The Proposition

In Houston, illegal immigrants wait to see what hand California's Proposition 187 has dealt them

At the fenced-off Day Labor Center in southwest Houston where Latino immigrants wait each day for work, a scattered hand of cards flecks the gravel. A six of spades, a dog-eared nine: playable, nothing spectacular, the face-down cards flipped into view by forces uncontrollable as the breeze from a passing truck.

It's also how most of the men at the center -- as many as half of them undocumented -- view their own fates in the wake of California's overwhelming approval of Proposition 187, which would deny that state's illegal immigrants public benefits, including basic education and health care. Although most of the laborers at the center speak little English and many are barely literate, all of them know what Proposition 187 is, and have thought about how it could touch them in Texas.

Recent arrival Bernard Vasquez, who walked 20 days of a two-month trek here from rural Guatemala, says he empathizes with fellow illegal immigrants in California. "It worries me," admits the 30-year-old Vasquez, a diminutive man wearing a crisp plaid shirt and pinstripe pants painstakingly ironed in the apartment he shares with six other people. "I'm concerned for those people, it doesn't matter if they're family of mine or not. Why should those kids be suffering?"

In addition to cutting off social services, the California initiative also requires educators, health care workers, law enforcement officials and others to report "reasonably suspected" undocumented immigrants to authorities. The array of measures, now mostly blocked by several California courts, has sparked protest from advocacy groups around the country. Last Thursday, Houston's Gulfton Area Neighborhood Association and the Central American Refugee Center joined the outcry, announcing a December 10 rally against the measure.

Echoing other undocumented workers on the bleachers around him, Vasquez says, "All I want is to earn enough to clothe myself, pay my rent and send something home to my family. We'd willingly pay taxes -- undocumenteds as well as documented. It's better to do that than have that happen to us. Better that than getting screwed that way." Listening intently, a fellow (but unrelated) Guatemalan named Romeo Vasquez adds, "One always pays taxes, regardless. Every time you buy a Coca-Cola, any time you pay for anything, you're paying taxes."

Those who backed Proposition 187 in California, however, argued that U.S. citizens should not have to pay their taxes for non-citizens who have already broken the country's laws by entering illegally. According to some estimates, the measure would save California about $200 million, although opponents say enforcing it will cost tens of millions more.

But to many Latinos in Houston, Proposition 187 seems to target the most vulnerable of the undocumented population. At the Gulfton neighborhood's Roy T. Benavidez Elementary, opened three years ago to serve the largely Latino community that lives in the area's numerous apartment complexes, 88 percent of the children are Hispanic. The school is overcrowded, and the area is underserved -- but every child who lives there is still owed an education, says Principal Rose Mary Garza.

Garza says she understands well how taxpayers rebel at the idea of a system so overloaded that their own children's education is harmed. "We have 1,065 kids here already and send about 200 more to other schools," says Garza, whose slightly stern professional demeanor blends with a distinctly maternal accessibility. Ironically, the proposition's success in California may increase the pressure for such a measure in Texas, Garza says. Workers at the Day Labor Center already are reporting the arrival of laborers from California, and Garza speculates that at least one of two immigrant students who moved from California this month might be refugees from Proposition 187.

"I don't want to see any system overburdened, where we can't serve our children successfully," she says. "How far can the system stretch and give to all?"

At the same time, Garza argues, her school is not the place where such questions should be answered. "If anyone's going to be turned away, it should be at the border, not at the schoolhouse. Once they're here, we have to deal with it. I was a principal when Texas first opened up the public schools to all children. They said every child in Texas has a right to an education. If primary school children are turned away from school, it's just going to create a bigger burden later on."

Not all Houston Latinos agree. Josie Herrera, a second-generation Mexican-American property manager who supervises several Gulfton apartment buildings, backs Proposition 187 wholeheartedly. Stopping in at a neighborhood beauty salon with her niece, Herrera says, "I think that without services, fewer illegal immigrants would come here."

Illegal immigrants "abuse the services," she adds. "They come from other countries, and have babies every nine months. I couldn't afford to do that. Then I see how elderly people here who have worked all their lives ask for food stamps and get almost nothing." Cutting off social services, as well as primary and secondary education for immigrants' children, would have negative effects, Herrera acknowledges, but in the long run would discourage other undocumented immigrants from coming here.

But Francisco Lopez, who sits on the board of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN), contends that such views just scapegoat immigrants for economic mismanagement at a much higher level. While federal law permits grade school education, emergency medical care and food supplements for undocumented immigrants, "there is this myth that most immigrants come here to get services or welfare," he says. "In reality, the majority of immigrants come to the U.S. to rejoin family members. Others come because U.S. employers need their skills. As many as 95 percent of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, support themselves or are supported by family members."

As voters, courts and organizations ranging from nonprofit groups to the World Boxing Council fiercely debate Proposition 187's future, the effect on many Houston Latinos -- documented or not -- is a heightened anxiety that was never wholly submerged to begin with. After school, in the parking lot of Roy T. Benavidez, a well-dressed young Mexican couple pause while herding their three school-age children into the car to summarize the long conversations they've had with their neighbors over the measure.

A legal resident since 1980, the young father says he still empathizes with the aspirations and fears of his many undocumented neighbors. "You hear people talking about it everywhere in our apartment building. Many people don't know what will happen," he says. The young father, who says that he and his wife are now financially stable, believes such a measure couldn't pass in Texas. "Immigrant labor is cheap," he says. "A lot of people won't do 40 hours a week of manual labor. Texans earn a lot of money with immigrant workers, and would lose a lot of money [implementing a law like Proposition 187]."

CARECEN's Lopez isn't so confident.
"I think there always has been a difference in the mentality here," he says slowly. "I think that really we don't see Texans wanting to polarize relationships between Hispanics, African-Americans, Anglos. But when something happens in California, it has an impact throughout the United States. And if someone here sees that blaming our economic problems on immigrants can help them get elected -- believe me they'll do it."

And when push comes to shove, even the confident young Mexican couple -- with their brightly dressed children, their resident status and two decent incomes -- betray the uncertainty endemic among recent immigrants, the feeling that the next card in the deck might somehow turn up against them. It's an uncertainty subtly fed by Proposition 187, made for another sort of immigrant, in another state.

"I'm sorry, but we prefer not to give our names or where we work," the young father says apologetically. "We're not hiding anything, but, well, we just need to be cautious. We have those three to look out for." He motions toward the impatient children jostling in the back seat. "And they're all we've got.

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