Caught between the law and economic necessity, many undocumented
immigrants have nevertheless found a home in East Tennessee.
by Joe Tarr
First off, there's the troubling matter of the termillegal. Illegal immigrants, illegal aliens.
"I've got a problem with the idea of an illegal human being," says Mike Whalen, a Spanish-speaking Knoxville attorney who represents many Latinos.
Most advocates prefer the less stigmatic term, "undocumented."
"We don't talk about people who didn't pay tax money last year or who break the speed limit as 'illegal,'" says Fran Ansley, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who has studied labor issues and the Latino community in East Tennessee. "There's this slogan that there's no such thing as an illegal human being."
The US. has an agency of 10,000 dedicated to keeping immigrants from illegally entering the country and ferreting those who have crossed its borders without permission. Despite this official opposition, poor immigrants are vital to the nation's economy.
They are needed here to harvest crops, process food, construct buildings and roads, clean hotel rooms, mow lawns, clean dishes and perform a plethora of other jobs that documented citizens won't do. They qualify for little, if any, public assistance. Yet they pay taxesincome, sales, propertythat most will never see again.
The number of illegal immigrants in East Tennessee is nothing compared to California, Texas or New York. But in the past 10 years there's been an influx of Hispanics, a large percentage of whom are undocumented. Like the rest of the country, employers and consumers here benefit by having a pool of undocumented workers.
"Some people would say, 'This is perfectWe have all these workers, but they don't have the right to be here...they're much more exploitable,'" says Ansley. "We have a law that says, you're not supposed to be here, but we turn around and loosen it.
"You can't have this big agreement that goods and products are going to be flowing across the border and expect that people are not going to try to follow," she says. "Sometimes I get a little frustrated when I talk to people who feel immigration is an individual decision by a lot of people to move. It's an individual decision made in the face of political and economic policies."
I Wouldn't Like To Grow Old Here
When he was a teen-ager, José told his mother he wanted to go to the United States. The Mexican boy wanted to find out for himself what the so-called land of the free is all about. He applied for a visa to come to America, but was rejected. So with his parents' blessing, he used a cousin's birth certificate and came to Los Angeles at the age of 15. He lived with relatives, and went to high school. "For six months, it was so difficult. I struggle to understand the language," says José, not his real name.
After high school, he returned to his home in Mexico and went to college. He returned to LA with a lover two years ago, because he wanted to take advantage of the opportunities the United States has to offer. But he had a hard time getting by on the West Coast.
"When you go to apply for a job in LA, they have to send documents to immigration for verification if you're of Latin background. They fine employers if they hire someone illegal. Somewhere else, they just file the papers," he says. "Eventually, the IRS will find out. But that'll give you a period of about two years to work."
At the invitation of some relativeswho are legal residentshe moved to Knoxville. Here, he has found a decent job and has even attended college. Because he doesn't do manual labor and speaks fluent English, José is something of an anomaly among immigrants. He also has a driver's license and fake papers that allow him to work. José values the opportunities he's found here, but doesn't expect to stay in America.
"I don't like this country to live. It's so shallow. Nobody says 'Hi.' Everybody rushing all the time, especially in California. No sharing, no caring. There's a lack of human contact.... I wouldn't like to grow old here."
Despite the coldness of American culture, there's work to be found here. "In Mexico there's a lot of corruption. Here you can be poor and live like the rich. Good roads, water, sewers, streets. It's not like Mexico, where there's whole streets [with] no water, electricity, not enough food," he says.
Many of the immigrants he knows share his sentiments, José says. "The hardworking people that come are temporary. Some, by accident, have to stay because they get married, have children. I'm lucky because I fit into society great. Most of them come and they don't fit in."
"They say we come and cost money to the government. But on the other hand, we give great number of money to the Social Security that we don't ever see. If it wasn't for us, maybe it'd go to bankruptcy. If they want to stop us, they can close the border. Maybe they need us. I have seen people working very hard in the fields for low pay. It's perfect for illegal immigrants to do work. I don't see a citizen doing it. They don't have need. In some ways, I think it's great the United States has cheap labor."
A number of other illegal immigrants were asked to comment for this story. All of them were reluctant to talk, however, for fear of getting caught.
José agreed to talk in hopes of letting people know what it's like to live here illegally. He knows if he's deported, he'll fare O.K. in Mexico. Thanks to his English, he could get a decent job in a hotel or with an airline. Still, he's not yet ready to go home, and there's always a fear of getting caught.
"I don't tell people my status. It takes just one stupid people to open mouth to destroy everything I have," he says.
There are 4,803 Hispanics living in Knox County, about 1-1/4 percent of the population, according to the 2000 Census. Those who work with immigrants believe the census figures are grossly underestimated. "The Census data is wrong because most people won't talk to them," says Rychie P. Schwinn, who works for Tennessee Opportunity Programs, a Department of Education Program that aids Hispanicsboth documented and undocumentedin the school system.
Nationally, the Spanish-speaking population is counted at 35.3 million, or 12.5 percent of the population (with Mexicans representing 7.3 percent). It was a 57 percent increase in population from 1990. Some estimate the actual population is 5 to 10 million more than that, says Israel Arreguin, who is working to organize Hispanics for the Southern Empowerment Project, a grass roots organization that works for social justice.
And, based on the new Census data, experts estimate that 7 to 9 million of the foreign-born population are here illegally. About 40 percent of those here illegally came to the country legally, but they overstayed their visas and became illegal, according to the INS.
Tennessee may have a relatively small percentage of Hispanics compared to other parts of the country, but the numbers are quickly growing. The state's Hispanic population leapt from about 33,000 in 1990 to 124,000 in 2000about 2.2 percent of the population, according to the Census.
Rural counties around Knoxville have much bigger Latino populations by percentage. More than five percent of Hamblen County is Hispanic, with 3,299 Latinos, according to the Census. Others estimate the Latino population as high as 9,000 in Hamblen County. Besides its agriculture, the county is home to a chicken processing plant, which hires many Hispanics.
It's impossible to know how many of the Latinos are here legally. "I think 99 percent of them are undocumented," Schwinn says. José estimates around 95 percent are undocumented. Arreguin is less sure. "We really don't know how many are undocumented," he says. "So many of them are coming from California and Texas."
Gary Slaybough, who heads up the Immigration and Naturalization Service office based in Knoxville, says his office deals with legal and illegal immigrants from all over the world. However, 75 to 80 percent of the people they deal with are from Mexico, Slaybough says. Second is Guatemala, followed by Honduras and El Salvador, he says.
There are about 100 more Asians than Hispanics in Knox County, but few of the Asians appear to be illegal (or else, they've done a remarkable job of assimilating into the culture).
About 10 years ago, managers at Monterey Mushroom started getting a number of Spanish-speaking applicants at its plant in Loudon County, says Joe Caldwell, vice president of the company's eastern division. At the same time, the company was having trouble filling jobs from the local work force.
"We don't have any seasonal work. We're not a migrant industry. But with low unemployment in the area, we interview and hire any applications that come in," Caldwell says.
Today, about 50 to 55 percent of the plant's 435 workers are Hispanic. They have in many ways become ideal employees for the company because they have low turnover rates, a good work ethic and several have moved their families to the community, Caldwell says. (Praise of the Hispanic work ethic is so strong locally that it may sound like an ethnic stereotype, but the characterization is persistent.)
Migrant Latin Americans have been coming to the United States for decades for seasonal farm work. But in the past several years, they've been shifting into other industries. And many of them are settling down.
Tammy Haggard owns Haggard Labor Support Management, which specializes in placing Hispanics in jobs. Her staff is bilingual, and the company can help employers with job training. She says Latinos are working in manufacturing, construction, assembly, light industry and landscaping, among other fields.
The impact on the local economy is noticeable, says Jeannine de la Torre Ugarte, who heads the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville's outreach program to Hispanics. "It used to be restaurants and hotels. Now it's everywhere. Sometimes when we think about Hispanics, we think low-paying jobs. There are Hispanics working at Department of Energy, UT, the sheriff's office. They're everywhere. You don't find Hispanics in one area of work or one area of town."
Both Haggard and Caldwell say they hire only Hispanics with the required documentation. "The people that we have specifically looking at documents are as good as anybody outside of INS," Caldwell says of Monterey Mushroom. "Are we naive enough to think we're 100 percent perfectno."
Sometimes even the INS has trouble verifying if someone's legal. "Often times, there's no way for us to know who they really are," Slaybough says.
"If [companies are employing] Hispanics, they've probably got some illegal. There's so many false cards out there...Even though the [Social Security] card is washed out, the employer says, 'I didn't know it was a false card.'"
Breaking the Law
On Sept. 27, workers at the state's licensing bureau in Lenoir City called Slaybough to report that a Hispanic woman, with the help of a man, was trying to apply for a driver's license using a Puerto Rican birth certificate and a social security card.
When Slaybough arrived, the woman, Susana Vincente-Lopez, told the agent she was from Mexico, but was living in Rome, Ga. She told Slaybough that she'd paid her companion, Manuel Perez-Cortez, $900 to drive her to Lenoir City and help her get a Tennessee driver's license, which would make it easier for her to get a job.
In fact, both people were from Guatemala. Vincente-Lopez had been in the country since 1999, having entered through Nogales, Ariz. Perez-Cortez had been here since either 1992 or 1996, having entered through Brownsville, Texas or Nogales, Ariz.
Perez-Cortez was eventually charged with being an illegal immigrant and for transporting an illegal immigrant. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 months in a federal prison, after which he was ordered deported.
The prison time irked his lawyer, Mike Whalen, a feisty liberal who spent many years helping people in Central America organize during the 1980s. "My guy is going to get deported to Guatemala. It's going to take him a lot longer than 11 months to get back here. And if he does come back here, ask yourself what's the bigger problemthat or the fact that he can't make enough money to feed himself [in Guatemala]?"
Those who work with undocumented Latinos say they're frequently treated harshly in the justice system, with their civil rights often being violated. There are horror stories about undocumented Hispanics being held for months in jail for minor offenses like public intoxication or lack of driver's license, without getting a hearing before a judge.
In Jefferson City, a Latino man accidentally fired his hunting rifle in his house, says Arreguin, of the Southern Empowerment Project. Neighbors called the police. No one was hurt, but the man wasn't a legal resident, and the police took him to jail. He waited there for six months on charges of endangering the welfare of his children. He was convicted and sentenced to five months in jail. Normally, he would have been released on time served, but because he was undocumented, the authorities held him, waiting for the INS to pick him up. However, when Arreguin called the INS office to check on his status, he says they were unaware of the man.
Slaybough insists that his office is not chasing after illegal immigrants who are here working but obeying the laws. That's why the majority of them are here, he says. "Most of them are hard workers. They've been coming up here for years and you really can't blame them," Slaybough says.
"Right now, we're pretty well swamped. We feel a higher priority for us is the people who are already in jail," he says. "Everyone got nervous thinking we were going to do sweeps, taking kids out of school and stuff. We're not doing that. Rumors get out there."
But, he adds, "I'm not saying we won't do that someday."
The INS office here concentrates mainly on deporting legal and illegal immigrants who have committed crimes of moral turpitude, including drugs, theft and assault, he says.
The Knoxville INS office was opened in October 1999, but didn't get running in full-force until February 2000, Slaybough says. It covers most of East Tennessee, from the North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia borders west to Crossville and south to just north of Chattanooga.
With three special agents and two detention officers, the Knoxville office doesn't have enough manpower to do many of its own investigations. Instead, the office mostly processes immigrants (both legal and illegal) arrested by other police agencies.
Slaybough didn't produce precise statistics. However, last year, the Knoxville INS office deported 475 aliens, he says. Since October of last year, the office has deported about 25 illegal immigrants for non-criminal offenses and about 215 aliens for criminal offenses, including 30 for fraud, 19 for federal crimes (such as re-entry after deportation), and about 40 DUIs.
Whalen is skeptical that INS is focusing on the hardcore criminals. Last year, he represented about 150 Latino immigrants. Of those, four or five were drug cases and there was one exploitation of a minor. "Those are rare occurrences," he says. Most of the cases are public intoxication, no driver's license and DUI.
"The majority of them are driver's license cases in the end. I have to think that comes from racial profiling," he says. "There's just an extraordinary number of people stopped for odd little things...If you look at these warrants, it's clear [the police] were following them for a long time, just looking for a reason to pull them over. After they pull them over, they don't find any drugs, it's 'OK, you got a drivers license? Oh, you don't have one! There you go.'"
"The reality is they will deport anybody they get a hold of," says de la Torre Ugarte. "Their job is to get people out and their budget is justified by the number of people they get out."
She relates the story of a New Tazewell resident who was deported, leaving behind a wife and five children. "Tell me it makes sense to deport the breadwinner," she says.
Invariably, Latinos are treated differently from whites or other minorities. "If you and a Mexican are walking drunk down the street and neither of you have ID, they wouldn't call INS to check you out," Whalen says to a white reporter.
Arreguin says often it's the other police agencies that are apprehending undocumented Hispanics and holding them in jail, where they will often sit for months waiting for the INS to pick them up. In many of the rural towns where Latinos work, routine police road checks almost seemed designed to snag undocumented immigrants.
"We're more identifiable because we're noticeable, because we're not white," Arreguin says. "If they put a checkpoint in, the police already know the people in the town, so they're going to check the Latinosit's obvious."
There are officers who sympathize with undocumented aliens. Savannah Ayub is one of four officers at the Knoxville Police Department who are fluent in Spanish, and she is married to the KPD's Lt. Vince Ayub, who is half Hispanic, half Middle Eastern. She says the KPD doesn't call INS if they arrest someone who is Latino. "Finding out if you're a citizen or not is not the job of a police officer," Ayub says. The KPD teaches new recruits basic Spanish, and has made an effort to reach out.
Undocumented Latinos in Tennessee should have fewer hassles from police thanks to a law that was passed recently.
Before now, you needed a Social Security number to get a driver's license in Tennesseeinformation required in an attempt to crack down on deadbeat dads. But it made it much more difficult for Hispanics to get driver's licenses. Without driver's licenses, immigrants can't get insurance, so even a minor accident could lead to deportation (and stiff the other driver with repair and medical costs).
By no longer requiring Social Security numbers, undocumented workers will be able to get driver's licenses without forged papers.
Off the Bus
A man named Santos stepped off the bus in Knoxville early the morning of Jan. 15. He and a friend had come from Atlanta to work at an Asian restaurant in West Knoxville, according to a police report. The owner had promised him $1,200 a month plus room and board.
But when they arrived at the restaurant, they were told the pay was $700 a month, and he'd have to find his own room and board, according to the KPD's Ayub. When he protested, the manager punched Santos on the mouth and then hit him with a serving tray. Santos and his friend were then taken outside by half a dozen other employees and pushed into a van. The were driven back to the Greyhound station where they were abandoned.
Seeing the bloodied Santos, someone had called the police. Ayub tried to get the 38-year-old Santos to press charges. "He just looked at me and said, 'I can't do that. I need to go on,'" Ayub says. "He was afraid because he was undocumentedafraid he'd be deported."
The police were able to help Santos and his friend in one waythe KPD's chaplains' group bought them bus tickets back to Atlanta.
Ayub has immense respect for Hispanics and raves about their work ethic and culture, which she became a part of through marriage.
"They're willing to risk everythingtheir livesto come to this country," she says. "It's almost as though they feel being victimized is part of the deal. It's not."
Ayub says that even though immigrants might not be here legally, if they're victimized, they can still press charges. She says that KPD won't make an issue of their citizenship. Even so, it's understandable why Hispanics would be reluctantat any step of the process, someone might decide to call the INS. It's easier to simply move on.
Victimization by employers is not uncommon. If an employer knows a worker is in the United States illegally, the employer has quite a bit of extra power over the worker. Some will arbitrarily cut pay or demand overtime. "A lot of it is they just don't know what their rights are," says Haggard, of the employment agency. "I hear stories about people working in the fields, they're not being paid what they were told they'd be paid."
Whalen says he's been referred clients who weren't paid by their employers after a job was done, or after they got injured. But it's illegal not to pay someone for work they've done, regardless if they're illegal or not. "You can't say, 'You're illegal, I'm not going to pay you.' You've got to pay them," Whalen says.
De la Torre Ugarte says that Hispanics don't generally put up with outright abuse. "Many times people will change jobs and move once they see they're being abused," she says.
And, she says, most employers favor Latino workers because they work harder, longer, and for less pay than most citizens.
"In general, they are liked because of their work ethic," de la Torre Ugarte says. "If they're working in a restaurant and the boss says, 'I need you to work late tonight,' they work."
Some fear that if the economy turns sour, there could be a severe backlash against Hispanic workers.
But even if it stays healthy here, they say Hispanics are getting the short end of the stick in the globalized economy.
"When you create a common market, you have to have freedom to travel," Whalen says. "NAFTA was not intended to benefit anyone but the capitalists of this country."
Ansley says the policies have created a new lower class of people, essential to the economy but without any rights.
"This is a group of people the law declares to be different. They are very vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, they are able to be treated differently than everybody else," Ansley says. "That's very bad news for everybody. It hurts democracy when you have a big group of people who don't get to vote or decide how the community is structured, even though they're productive members.
"Our immigration policy has very deep built-in contradictions," she adds. "There is not a consensus about how we should resolve those, so we keep living with them."
Two unopened cans of Budweiser are turned over on the ground, going tepid in the warm spring sun. A puppy chases after three girls who giggle as they skip across the gravel driveway and into a neighbor's yard. Several chickens roam freely, and roosters crow and peck at each other as they bicker over who will rule the roost.
A group of men pour black tar on the roof of their trailer, sealing it against rain. The trailer park is outside Knoxville in an agricultural region. Its residentswhich seem to number over 100are all Hispanic.
Arreguin sits on a log, talking with one immigrant, in Spanish. The man tells him where he's from, about a trip he's planning back to Mexico, about the trailer his father owns here. Some of them have green cards, but many are undocumented.
Arreguin had scheduled a meeting with the men as he tries to organize several groups of Spanish-speaking immigrants. But he'd forgotten about the change to daylight savings time, and most of the men are out working. He hangs out to see if any show up. After a half hour, a few show up, some of them dressed in auto-mechanic shirts. Arreguin talks to them about the problems they're having and tells them how they can help deal with these problems by organizing. He's been traveling to Latino enclaves around the region, most of them hidden away from the rest of the population, to stir up interest.
The response so far has been overwhelming. In the various communities he's visited, Arreguin has found about 50 volunteers who will be trained as organizers and representatives.
"We want to organize Latinos and have their organizations run by them. We want to have them learn to solve their problems," he says. "We want the Latinos to have a voice. It's good that people do things for other people, but it's better if they do things for themselves."
May 17, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 20
© 2001 Metro Pulse