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Immigration Plan Troubles President's Texas Neighbors

A proposal to make it a federal crime to be in the U.S. illegally worries some business owners, who say undocumented workers play a key role.

January 01, 2006|Warren Vieth | Times Staff Writer

WACO, Texas — Angelica Tellez and her family migrated to central Texas from northern Mexico in 1983, seeking a better life. Today she owns her own business, Angie's Bazaar, selling bridal gowns and quinceanera dolls to Waco's burgeoning Latino community.

Hers is a classic immigrant entrepreneur success story, the kind President Bush likes to cite as he tries to attract more Latinos into the Republican fold.

But there's a catch: For her first eight years in this country, Tellez was an illegal immigrant, living in the shadows of the law and the back alleys of the economy.

"I worked so hard to be what I am now, to have my own business, to have my own house," said Tellez, 38, who became a legal resident in 1991 after marrying a U.S. citizen. "It's the people without papers who work the hardest."

Under legislation passed by the House in December and praised by Bush, stories like Tellez's would be heard less often. Living in the United States illegally would change from a civil offense to a federal crime, turning an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants into felons and rendering them permanently ineligible for legal residency. Employers would be required to go to greater lengths to verify workers' legal status and penalties for violations would become much stiffer.

Here in Bush's backyard, a half-hour's drive from the Prairie Chapel Ranch where he and First Lady Laura Bush spent the last week unwinding, business owners appear increasingly anxious about the direction the immigration debate is taking.

America needs to crack down on illegal border crossings to deter potential terrorism, criminal activity and community disruption until other reforms are in place, several employers said in interviews last week.

But turning America's entire population of undocumented residents into criminals and seeking to ship them all out of the country is another matter, they said, and threatens to cause more economic damage than it prevents.

"We need to get control of our borders for a lot of reasons," said Carey Hobbs, president of Hobbs Bonded Fibers Inc. and a prominent Waco Republican. "But there are a lot of businesses where if you took the illegal aliens out, it would shut them down."

Among them: hotels, restaurants, building contractors, landscaping firms, food processors and farming operations, according to employers and labor market analysts.

Hobbs' 260 employees make acoustic insulation for cars and other fiber batting products. Many of his plant workers are Latinos, and he said the company made sure they had Social Security numbers and other required documentation.

"As far as we know, they're all legal, but probably some of them aren't," Hobbs said. "They're great workers, and they contribute a lot to our success."

Waco custom homebuilder Steve Sorrells said he considered it up to his subcontractors to verify the legal status of their employees. He also said he thought construction firms would be crippled by the mass deportation of illegal immigrants.

"If there was a flip of the switch and all of a sudden undocumented workers couldn't stay here anymore, it would be devastating," Sorrells said. "My feeling is: Let's assimilate them into America and try to make it work. There's no way we're ever going to shut it down."

It remains uncertain whether Washington will wind up trying to completely shut down illegal immigration. The "enforcement-only" bill approved by the House appears unlikely to make it through the Senate in its current form. Bush has called on Congress to enact broader legislation that would create a temporary worker program to accommodate undocumented immigrants in the country.

But business groups and immigrant advocates were troubled by the president's kind words for the House bill, which also would make it a crime for social service agencies and church groups to offer support to illegal immigrants, withhold federal aid from cities that provide immigrant services without verifying legal status, and build about 600 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Their concerns have created a political alliance between groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Council of La Raza, a leading Latino organization. At the same time, it has created fissures within the Republican coalition, pitting business interests against cultural conservatives who think illegal immigration is overburdening community resources and contributing to social ills.

Some Waco-area immigrants said they thought the continuing influx of illegals had contributed to crime and other problems, and that some new arrivals had gamed the system to obtain public services and government benefits. But they insisted those people were in the minority and that most immigrants came to their community to take jobs many Americans considered distasteful.

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