Latino community is small, diverse, growing - and anxious
By PETER SMITH, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Aug. 05, 2017
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jose Raymondo Marroquin feels the weight of the stepped-up immigration enforcement.
It's there in the form of an ankle bracelet he has worn since he was arrested along with two co-workers one morning this spring on their way to an interior-painting job in Oakland — the thing feared by Latinos like him who live here without legal status.
Marroquin, 47, is grateful that he was spared the fate of one of his co-workers, who was immediately deported. In his case, officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, have allowed him to remain free while he reports in on a regularly scheduled basis, and they can monitor his whereabouts via the electronic bracelet.
Marroquin at least has time to plead his case — that his life would be in jeopardy if he were deported back to his native Guatemala. He fled his homeland in 2013, he said, in the wake of death threats from local drug dealers who were plying his 10-year-old son and other local children with marijuana.
"I was absolutely distraught," he said. "I put myself on my knees and prayed to God because I couldn't understand why someone would want to corrupt youth like that."
Everyone back home praised him for standing up to the dealers. They told him, "This is good that you do this, but you also are the scapegoat. And now you are paying the consequences."
Those consequences included fleeing north, riding the notoriously dangerous train called La Bestia, "The Beast," up through Mexico. He illegally crossed the U.S. border with the paid help of a "coyote," or guide, and made his way to Pittsburgh, where a cousin was living.
Marroquin found low-paying jobs as a restaurant dishwasher and later as a painter. He arranged to bring two of his teenage children here, whom he's raising along with a nephew as they attend Brashear High School.
Until this year, Marroquin would have likely continued living a semi-underground life like most of the estimated 11 million immigrants lacking legal status, the vast majority of them from Latin America.
The administration of former President Barack Obama had eased enforcement against immigrants who lacked legal status but had established themselves here, had no serious criminal record and posed no national-security risk.
But enforcement has ramped up since the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has begun to make good on a central rallying cry of his successful 2016 campaign, the denunciation of illegal immigration.
Anxiety has permeated the Latino community in the months since his Nov. 8 victory. That could be seen as soon as the normally festive celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, a red-letter date for many Latino Catholics, which took on more of a tone of lament and resilience.
The large majority of Latinos are, in fact, U.S. citizens or legal residents.
But tensions are high for those who aren't, and their families, supporters and anyone concerned about a broader anti-Latino backlash.
Immigrants and their advocates have marched in various demonstrations in recent months, often joining with refugees and Muslims challenging similar travel restrictions under the Trump administration. Some are calling for Pittsburgh and other local governments to have "sanctuary" status and not cooperate with deportation efforts.
Some local immigrants have been deported already, others have been detained and still others, like Marroquin, are awaiting hearings.
Many, though, have lived with knowing their turn may be next, whether they're farm workers in an outlying county or whether they're suburban restaurant dish washers.
They've been preparing "deportation defense packets," a set of legal documents that determine such things as who can care for the children if the parents find themselves detained or deported. The kids, often U.S. citizens themselves, are learning that such temporary guardians might be picking them up from school on any given day if their parents are arrested.
Many have been afraid to go outdoors more than they have to.
"I have never seen this level of fear in the 15 years of work I've done with undocumented people," said Guillermo Perez, president of the Pittsburgh Labor Council for Latin American Advancement
"We've seen more people detained by ICE," said Sheila Velez Martinez, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who directs the Immigration Law Clinic. "I wouldn't say it's an enormous amount of cases yet, but we were seeing very little of that over the past couple of years because of the immigration priorities" of the previous administration.
Now, she said, "there are no priorities," with any immigrant subject to deportation proceedings even with an otherwise clean record.
From Jan. 20 through April 30, ICE officers arrested 1,084 people on immigration offenses in its Philadelphia region, which covers Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware.
That's nearly a 25 percent increase over the 871 arrests in the same period in 2016. In both years, the majority of those arrested were convicted criminals — but this year's increase was almost entirely due to arrests of immigrants without criminal records, which more than doubled from 201 to 422, according to ICE statistics.
Nationwide, immigration arrests went up nearly 40% to 41,318 between late January and April, according to ICE figures.
"ICE focuses its enforcement resources first on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security," said an agency statement. "However, as (Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly) has made clear, ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and if found removable by final order, removal from the United States."
The statement added that ICE "does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately." Its "operations are targeted and lead driven, prioritizing individuals who pose a risk to our communities. Examples would include known street gang members, child sex offenders, and deportable foreign nationals with significant drug trafficking convictions."
'There is no line'
In campaign speeches, Trump repeatedly led call-and-response cheers for walling off Mexico. At a Harrisburg rally in April, he reprised his campaign trope of linking illegal immigrants to violent crime, which he illustrated by reading a poem about embracing a "vicious snake."
Monica Ruiz, a community organizer with Casa San Jose, a Brookline-based resource center for Latino immigrants, said the impact of anti-immigrant rhetoric and presidential orders cast a stigma not just on immigrants but anyone deemed to look Hispanic. The U.S.-born woman says that when she talks to her children in Spanish in public, she hears remarks like, "Why are you here?"
"When things like these executive orders come out, what does it say to people?" she said. Immigrants are often fleeing horrible conditions in their homelands. "These people are human beings. These people are dying to come here. That's got to tell you something. How bad does it have to be to risk your life, the life of your wife, your children, to do the same? They're not here to drain the system."
To those who say that immigrants should line up at U.S. embassies in their home countries and apply for legal immigration, Latinos say such options are out of reach for many. Visas for legal entry are relatively rare and families facing poverty, violence or both don't have the luxury of time.
"There's always borders for people with no money," said Ms. Ruiz's husband, Horacio Ruiz. "For people with money, there's no borders."
He originally crossed the border from Mexico without legal authorization in the 1990s. He later gained legal residency and citizenship while working in restaurant management and investing in rental properties. Such opportunities to be an entrepreneur barely existed in his homeland.
"We were from a poor family with no money," he said.
Pittsburgh had a high-profile immigration case earlier this year involving Mexico native Martin Esquivel-Hernandez, who had previously been deported four times but otherwise had no criminal record.
Advocates pleaded for him to be allowed to stay, citing his contributions to the community and the fact that his mother, wife and three children were all here. He was detained under the Obama administration last year, but after months of legal maneuvers, he was ultimately deported in February.
Mr. Ruiz said customers at the restaurant where he worked had heard about the case in the news and asked him, "Why didn't he come the right way? Why didn't he wait in line like anybody else?"
Mr. Ruiz told them: "There is no line. You have no idea what you're talking about. Most people have no money. You have no money, you have to immigrate to find a job. They're not going to give you papers because you have no money."
Frank Rondon, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Sion in Brookline, told of a family in his church who had a successful business selling mobile phones in their native Mexico. Then one day, masked robbers invaded their home in search of money, fracturing the father's skull, dislocating the mother's shoulder and traumatizing the children who witnessed it.
"They said, 'We need to leave this country. We cannot stay here,' " and they came to America, said Rondon.
Rondon, a native of Venezuela, said that although he came here under legal visas and eventually became a U.S. citizen, he can empathize with those who entered under such desperate circumstances without legal papers.
He urges church members not to live in fear, rely on God and go about their daily lives as they learn English, go to work and take steps to attain legal residency.
"I'm not against the government enforcing its laws," he said, adding that those immigrants who do commit crimes shouldn't be surprised about being deported. "What do you expect?" he said.
But the immigration process, he said, has to provide "a way that is easier for people that are good for the country to be here, and to be here without any fear."
He added: "If it was easy to get a visa, they wouldn't go through the desert for a few days hoping to make it alive."
Small Hispanic population
Pittsburgh has fewer Hispanics by far than any American metro area its size or larger, and fewer than many smaller metro areas as well. It has a tiny fraction of the nation's estimated 57 million Hispanics, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
There were 35,730 Latinos in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area as of 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with two-thirds of them in Allegheny County and the rest in six surrounding counties. That number is dwarfed by Latino populations in New York, Chicago and numerous Sun Belt cities, several topping a million and several more close to it.
Even in this region, Pittsburgh's Latino population trails those of metro Philadelphia (330,000), Cleveland (107,000), Allentown-Bethlehem (113,000) and even Scranton-Wilkes Barre (41,000).
Allegheny's Hispanic population ranks 279th among U.S. counties, according to the Pew Research Center.
Most Pittsburgh-area Hispanics are U.S.-born, though that can include children of foreign-born parents.
Why hasn't Pittsburgh seen Hispanic immigration levels like those of even many northern cities?
Largely it's due to relatively slow job growth over the decades, particularly in lower-skilled jobs, said researcher Christopher Briem of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research. "Without that underlying source of attracting migrants, either from elsewhere in the nation, or international, it is hard to get a lot of new diversity injected into the region," he said.
And to the extent the Latino population is growing, that's partly due to the growing diversity of Americans in general. "To the degree that roughly 40,000 folks move into the region each year other than students, that flow has to be more diverse than it was in the past," he said.
"We may be the only metro in the nation with more folks settling here permanently from Uzbekistan than from Mexico," he said.
Pittsburgh has long had a small population of professionals such as professors and researchers with roots in Spain and Latin America. Newer arrivals include lower-skilled immigrants, particularly from Mexico and Central America. Some are drawn by job possibilities, and connections to family and friends, as well as many of the same livability factors that attract others, such as affordable housing and safe neighborhoods.
Spanish-language businesses have sprouted in areas such as the southern neighborhoods of Beechview and Brookline, including Las Palmas grocers, which cater to Hispanic residents as well as others lining up for fresh tacos.
Spanish-language Catholic and Protestant churches and worship services have taken root. Iglesia Cristiana Sion on Brookline Boulevard is believed to be the first primarily Hispanic congregation to have its own property in the city, and the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh recently hired its first director of Hispanic outreach.
Latino Day has become an annual event at the Kennywood amusement park, joining longer-established heritage days such as the Slovak, Croatian and Italian days.
Latino students are a growing presence at schools like Brashear, where many not only take English as a Second Language class but take part in a weekly after-school enrichment program held in conjunction with Casa San Jose.
Often they get tutoring in ESL, other times they socialize. On a recent day this spring, they heard a know-your-rights talk by Dormont attorney Kristen A. Schneck, who chairs the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The program offers "a way for kids to find themselves in the school," said Brashear Spanish teacher Vivian Varlotta, who advises the after-school group. "They meet each other, communicate in their own language and feel comfortable about it." Some of the students worked with an art teacher to create a Hispanic-themed mural in Beechview.
And despite the anxiety, there's love in the time of Trump.
Jeimy Sanchez-Ruiz and her husband, Pedro, married this spring, gathered for their reception at a social hall on Brookline Boulevard with about 100 others to celebrate. She in her white gown, he in his tuxedo, danced with their friends to a variety of Latin rhythms and the splashes of brightly colored party lights.
Pittsburgh does not consider itself a "sanctuary city," a designation that has varied interpretations, but its Bureau of Police adopted an "unbiased policing" policy in 2014, according to Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto. The policy states that officers "will work with federal authorities (including ICE) to apprehend wanted criminals. At the same time, however, the policy bars officers from asking people about immigration matters," he said.
The aim, McNulty said, is to "develop and build trust with immigrant communities, which will only help police and communities fight crime."
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com