Sometimes, late at night, after the dinner dishes have been washed and friends have retired to their apartments across the hall, Pablo heads for a walk in Echo Park. It's the vagabond in him, he says, that keeps him restless, not quite ready for sleep, although he will be up in five hours to press shirts at a dry cleaners.
Soon, memories of Mexico--his infant son, his mother, his family, his pueblo of Macua--spin in his mind as he strolls, stops and stares into the park's lake, a reflection of wavering palm tree tops and twinkling street lights.
It's one of those nights.
Less than a block away from the park, a helicopter zooms overhead, its spotlight scanning the nearby area. Police sirens, followed by a blaring ambulance, contribute to the cacophony of freeway noise.
At this hour, everyone is probably in deep sleep in Macua--more than 1,200 miles away from where Pablo stands at midnight. He imagines his son, Antonio, sleeping next to his mother and the many stuffed animals and toys Pablo has sent him.
"I miss him," says Pablo (not his real name). "I'm sending $400 next month for his birthday for gifts, clothes and a big party. He'll be 1 year old. I wish I could be there, but I cannot. I am here."
It has to be this way, he says, because here he can earn a better living not only for himself but, more important, for his son.
"I choose to be here," he says. "Illegally."
Illegal immigrants such as Pablo are sometimes portrayed as leeches on society, stealing jobs and taking advantage of welfare benefits. They are seen by some as a collective drain on the economy, accused of being involved in crime and blamed for California's recession.
But Pablo does not fit that mold. He does not receive food stamps. He does not live in public housing. He does not get free medical care. In fact, last year when he noticed two bumps on his back, he paid $600 cash for outpatient services at a neighborhood clinic.
Pablo is a living portrait of a hard-working immigrant who dreams of becoming an American citizen. But for now, his primary goal--like that of so many other illegal immigrants in Southern California--is to carve out a decent life for himself so that he can help the boy he left behind in Mexico.
"All we want are opportunities to work," Pablo says. "That's all." And, he adds, "to get to know the United States and its people."
But, he says in Spanish, "I don't think that Americans really understand who we are and why we are here. Americans tend to look at us negatively, like we are the bad guys when we are not. We don't cause problems. We are honest. We don't beg for money. We work very hard."
Yes, he says, there are immigrants "who are dishonest, lazy and take advantage of welfare, who have babies to get the welfare check."
And yes, he admits, "All I thought about was coming here for the dollars. That's how everybody who comes here from Mexico thinks."
But to get the dollars, Pablo works 10- and 11-hour days without overtime or benefits. Even when he's sick he's still on the job.
Vibiana Andrade, an immigrants' rights advocate, says illegal immigrants, who often don't know English and lack job skills, frequently must take the backbreaking, monotonous, dirty and dangerous jobs Americans shun.
"By having immigrant workers working for low wages, immigrants assist an industry such as the garment industry to remain competitive," says Andrade, national director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund's Immigrants' Rights Program.
She says immigrants "fit in where the need is" by taking jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing and service industries. Immigrants, she says, do not displace American workers.
"To call these people criminals is taking the human face off someone who is honest, good-hearted and hard-working. They bring with them very basic family values. They carry with them the immigrant dream: to be here, to work."
Barbara Coe, co-founder and chairperson of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which includes 10,000 members representing 15 anti-immigration groups statewide, says illegal immigrants such as Pablo "are in it for their own bucks."
She says Pablo's reasons for being here differ from those of Latinos "who have come here legally and worked hard and are valuable citizens." Illegal immigrants, she says, "are grabbers and lining their own pockets" with the American dollar.
"Every job that they take is one less job for an American. They say, 'We do the jobs that Americans won't,' and our organization says that is an out-and-out lie, a myth."
"The bottom line is this," Coe says. "Illegal is illegal is illegal."
Pablo, 27, left Mexico five years ago, saying goodby to his family and hitting the perilous trail to \o7 El Norte\f7 .
Like the generations of Mexicans before him, he was in search of a dream: Find a job. Make a home. And send money to family left behind.