his debt as well. When he was asked if he could simply abandon this obligation, he said he couldn't. The smugglers would exact payment from his father, and moreover it was an "obligation," Lisandro asserted.

Border Patrol investigators say the vast majority of illegal immigrants that come over the Mexican border are effectively slaves or indentured servants when they reach the United States.

"They have to work off the cost of their passage, either by helping in smuggling or from their pay in the United States," said Agent Rene Noriega. "Sometimes they pay for years."

Lisandro and his sister-in-law first crossed the border between Guatemala and Mexico in April hidden in a car, but they were discovered by Mexican immigration agents and jailed for two nights. The Mexicans beat their Guatemalan guide and the three were sent back to Guatemala.

A few days later, Lisandro and his sister-in-law again crossed the Mexican frontier under cargo in the back of pick-up truck and successfully got on the road north.

It would take them nearly two weeks to get from the Guatemalan border to northwestern Mexico. The truck was stopped by Federales, the Mexican national police, who also beat the Guatemalan guide and exacted a 12,000 pesos bribe to let them continue.

"It was all the money we had," Lisandro said.

It was the driver of the truck, not the guide, who then helped, getting them through the mountains and onto the plains northwest of Mexico City. They continued the journey on a bus going north.

At one point, they learned the roads were swarming with Mexican immigration officers and holed up in a hotel for two nights. Lisandro called the hiding place a "ranchito," a small ranch. The Border Patrol calls them "decision points," where the smugglers decide the point in the border to penetrate.

From the decision point, they again rode a bus to Ciudad Juarez, the city across from El Paso. Soldiers came aboard the bus looking for illegal aliens. They would question passengers trying to identify those who were not Mexico. Lisandro said he "was ready to answer their questions."

What would you say, he was asked. "I would say I am pure Mexican," he said with a grin. He had learned the Mexican vocabulary for items of clothing and the name of a Mexican town where he was from to tell the soldiers. "But they didn't ask me."

The soldiers did discover some non-Mexicans and took them off the bus. Of the 15 Guatemalans that Lisandro was traveling with, eight, including his sister-in-law, made it to the border. "We were really scared we would be sent back. We would have lost the whole trip," he said.

Apparently the smugglers determined that crossing into El Paso was not going to work, and Lisandro and the others were taken off the bus and walked for 12 hours. He ended up in a house at Agua Prieta, a major smuggling point on the border across from Douglas, Ariz.

There they made their first attempt to penetrate the United States. It was like a "cat-and-mouse game" Lisandro said. The guides told them that if Mexican immigration came along, they should jump over into the United States and if the U.S. immigration came along, they should jump back into Mexico.

Finally, provided with two gallons of water for the desert and a little food, Lisandro and a small group made their first attempt to cross in the darkness of mid-evening. Once inside the U.S. boundary as they hid in bramble-filled holes, the were spotted by what Lisandro called a truck with "a camera on top." The truck he saw was a Border Patrol vehicle mounted with an infrared scanning device that allowed the agents to find the aliens in the dark.

He said the agents were solicitous, warning the aliens to be careful coming out of their holes because of the brambles, but nevertheless his whole body was covered with cuts. The agents photographed and fingerprinted his party and turned them back to Mexico.

A day later they tried again, walking for hours along a railroad track. They were stopped by Mexican soldiers who gave them cigarettes and juice and wished them well.

Later, they were in the United States and saw Border Patrol at a distance.

Lisandro said he walked "two days and two nights" across the desert, quickly running out of food and water. His feet were terribly swollen and painful and his body near collapse. He said he walked to the outskirts of Phoenix. But that would have been a trip over hundreds of miles, and it is more likely he was taken to a much nearer town. Border Patrol Agents said most of the aliens have no idea where they are when the get across the border.

Lisandro said he and his sister-in-law were kept in a house for a day. The Border Patrol calls these "stash" houses, where smugglers hole up their charges. From the house, they were loaded into a van and driven to Los Angeles International Airport. They were given tickets to Baltimore Washington International Airport that had been provided by his brother.

If Lisandro can avoid an auto-accident or some other difficulty that brings him to the attention of authorities, he can survive in the United States. It is just dawning on him in the four months that he has been here just what that could mean.

In Guatemala, where he earned $5 for a 12-hour day, his outlook would have been bleak. Beyond the current drought that is sweeping Central America, his father's farm barely provided survival. As he grew older, the only thing he could look forward to was disease and worse disability.

He has been working here for $7 an hour and he expects to make $14 before too long. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment with four other people and sleeps on the couch, but it is a palace compared to his home with his family and nine siblings.

The willingness to risk those deadly days in Mexico and on the desert has transformed his life. He would do it again in a minute.


-- Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 06, 2001

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