San Diego Union Tribune

August 23, 2004

Latino immigrants struggle to break family cycles of poverty

Copley News Service

When Felipe Merino was a youngster, he sometimes accompanied his mother on housecleaning trips to swank homes in Manhattan Beach, where indulgent housewives would sit him down in front of the television with cookies or a bowl of ice cream.

The royal treatment never lasted long.

"As soon as the lady would leave to go shopping or whatever, my mother would tell me, 'Get to work!' " Merino recalled. "She'd have me cleaning bathrooms and she'd say, "This is the way we earn our money."

Two decades later, after earning degrees from Stanford and Notre Dame Law School, Merino is executive director of Avance of California, a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen immigrant families, especially by training parents to take an active role in their children's schools and in other areas of community life.

In June, at age 29, he finished a term as president of the Hawthorne Chamber of Commerce, a position that made him a colleague of the sort of people whose homes he once helped clean. Merino's steady rise, with the encouragement of Mexican immigrant parents who worked long hours at low-paying jobs, is the quintessentially American story of hard work in pursuit of opportunity.

Now, at a time when roughly 1.4 million people are resettling in the United States each year, concerns are being raised about the ability of many of the newcomers to realize the American dream that brought them here.

The concern isn't for those arriving with advanced academic degrees to work in the nation's high-tech corridors. They are flourishing.

The concern is for those without much education, often from rural villages where there seemed little point to staying in school. Too often that tradition translates into pressure for immigrant youngsters to drop out of U.S. schools and earn a wage that can help support the family.

Dropout rates among Latino youngsters are nearly 50 percent nationwide, a huge obstacle to upward mobility in the information-age economy.

Latino immigrants -- parents and children -- are coming in huge numbers.

Consider the most recent figures available from the U.S. government. In 2002, nearly 400,000 Latin Americans received green cards, which grant permanent resident status and the right to seek citizenship. More than half were from Mexico.

Meanwhile, the illegal population -- estimated at 8 million to 12 million -- is believed to be growing by about 400,000 every year. According to demographers at the Urban Institute, nearly three-fifths of the illegal immigrants in the United States are from Mexico, while another fifth come from other Latin American countries.

Many are gravitating to low-wage labor markets at a time when the federal government and many states are restricting poor immigrants' access to public benefits.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose parents migrated from Jamaica, said in a 1996 speech to the Republican National Convention that his parents "found a government that protected their labor, educated their children and provided help to those of their fellow citizens who were needy." But immigrants arriving today find the safety net is fraying, earnings are lagging and the gap is growing between rich and poor.

The disparity can be seen in the widening wedge between such densely settled immigrant communities as Hawthorne and Lennox and affluent enclaves like Manhattan Beach.

The Merinos know the dangers immigrant families face struggling with low-paying jobs and crowded conditions in neighborhoods churning with gangs and drugs and a constant infusion of refugees from Latin American poverty.

Before rejoicing in Felipe's success, his family mourned the downfall of an older son who got caught up in Lennox gang wars when the family was living there in the 1980s.

"He was shot on Imperial Highway," said Felipe, who was 9 years old when his brother died.

It was a common sight at Los Angeles International Airport: a fretful traveler wending his way through airport security.

His name was Hector, and he came from the Mexican state of Veracruz.

At least that's what it said on the ID card he used to get through airport security and onto Southwest Airlines Flight 2211 to Baltimore.

But his real name was Arturo, and he was from Honduras. The fake ID was part of a smuggling package that would deliver the 38-year-old and five cousins, ranging in age from 16 to 30, from their farmlands near the town of Juticalpa to another planet called Long Island, New York.

LAX was their Ellis Island.

With the understanding that his full name would not be disclosed, Arturo told the story of a journey that had already taken him by bus and boat and car and bus again, across Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, into encounters with Mexican police who demanded bribes and with hooded border bandits.

When they boarded their flight at LAX to Baltimore and then Long Island, they were wearing new outfits provided by their smugglers, who wanted them to blend in with the crowd: brand-name tennis shoes, jeans and T-shirts that boasted "California" in multi-colored letters.

None of the men spoke English. Arturo didn't even know how to say "gracias" in English. So they couldn't understand the stand-up comedy of the flight attendant who asked passengers to wear their seat belts "low and tight, the way Britney Spears wears her pants." Nor could they speak with the Southwest agent in Baltimore, who handed them new boarding passes for Flight 146 to Islip, Long Island. The agent didn't appreciate the irony that five of the six -- all of whom were making their very first flight -- were using tickets the smugglers got through Southwest Airlines' "Rapid Rewards" frequent-flyer program.

The smugglers apparently have a high volume business.

Undocumented Latin American immigrants like Arturo and his five cousins are common wayfarers at LAX. They use the airport as a jumping off point for destinations all over the United States.

They come because they are hungry for work, for dollars to send home to families that are hungry.

"My brothers say their life is a struggle, sometimes it's just work and sleep,'' Arturo said.

Five brothers and a sister are already in New York, along with assorted uncles, aunts and cousins, Arturo said.

"I will work two jobs, if God permits me," he added.

Martin Moreno owns El Tarasco Burrito restaurant at Inglewood and Marine avenues in Lawndale. Although his education in Mexico ended after sixth grade, he won his American dream through determination and hard work.

To achieve it, he followed his father's footsteps until they faded, and now he is blazing a fresh trail for his children as an American business owner.

Moreno's father had spent eight months of each year working in Modesto or Sacramento, far from the family's town in the Mexican state of Michoacan.

In 1980, the elder Moreno moved from picking crops in the Central Valley to laying roof tiles in Los Angeles. His children gradually joined him.

"Now almost the whole family is up here," said Moreno.

Moreno has traveled a classic immigrant path from dishwasher to restaurant owner. His restaurant draws its name from the tribe from which his mestizo family descended in the farms around the town of Villa Jimenez in Michoacan.

Now the people of Villa Jimenez are mostly Californians, he said. Following their bracero fathers and grandfathers, they have made the definitive jump to "El Norte.'' They return for holidays, celebrating in brightly painted two-story homes that lie vacant most of the year.

Villa Jimenez is not yet a "pueblo fantasma,'' a ghost town like many that are being abandoned across Mexico. But it is tending in that direction.

"Now it's mostly old people and young ones who haven't come yet" because their parents are not "documentados," Moreno said.

He said most of his relatives have legalized their status. Many received amnesty through legislation that Congress passed in 1986. Others came with the sponsorship of those who received the amnesty. And many young Morenos, are Americans by birth.

"We dreamed of having our own business -- a restaurant or whatever," Moreno said.

He is among the 68 percent of immigrants with 30 or more years in the United States who own their own homes, according to a study by USC professor Dowell Myers.

Myers is encouraged by the trajectory of immigrants.

Harvard economist George Borjas is not.

While recognizing the success of long-term immigrants, Borjas worries that the poor education most Latino immigrants bring with them could leave them stuck at the bottom of today's economy.

Borjas warns that the economy is taking on the shape of an hourglass -- with a growing bulge of better-educated people at the top and a growing bulge of less-educated people at the bottom, including immigrants working in the service industry and other low-wage jobs.

He says today's immigrants are "more likely to require public assistance and far more likely to have children who remain in poor, segregated communities."

Borjas' concerns do not deter men like Arturo, who traveled in May with five cousins from Honduras to Long Island, joining the 650,000 Hondurans who have immigrated to the United States, according to that country's embassy in Washington. Many made the jump in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, which in 1998 devastated much of the country.

For Arturo, the life of New York's working poor would be an upgrade.

He has brought a strong back, a warm smile and a fourth-grade education. He has a wife and two children, ages 11 and 7, who will be able to live decently with the money he plans to send them. He also hopes to save the $15,000 it would take to bring them north to join an extended family that is gradually reassembling itself in the United States.

It is for them that he left the rolling land where he had spent his entire life growing, picking, cleaning and drying coffee on the few acres that his family owns.

But the coffee business has hit hard times in his area, and there's hardly any work in Juticalpa, Arturo says. Nearly one in four Hondurans is unemployed and what work there is often offers daily pay of 50 lempiras, or a little less than $3.

So Arturo hopes for the luck of a brother who makes $6 an hour in a glass factory by day and $5 an hour over a restaurant sink by night.

Arturo's relatives on Long Island had wired him $2,500 -- half the smuggling fee -- so that he could begin the journey.

They sent the other half to Los Angeles, after receiving word that the men had arrived there and were about to make the final leg of the trip.

The total cost for the six cousins: $30,000.

Those who can borrow from relatives are the lucky ones. Others take out loans through an informal system with freelance lenders known as prestamistas, Arturo said.

Following a pattern that is common across Latin America, the prestamistas are careful to get signed notes declaring that the migrants will lose their property unless they repay -- at the astonishing interest rate of 10 percent per month.

Arturo said that if it were not for the costs of the journey, the flow of Hondurans to the United States would become a torrent.

"There are many more people who want to come but don't have the money or a way to pay for it, and they don't want to risk the trip on their own," he said.

The power of the U.S. jobs magnet is on full display in Manhattan Beach.

From the cook serving omelets at the Koffee Kart on Highland Avenue to the nannies pushing strollers on The Strand to the gardeners tending the lawns of million-dollar homes with ocean views, the low-skill work force is formed by Latino immigrants.

"We are all hoping for an amnesty,'' said a restaurant worker from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, where state officials say nearly half the population has emigrated. He hopes to duplicate the good fortune of Juan Orozco, 52, a worker for the Tru Green Nursery Co., who was changing an irrigation valve beneath a carrotwood tree on a recent afternoon.

Orozco fled the shrunken horizons of a home where his father struggled to get by raising corn and beans and a few head of cattle, crossed the border 25 years ago and began working for Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Long before they received amnesty through a 1986 federal law, Orozco and his wife began raising four U.S.-born children. One of them is now a sailor on the USS Lincoln.

The most menial job in a Torrance taqueria will pay six or eight times what a young campesino can earn cutting sugar cane in Veracruz or picking coffee beans in Chiapas or selling Bart Simpson balloons in a plaza in Puebla.

They come north knowing that a life of poverty in America still allows them to send more money home to families in Mexico than they could make there. Entire regions of Mexico depend on the remittances, which are flowing there at the rate of more than $1 billion a month, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

"What would happen in Mexico if we didn't have these remittances?" Puebla state Gov. Melquiades Morales asked during an interview about his state's booming immigration to the United States. "There certainly would be a social explosion."

Redondo Beach landscaper Tom Kent took a break from supervising his Latino crew and pointed to a woman strolling by in fashionable jogging clothes, cell phone to her ear.

She was the sort of woman who used to give Felipe Merino ice cream before turning the housecleaning duties over to his mother.

"So many of the women here, they have Hispanics watching their kids, cleaning their house, doing their gardening," Kent said. "If (the immigrants) have to leave, I don't see who is going to fill that void."