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AGUSTIN GURZA

The Only 'Immigration Game' Loser: U.S.

April 25, 2000|Agustin Gurza

In soccer circles, Serna and Retiz were names to watch. This year, they had just made the big time. Soon, perhaps, they would be stars.

If only the truth had not come out.

These young men from Mexico had climbed all the way to the Galaxy together, drafted in February by L.A.'s major-league soccer team. They had come so far from their homes in Acapulco and Aguascalientes, and were so close to success.

If only the law would let them run with it. If only they had the right papers.

Imagine what they could have done. Imagine who they would have become.

Tomas Serna and Jose Retiz were already stars in Santa Ana, the immigrant city where they've played side by side since high school. They were both 6 feet tall, and they were always leading their teams to victory with their one-two punch in scoring.

As a senior at Saddleback High, Serna was a Times' Orange County player of the year, scoring 45 goals for The Roadrunners, often with assists from Retiz, a midfielder. At Santa Ana College, the duo led The Dons to back-to-back state community college championships.

Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid had been tracking their careers for years. He knew the talent he was getting when he chose the Santa Ana players on the third and fifth rounds of this year's pro draft. The coach so coveted Retiz, in fact, that he traded picks to move up in the draft to get him.

Among Latino soccer fans, the ascension of Serna and Retiz was a sensation. They became a living lesson for a community plagued by gangs and high dropout rates. See, if you stay in school, work hard, avoid vices and practice diligently, you can make it.

Isn't that the American Way?

Serna and Retiz believed it was. That's why their families came to this country in the first place. For opportunity.

But just as they had climbed to the top together, the pair suddenly took a fall together. After several weeks of training, they were unceremoniously dropped last month from the Galaxy roster.

The reason for their twist of fortune: They are both Mexican citizens who as teenagers entered the country illegally. The league says it can't legally pay them without proper papers, and--unlike athletes recruited from other countries--they face a tortuous process to legalize their status.

Getting cut was bad enough. Being publicly exposed as an illegal alien was added humiliation. Serna and Retiz appeared dejected and embarrassed when I saw them last week at a meeting of Los Amigos of Orange County, a Latino community group that offered moral support.

The players shuffled and held their heads down. They didn't look like stars anymore.

The next day, I caught up with Retiz with his old team at Santa Ana College. He's practicing with them to stay in shape. At home in Tustin, he doesn't know what to do with himself.

He doesn't have a job or a car or even a driver's license. He didn't get paid for his stint with the Galaxy. And now he's lost this semester, which would have been his last at the two-year college.

"I feel a little desperate," he said at the sidelines, still looking down. "I feel like I'm up in the air right now."

I know what some critics will say. These players got what they deserved. They broke the law when they crossed that border and have no grounds to complain now about opportunities denied.

That's the letter of the law. But what about the spirit of an immigration code that prevents talented, well-trained and otherwise law-abiding people from making a contribution to society?

"For a simple piece of paper a player is denied his whole future," said a fuming Jose Vasquez, their college soccer coach and former Galaxy player, whose own father came here illegally before winning legal residence through his job as a house painter.

Serna and Retiz stand out because of their special athletic skills. But there are thousands of decent and capable people who are quietly blocked from reaping the rewards of their hard work because of their immigration status. Stories abound about students who were brought here as children and got good grades, only to discover that they're illegal when they find they can't accept a scholarship or apply to a public university.

We pay to develop these children in our schools, then forbid the most promising among them from reaching their full potential.

We as a nation are the only losers in this immigration game. Even labor unions are now calling for a new amnesty for immigrant workers who are so vital to our economy.

Imagine what we would gain. Imagine what we could become.

*

Agustin Gurza's column appears Tuesday and Saturday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or agustin.gurza@latimes.com

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