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Following the dream


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Second of a two part series examining the Sonoma immigrant experience, particularly in the context of the “Immigration Modernization Act” now before Congress. Read part one here.

Unlike Maricela and her family (profiled in part one), who were pulled toward Sonoma by the hope of prosperity that the American dream promises, Noe, a grape-picker originally from Jalisco, a rural Mexican town with a landscape similar to Sonoma’s, was pushed out by desperate conditions.

Noe couldn’t stay in Jalisco because he was, he said, pushed off his land. He has lived in Sonoma for 13 years, with a green card he obtained through his father, who is now a citizen and has been picking grapes in Sonoma since 1975.

Noe is one of the few immigrants with a green card who doesn’t want any part of the American dream for himself. His dream is to go back to Mexico and earn the living he was supposed to have had as a farmer owning his own land. He has no plans to become a citizen.

“I don’t like to live here in the United States because it is a lot of stress and pressure,” he said through a translator. “(The American dream) is only a dream … it’s not a reality. To own a house you have to work up to 12 to 14 hours a day just to be able to pay the house off.”

His undocumented wife, Melva, is not such a fatalist. She has more faith in the American dream. A non-English speaker, like her husband, she supplements the family income with a Mary Kay cosmetics business. She has been working on getting her green card for three years, after coming to the United States in 2008.

The sparsely furnished three-bedroom apartment Noe shares with his parents, his wife and his four-year-old son, Aaron, is available only to farm workers and rents for $875 a month. Noe, who earns $25,000 to $27,000 a year, doesn’t receive any employee benefits and, aside from the 3 percent his employer contributes to his 401K, he’s saving what he can for his own retirement. During harvest season, he comes home after a 17-hour work day, seven days a week. He has no aspirations to be promoted to foreman because he sees it as a modest amount of extra money that is not worth the extra burden.

“I get times where there is easier work, so I am fine with staying where I am,” he said.

Despite having no American dream for himself, he does have one that centers around his son’s future.

“My hope for my son is at least not to work in the fields, and to have an education,” he said. Aaron attends Flowery Elementary School, a Spanish/English dual immersion school, under the federal Head Start program.

The Road Not Often Taken

Although S.744 is commonly described as the “pathway to citizenship,” there are many brambles and thickets, and the road is often washed out. In some places it completely disappears. There is no clear path because no one has traveled the road yet, and it seems unlikely that anyone will do so soon.

The primary purpose of the bill is to give the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a chance to become lawful permanent residents – people with green cards like Josüe and Noe. But before an undocumented immigrant can become a resident, he or she has to be a Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI). And, as one of what Jesus Guzman calls the bills “draconian measures,” the Mexican-American border has to be virtually sealed, at a cost of $4.5 billion.

Guzman is the 24-year-old lead organizer for the Graton Day Labor Center, and he’s also a DREAMer (the  term used for those seeking residency under the Dream Act, which applies to immigrants who came to the U.S. undocumented as children with their parents, but who have grown up in America). Guzman, who came to Sonoma when he was 1-year-old from Jalisco, Mexico, is studying history at Sonoma State University.

And, he points out, becoming a RPI is not automatic. There are many requirements that are difficult to meet.

For example, an undocumented immigrant must show proof of residence since Dec. 31, 2011; have a clean criminal record; show employment and financial stability; pay application fees and a $1,000 penalty for crossing the border, among other requirements.

But because an RPI has to be in that status for 10 years, and then a permanent resident for three years, the journey to citizenship is a slow one. At the least, it could take 13 years. And because the border has to be virtually sealed before an RPI can apply for a green card, some experts, like Davin Cardenás, the lead organizer for the North Bay Organizing Project,  say it could take as long as 25 years to reach citizenship, the end of the road. He calls the bill “punitive.”

Maricela and Melva are two such undocumented immigrants who would experience several detours along the road. Emilia and Guzman would also, except their status as DREAMers, immigrants of good moral character who arrived in the U.S. as minors and lived in the country continuously for at least five years, provides a slightly shorter road to citizenship.

They would apply for RPI status under the same application process as Maricela and Melva, but they may apply for residency after five years of being in RPI status, instead of 10 years. Also, they would be eligible for citizenship as soon as they receive their green card.

“There are good things and bad things in the bill,” said Kara Olness-Reyes, the program director for the La Luz Center, which provides forums on citizenship and other services for about 3,000 immigrant families a year in Sonoma. “But we need something. … The time is now. We can’t wait. I do think (undocumented immigrants) need a pathway to legalization. They shouldn’t be deprived of the opportunity to become citizens.”

Guzman, an undocumented immigrant himself, agrees with Reyes, adding an important comment on economics that shows why providing immigrants with a clear road to citizenship is in everyone’s best interest.

“We (also) have to look at (immigration) as taxpayers and job creators,” he said. “As we raise the wages of (immigrant) workers, … that pulls everybody up. When we have a section of labor that is exploitable that employers use to pay the least amount in wages, that brings everybody down.”

One person who knows first-hand the economic scenario that Guzman describes is David Cook, a member of the Sonoma City Council since Nov. 2012 and owner of Cook Vineyard Management, a farm labor contracting company that supplies workers to growers.

Cook, who is licensed through the State of California, can supply only documented laborers to growers. The starting pay for his laborers is $10.75 an hour, unlike Noe’s pay, which is determined by each ton of grapes he picks, a system where some workers can make $24 an hour because they have built up seniority. Cook is resentful of those employers who use undocumented labor, and of the labor contracting companies that supply them, because the competition undercuts the demand for his laborers. As recently as 2010, 52 percent of agriculture-related jobs in the U.S. were done by undocumented immigrants, according to the Department of Labor.

But ultimately, Cook’s resentment lies with Congress and the president who do not discourage growers from hiring undocumented labor.

“It makes my company a lot harder to compete with those companies that do hire undocumented labor,” he said. “(The government) should be harder on employers that hire undocumented labor.”

“A Raisin in the Sun”

The American dream is defined as the opportunity to prosper through one’s own hard work, regardless of social status. Cardenás notes that, “If wealth is an indicator of hard work, the immigrant population would be wealthy right now, but that’s not the case   … I don’t even know what the American dream is, (other than) a story that we tell ourselves.”

In October, advocates of immigration reform will rally at the nation’s capital. There they will hear the “stories of young Dream Act students, of families who have been separated, of immigrants who have been forced out of their own country by absurd economic structures … (And) the U.S. will be a better place with this new breed of caring and energetic leaders,” Cardenás said.

Reyes agrees with Cardenás.

“We need to start at the community level and create better participation in PTO (parent teacher organization) meetings, City Council, Springs Alliance, etc.,” she said. “Here in Sonoma, I feel like we are all one community and continuing to have people forced to stay in the shadows and live like second-class citizens is not what our community is about. Everybody should have the same opportunities.”