Immigration a touchy topic

Maryury Santos, talks about the day she got the letter from the United States informing her of her deportation back to Honduras.

Woman's hopes, dreams appear to be doomed

Maryury Santos would seem to have everything to look forward to.

The Beaufort woman graduated near the top of her class at Battery Creek High School, was listed in Who's Who Among American High School Students and initially qualified for a $20,000 college scholarship that would have helped her fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse.

But Santos, 22, hasn't been able to pursue that dream. She spends her weeks cleaning houses, and soon faces what could be a life-altering change.

This week, Santos, who entered this country legally several years ago on a tourist visa, must appear before an immigration judge in Atlanta. She could be deported.

The Honduras native and her sister entered the country legally on a tourist visa several years ago to join their parents, who also arrived legally. Today, they're considered "out of status" because they overstayed their time. All applied for temporary protected status, but their father didn't qualify.

Yet only Santos has received a letter saying she faces removal proceedings. It's a bitter twist for a young woman who enrolled in high school not knowing a word of English but who worked hard enough to post a 4.0 grade point average in her senior year. Her accent is the only clue that English isn't her native tongue.

She watched this year as Congress debated legislation that would have addressed the fate of some or all of the estimated 12 million to 20 million undocumented immigrants now in the country. At least two bills would have let her stay here and pursue her dream. "But everything stayed the same. Nothing changed," she said.

Today, her lawyer said her best hope is help from one of South Carolina's senators through private congressional legislation. If that fails, she must leave her family, return to Honduras and face a future that most likely will include a lot more uncertainty and a lot less opportunity.

"I feel I'm more from here than Honduras," she said. "It would feel weird to go back because I haven't been there for a long time. You can have a better life here. If you go to school, you can get a good job and can have a good life."

'Absolutely pathetic'

Charleston businessman Michael Lalich knows full well the economic forces enticing so many immigrants toward a better job in the United States.

"It's supply and demand. They've come here to work and send money home to support their family," he said. "They're extremely industrious."

As head of Lowcountry Labor Co. and MTL Services, he has traveled to Mexico to arrange to bring hundreds of Mexican workers into the Lowcountry legally and temporarily, to do jobs that locals either can't or won't do.

It's an expensive, burdensome and tedious process.

"Right now the legal route is not really an option. It's gone from bad to absolutely pathetic," he said. "I guarantee that 95 percent of the Lowcountry amigos are not legal."

Lalich, who got into the business because he is fluent in Spanish, said he would like to hear presidential candidates talking about reworking the legal immigration quotas and programs, but added, "Of all the candidates from either side, no one has put forth a very clear-cut or definitive stance."

Getting involved

David and Michele Beasley grew concerned about the volume of illegal immigrants when they noticed a crew installing cable in their North Charleston neighborhood in 1998. None spoke English. They called the federal immigration authorities, but learned that there were only two agents working the entire state.

"We had never been involved in anything political. I sat there and thought, 'What in the world is going on?' " he said.

They got involved.

Of the eight homes in their neighborhood that were recently reroofed, only the Beasleys made sure their crew contained no undocumented aliens, they said, and they paid $350 more for that job. "Private citizens also have a responsibility not to use businesses that use illegals," she said.

Their concern extends beyond the issue of illegal immigrants to the large numbers of legal immigrants allowed in by Congress, and the overall global population explosion.

And it has caused them to get politically active. They even have hosted Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo in their living room.

While they support him, they realize he lags far behind in the polls. "(Tancredo) told us a long time ago that what he wanted to get across is that he wanted this issue of illegal immigration to be at the forefront of any issue any candidate talks about, from health care to abortion," David Beasley said. "In that respect, I think that man has succeeded."

Patrolling the border

Kendra Linkowski of Summerville felt bothered enough by the nation's porous border that she plans to travel there in April for two weeks to help federal agents stop people from slipping through.

"The economy is bad enough without having a shadow population sucking the money out of the system," she said.

The founder of the Lowcountry chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corp. said her group is not a racist one but is deeply concerned about what illegal immigrants are doing to the economy, as well as to the health care system and crime.

While her group has fewer than 20 members, she said she expects it to grow.

"The problem is growing so quickly it's finally impacting people," she said. "Earlier in the year they didn't feel that way."

Seeking other solutions

Marco Torres' parents immigrated here from Honduras via Puerto Rico, and after growing up in Los Angeles and earning a law degree, he has started a bilingual practice helping Lowcountry immigrants.

"It was a good career move," he said. "I recognized there was a growing Hispanic population in the area and very few Hispanic attorneys practicing. I quickly started getting calls for help."

He said concerns that immigrants won't assimilate or are taking jobs away from U.S. citizens are based on false assumptions, but he also said the federal immigration laws have serious flaws, particularly the low caps of temporary workers allowed into the country.

Torres said those here illegally who commit crimes should be deported, but many undocumented workers are at least as likely to be victims as to victimize, particularly because they can't open a bank account or seek redress through civil courts if someone rips them off.

He wasn't 100 percent pleased with immigration reform that President Bush proposed earlier this year, but it was a start. "It was actually confronting the issue and creating a solution to the problem," he said. "The status quo isn't working."

Torres said he hasn't decided which presidential candidate he will vote for, but it likely will be someone who recognizes the complicated reality of how so many undocumented workers play such an important role in the country.

"If we rounded up all these workers today and shipped them away, the hospitality business in Charleston would shut down," he said. "The agricultural business would shut down. The crops would rot on the vines."