IT STARTED AS AN OFF-THE-CUFF question to Maria del Carmen Ferrez, who came to clean my house twice a month. Did she plan to have more children? Carmen, always chatty, suddenly went silent. She started sobbing. She told me about four children she had left behind in Guatemala. Her husband had left her, and Carmen simply couldn't feed them more than once or twice a day. They would ask for food. She didn't have it. So she left them in Guatemala with their grandmother and came to work in El Norte. She hadn't seen them in 12 years. Her youngest daughter was 1 year old when she left.
Carmen's answer stunned me and sent me on a journey of my own. How could a mother leave her children and travel 2,000 miles away, not knowing when or if she would see them again? After nearly two years of research in the U.S. and in Latin America, I found some answers -- and many more Carmens. Regardless of the law, regardless of the danger and pain, millions of women, often single mothers, come to the United States from Mexico and Central America and send dollars to the children they leave behind. And after years apart, their children, desperate to be with their mothers, often make their own harrowing journey through Mexico to find them.
These mothers and children offer up almost certain proof that the legislative "solutions" that Congress is debating -- and that brought thousands out into the streets in protest -- can't and won't make a difference in the nation's illegal immigration problem.
First, some facts. Clearly, illegal immigration is out of control. The U.S. is experiencing the largest wave of immigration in its history. An estimated 850,000 people enter the U.S. illegally each year -- more than double the number in the 1980s and early 1990s. Today, there are an estimated 12 million illegals here. In addition, nearly 1 million people come to this country legally or become residents each year -- more than twice the number in the 1970s. In Los Angeles, four in 10 people are from another country.
Certainly there are undeniable benefits to all this. Most people agree that U.S.-born workers won't do at least some of the backbreaking jobs that illegal immigrants take, especially for rock-bottom wages. Picking lettuce. Cutting sugar cane. Or, in the case of one woman I interviewed, cleaning houses where there had been a suicide or violent crime.
Immigrants' low wages keep some businesses from closing or going abroad in order to compete. A 1997 study by the National Research Council, still considered the most objective and authoritative on the effects of immigration, found that immigrant labor also lowers the cost of food and clothing for all of us, and it puts such things as child-care services within the reach of far more Americans than before. Immigrants bring new blood, ideas and ways of looking at things that drive creativity and spur advances.
And yet the downside is real too. Because they have lower incomes, immigrants and their U.S.-born children qualify for and use more government services -- including welfare -- than the native-born. They have more children, and therefore more youngsters in public schools. Compared to native households, the NRC found that immigrants and their native-born children pay one-third less taxes per capita than others in the U.S. And according to a Harvard University study, immigrant pay scales have lowered wages for the least educated -- and the neediest -- among the native-born, mostly African Americans and previous waves of Latino immigrants.
The cost-benefit calculation is just as troubling when it comes to the immigrants themselves. The mothers I talked to were able to send money to their children in their home countries so the kids could eat better and go to school past the third grade. But after spending years apart from their mothers, these children often felt abandoned, and they resented -- even hated -- their mothers for leaving them. Many mothers ultimately lose what is most important to them: the love of their child. Many children who found their way here later sought the love they hoped to find with their mothers elsewhere -- in gangs, for example.
Will the proposals roiling Congress end the problems of illegal immigration? It's not likely.
"Get tough" sums up one side in the debate, but it's a policy that has had little success to date. Starting in 1993, the number of agents patrolling the border and the amount of money spent on enforcement tripled, according to a 2002 Public Policy Institute of California study. Yet the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. only grew more quickly. Why? More immigrants came and more stayed for good, knowing that entry and reentry would be more difficult and costly in the future. As for criminalizing illegals and their employers, in the past, such sanctions have been skirted and ultimately ignored.