In a far corner of a body shop in Santa Fe Springs, past several vintage Chevys being meticulously restored and the mascot dog protecting her puppies, Eduardo Roman Garcia has managed to cover himself in several layers of dust.
It has settled in his hair and covers his face.
And it has restored his spirits.
"I feel very happy," Roman said in Spanish, taking a break from sanding a fender on a 1961 Chevrolet Impala convertible. "I talked to my family last week. Now they can expect some help."
Roman, 29, is one of 19 illegal immigrants federal immigration officials allowed to stay in this country and work legally after a television camera videotaped Riverside County sheriff's deputies beating two in their group April 1.
He had left the Mexican state of Veracruz weeks before, heading north after the body shop where he worked closed and no other work was to be found. His plan was identical to millions of those who preceded him: illegally cross the California border, work for about nine months, save enough money to keep his children in school--and head back.
Now, with a 60-day work permit from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, "I feel protected," Roman said. "I'm not afraid to be on the street. I can feel free in this country until the [beating] issue is settled. I don't have to be afraid of the police."
Roman and the other illegal immigrants had been crammed into a pickup truck. They were chased at high speeds across 80 miles of Southern California freeways, and most were quickly captured after they jumped from the truck in South El Monte.
The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles announced Monday that federal agents had arrested a man suspected of being the smuggler who drove the truck.
The videotaped beating added fuel to the already raging immigration debate, and 19 immigrants, who would have been routinely deported after their capture, were allowed to stay in case they are needed as witnesses.
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles provided legal assistance and helped them find homes and jobs. Other immigrants in the group are working as farm laborers in Watsonville, Fresno, Santa Maria and near Santa Ana, said Bobbi Murray, a coalition spokeswoman.
For Roman, the $260 a week he now earns at Bell Auto Body & Paint will keep a roof over the heads of his wife and two children in Veracruz.
Saving as much money as possible here is crucial, he said, "because I don't know if there will be work [in Veracruz] when I return."
Since his release from custody a day after the chase, Roman has benefited from Veracruz connections in the Los Angeles area. He found a temporary place to live--about a mile from the beating site in South El Monte--with Luis del Angel Garcia, president of the Club Veracruzano de California, an organization of immigrants from Veracruz.
He spent anxious days awaiting word on whether he would get a work permit and riding buses with Garcia, who teaches folk dancing at the Foshay Learning Center in Los Angeles, as he went about his errands.
On a bus trip through Skid Row one day, Roman was stunned to see block after block of homeless people, Garcia said. "He had seen homeless people in Mexico, but he had no idea there were so many here," Garcia said.
However much Garcia and his family tried to put Roman at ease, they knew he was preoccupied by thoughts of his own family in Veracruz.
"My family saw me on television," Roman said over breakfast at Garcia's home recently. "They wondered if I were in prison."
The Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles let him call his family, but he still worried about how long it would be before he would be able to earn money to send to them.
Through the Club Veracruzano, he learned about the body shop job. After he was given a work permit two weeks ago, he went to work at the shop and moved into a room there.
"From his first day here, I knew he knew what he was doing," said owner Luis Reyna, himself an immigrant all too familiar with what Roman experienced. "He will definitely have a job for the 60 days he has been allowed to stay in the country--longer if he is extended."
Roman was something of a celebrity when he came to the shop, since the other men who work there had seen him on television, Reyna said. Aside from a trip to a Santa Fe Springs shopping center, where he picked up a pair of pants and a shirt, Roman spends nearly all his time at the shop.
He knows that he and the others who were given work permits became the center of a firestorm swirling around immigration.
"Many people are against us," he said. "They accused us of things we did not do. They said that we destroyed the camper shell to be able to see what was going on and threw pieces at the pursuing officers."
In fact, he said, the camper shell disintegrated during the high-speed chase, and the wind blew it off.
Listening to Roman reminded Reyna of his own illegal immigration from Mexicali 20 years ago.
"I was arrested one time when I was working illegally in a Glendale furniture store. They sent me back," he said.
He later returned, married a Mexican immigrant who had become a citizen, and became a citizen himself. Nine years ago he bought a body shop in Bell.
"I had three guys when I started," said Reyna, 39. "Little by little it grew to the 10 we have now."
Reyna has bitten off a small piece of the American dream for himself. Roman, who shares Reyna's love of cars, hopes he will find a sliver.
"This work is very hard, very heavy," he said of bumping out auto bodies. But he had no illusions about ease or comfort when he decided to come to California.
"Others told me that it would be very difficult in this country," he said, "but they said it was worth it [to come here] because you could live a little better."