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Immigration Plan Troubles President's Texas Neighbors

THE NATION

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

"I'm sure there are people who do scams, but that's not everybody. They can't just categorize us all," said Maria Rodriguez, who arrived in Waco from Mexico with her parents and three older brothers in 1990.

"My family, we've been working here for 15 years," Rodriguez said. "We never asked for any government money. We can't, because we're working with illegal documents. The only thing we can do is just work."

Rodriguez married a U.S. citizen, and is in the process of obtaining legal residency. But her parents and one brother still reside in the country illegally. Although her 65-year-old father, a diesel mechanic, suffers from diabetes, all of them have held jobs almost since the day they arrived, she said.

Father Sergio Lopez, who ministers to about 8,000 Mexican Americans at Waco's historic St. Francis Catholic Church on the banks of the Brazos River, guesses that at least a third of his congregation is undocumented.

"They might have broken the law by coming to this country without papers, but they're not criminals," Lopez said. "They just want to make something of their lives."

Roane Lacy Jr., whose Plantation Foods turkey processing operations employed 1,800 people before the Lacy family sold it seven years ago, said he was happy to hire Mexicans who migrated to McLennan County in large numbers in the 1970s.

"A lot of folks came here and knew they could find work," Lacy said. "It was hot, dirty work, picking up dead turkeys and ... fixing machinery and driving tractors and building fence and clearing brush."

Lacy said his company couldn't find enough U.S.-born employees to fill its needs at the wages its officials decided they could afford to pay. He also said he thought today's economy would be crippled by the removal of undocumented workers.

"The rounding up of 11 million people -- that reminds me of shipping Africans back to Liberia," he said. "The country is built on immigration, and we have an essential labor shortage. ... If you rip everybody out and send them home, you're going to have a lot of things stop."

That view is shared by Sergio Garcia, who was in his late 20s when he quit his chauffeur's job in Veracruz, Mexico, to take his chances in Waco's workforce. He declined to discuss the specifics of his status when he immigrated, but said he soon qualified for legal residency.

Garcia held several jobs, and began earning extra income selling shellfish in Styrofoam containers to immigrants attending weekend soccer games. One cup of shrimp led to another, and Garcia's sideline evolved into El Siete Mares, a popular Waco seafood restaurant that now employs as many as 17 people, depending on the season. Some of them remind Garcia of himself two decades ago.

"If they take all the immigrants back to Mexico and the other countries, people like us, we're not going to have any employees," he said. "The economy here is going to crash down big-time."

Among the patrons who might be affected: the White House Travel Office, which contracts with Garcia to provide catered food to journalists and staff members when the president vacations at his ranch.

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