Illegal Immigration: The Day the Dream Died

6:44 pm Business Stories

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania)
January 22, 1995, Sunday, FIVE STAR EDITION
BYLINE: Dawn Shurmaitis
LENGTH: 1286 words

Isabella prays for her people.

She prays for Juan, who escaped guerrilla warfare in his native El Salvador five years ago. She prays for Roman, who left Honduras after years earning only pennies picking coffee beans. She prays for Linda, who left three children behind when she walked across the U.S. border two years ago.

“I pray for everybody,” Isabella says of the words she sends to heaven during Spanish services at Our Lady of Immaculate Conception.

The weekly Mass at the Scranton Roman Catholic church attracts scores of Hispanic immigrants who came north in search of the American dream: a good-paying job and a better life for their children. Nearly 200 of those immigrants, mostly illegal, thought they found that dream in a center-city meat packing plant, earning between $ 6 and $ 10 an hour killing and butchering animals.

Now, the illegals face their worst nightmare — deportation. On Dec. 14, within an hour of reporting to work at Robzens’ meat packing plant, 137 illegals were rounded up by federal agents from Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Most of the immigrants seized during the raid — the largest in a tri-state area in 15 years according to the Pennsylvania INS office — were put on a plane that night, bound for Mexico. Twenty-three ended up in a Texas jail. A handful of men and 14 women — including Linda, Isabella and Roman — were released to await deportation hearings. Juan has an INS work permit set to expire in nine months.

None of the men or women interviewed for this story wanted their last names used out of fear of jeopardizing their chances of someday gaining legal entry. Such chances are slim. In the last year, the federal government has stepped up efforts to crack down on illegal immigrants, hoping to further reduce the fiscal and social cost to Americans.

The owners of the meat packing plant have steadfastly refused comment. The INS is investigating whether Robzens’ knowingly hired the illegals or were fooled by fake documents such as Social Security cards. The company faces thousands of dollars in fines.

U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Nanticoke, gets calls in his congressional office nearly every day from Americans looking for work. Like many of them, he has little sympathy for illegals.

“There’s a world of difference between immigrants and illegal immigrants,” he says. “America is a country developed from liberal, legal immigration policies that I support.

“But there are people in our area looking for $ 10-an-hour jobs.”

Monsignor John A. Esseff, who officiates over the Spanish Mass, says immigrants working at Robzens’ tell him most Americans refused work at the plant because of the bloody nature of the job.

“There’s a real fear on the part of American workers that their jobs are being taken away by people willing to work long hours at hard labor for low wages,” Esseff says. “But in our society there’s no longer people willing to do that kind of difficult, hard labor so we import people to do it. Many times, they’re doing us a wonderful service and we treat them shabbily.”

Of the nine in her family, Linda, 28, was the only one to venture north. She traveled alone — “days on the bus, days walking.”

Isabella, 22, a mother of two who comes from the same small farming village, followed last year. The women left their children with grandparents.

With a friend acting as translator, Linda and Isabella tell their story — simply and without dramatics. Linda hasn’t seen her three children for two years. Her family back home has no telephone so she communicates her feelings every two days in letters.

“I feel better when I’m working because I can send money to my children,” Linda says of the $ 200 she mails home every month.

Both women worked at Robzens’ trimming fat from the meat. In Honduras, they worked for the wealthy, caring for their children and cleaning house for $ 5 a week.

Today, the women live with one other immigrant in a spotless, one-bedroom apartment on Scranton’s Pittston Avenue. Linda and Isabella, who split their time between work, church and home, were saving their money in hopes of someday bringing their children to America. They say the men who smuggle people across the border charge $ 3,000 per child.

Since they lost their jobs, neither Linda nor Isabella have enough money to afford even postage. When asked what they will do — how they will pay for rent and utilities — the women smile shyly and shrug. Until the deportation hearings, which are six months off, none of the former Robzens’ employees can work without permission from the INS, an unlikely prospect. Illegal immigrants have no right to public funds, such as welfare or unemployment benefits.

For now, Catholic Social Services in Scranton is helping with food. The non-profit agency cannot give money.

“I just want to stay and work,” says Linda, echoing the sentiments of most of the immigrants, “to make money for more food, better school, better clothes for my children.”

Many of the immigrants who worked at Robzens’ Inc. meat packing plant in Scranton tell similar stories of slipping illegally into this country across an 1,800-mile border that separates millions of impoverished people from the land of opportunity. They used false documents to get work at the plant.

Most existed hand-to-mouth in downtown Scranton, living two and three to a bedroom to save money to send home to families in Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. That flow of money abruptly stopped Dec. 14.

The raid was part of an on-going federal crackdown aimed at reducing the estimated 3.5 million immigrants who annually enter and live in the U.S. illegally. An estimated 17,700 live in Pennsylvania, and many of them used false documents to get jobs as well as social services, according to the INS.

“They displace American workers from jobs and in doing so bring down wage levels,” says Jim Dorcy, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a private, non-profit group in Washington, D.C., lobbying for even stricter controls.

Last year, the government legally admitted 904,292 immigrants — 16,964 settled in Pennsylvania. The majority of those admitted were from the former Soviet Union, followed by immigrants from China, Vietnam and India.

Foreigners with special skills, such as actors or musicians, or those who can demonstrate fear of persecution have the best chance of gaining legal entry. Poverty is not a qualification, the INS says.

Knowing their chances were slim, neither Linda nor Isabella ever tried to get a legal work permit from the INS.

A Honduran native, Roman got the fake Social Security card he used to gain employment “from somebody in California.” It is easy to buy false documents, he says.

Back home, he worked on a coffee bean farm, earning the equivalent of $ 2 a day. Roman, who is 33, supports two daughters still in Honduras.

His American girlfriend, Michele, says she will marry him if it means helping him stay in the country. Illegals who marry Americans are automatically granted green cards after two years.

Roman’s friend, Juan, also faces an uncertain future. Renewal of work papers for the 42-year-old unskilled worker, a native of El Salvador, is unlikely. When El Salvador was embroiled in war, the U.S. granted more work permits to those fleeing fighting. The change in the political climate has made it more difficult to emigrate from there to here, according to the INS.

“They don’t fight here like in my country,” says Juan, who sends $ 200 a month home to his wife and three children, still living in El Salvador. “People get killed. That’s why I came here — I don’t want to get shot.”


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