'I Choose to Be Here. Illegally.' : 'Pablo' does not receive food stamps. He does not live in public housing. He does not get free medical care. He's a living portrait of a hard-working immigrant who dreams of becoming an American citizen.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes, late at night, after the dinner dishes have been washed and friends have retired to their apartments across the hall, Pablo heads for a walk in Echo Park. It's the vagabond in him, he says, that keeps him restless, not quite ready for sleep, although he will be up in five hours to press shirts at a dry cleaners.

Soon, memories of Mexico--his infant son, his mother, his family, his pueblo of Macua--spin in his mind as he strolls, stops and stares into the park's lake, a reflection of wavering palm tree tops and twinkling street lights.

It's one of those nights.

Less than a block away from the park, a helicopter zooms overhead, its spotlight scanning the nearby area. Police sirens, followed by a blaring ambulance, contribute to the cacophony of freeway noise.

At this hour, everyone is probably in deep sleep in Macua--more than 1,200 miles away from where Pablo stands at midnight. He imagines his son, Antonio, sleeping next to his mother and the many stuffed animals and toys Pablo has sent him.

"I miss him," says Pablo (not his real name). "I'm sending $400 next month for his birthday for gifts, clothes and a big party. He'll be 1 year old. I wish I could be there, but I cannot. I am here."

It has to be this way, he says, because here he can earn a better living not only for himself but, more important, for his son.

"I choose to be here," he says. "Illegally."

Illegal immigrants such as Pablo are sometimes portrayed as leeches on society, stealing jobs and taking advantage of welfare benefits. They are seen by some as a collective drain on the economy, accused of being involved in crime and blamed for California's recession.

But Pablo does not fit that mold. He does not receive food stamps. He does not live in public housing. He does not get free medical care. In fact, last year when he noticed two bumps on his back, he paid $600 cash for outpatient services at a neighborhood clinic.

Pablo is a living portrait of a hard-working immigrant who dreams of becoming an American citizen. But for now, his primary goal--like that of so many other illegal immigrants in Southern California--is to carve out a decent life for himself so that he can help the boy he left behind in Mexico.

"All we want are opportunities to work," Pablo says. "That's all." And, he adds, "to get to know the United States and its people."

But, he says in Spanish, "I don't think that Americans really understand who we are and why we are here. Americans tend to look at us negatively, like we are the bad guys when we are not. We don't cause problems. We are honest. We don't beg for money. We work very hard."

Yes, he says, there are immigrants "who are dishonest, lazy and take advantage of welfare, who have babies to get the welfare check."

And yes, he admits, "All I thought about was coming here for the dollars. That's how everybody who comes here from Mexico thinks."

But to get the dollars, Pablo works 10- and 11-hour days without overtime or benefits. Even when he's sick he's still on the job.

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Vibiana Andrade, an immigrants' rights advocate, says illegal immigrants, who often don't know English and lack job skills, frequently must take the backbreaking, monotonous, dirty and dangerous jobs Americans shun.

"By having immigrant workers working for low wages, immigrants assist an industry such as the garment industry to remain competitive," says Andrade, national director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund's Immigrants' Rights Program.

She says immigrants "fit in where the need is" by taking jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing and service industries. Immigrants, she says, do not displace American workers.

"To call these people criminals is taking the human face off someone who is honest, good-hearted and hard-working. They bring with them very basic family values. They carry with them the immigrant dream: to be here, to work."

Barbara Coe, co-founder and chairperson of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which includes 10,000 members representing 15 anti-immigration groups statewide, says illegal immigrants such as Pablo "are in it for their own bucks."

She says Pablo's reasons for being here differ from those of Latinos "who have come here legally and worked hard and are valuable citizens." Illegal immigrants, she says, "are grabbers and lining their own pockets" with the American dollar.

"Every job that they take is one less job for an American. They say, 'We do the jobs that Americans won't,' and our organization says that is an out-and-out lie, a myth."

"The bottom line is this," Coe says. "Illegal is illegal is illegal."

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Pablo, 27, left Mexico five years ago, saying goodby to his family and hitting the perilous trail to El Norte .

Like the generations of Mexicans before him, he was in search of a dream: Find a job. Make a home. And send money to family left behind.

But for many, the dream shatters and immigrants are hit with the shards of exploitation, prejudice and little hope. Families remain apart and the expectations for decent, good-paying work are dispelled with low-paying jobs they say Americans don't want and which Americans criticize immigrants for taking.

Macua, a pueblo north of Mexico City, offered none of the opportunities Pablo sought.

In Macua, he says, people scrape to survive in Third World living conditions in neighborhoods without running water and electricity. His hometown has about 50 houses, one elementary school and a junior high. The high school is in a nearby village. There are no buses, no jobs outside farm work or raising livestock and no reason for him to have stayed.

So, at 14, he began his odyssey, wandering for eight years throughout Mexico, working in Michoacan, Jalisco, Durango and Sonora states. Slowly, he made his way to the U.S.-Mexico border. In 1988, he paid a coyote $300 to smuggle him across Tijuana into San Diego and, eventually, to Los Angeles.

Says Pablo: "Alone or with a coyote , it's a risk you must take to get good work."

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The risks have paid off. Today, Pablo is making more money than five years ago, when he earned $20 to $25 a day as a laborer. Working at a dry cleaners, he earns $340 a week, which is always paid to him in cash.

For the past three years, Pablo has worked six days a week from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., handling laundry and pressing duties as well as supervising three other undocumented workers. When the owner needs help with the morning rush, Pablo is there to receive the clothes and to make sure that customers never leave without their receipts. In the afternoons, he's back at the counter, using the little survival English he knows to get him through the day.

Pablo says his job is secure, although he would like to earn more money. "But I don't ask for more money because I don't speak more English," he says.

Last year, he attended English-language classes at Evans Community Adult School and later at Belmont High School in the evenings, but he was forced to drop out because of longer work hours.

"It's my feeling that non-Latino people, especially Asian and Anglo people, think that the Mexican people don't have a brain," he says. "So I want to prove to them that we are smart. I said to myself that I had to make the effort to try to learn English."

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Pablo is recalling a nightmare he had not long ago. It was about money. Burning money.

"I had about $3,000 in cash under the carpet," he says, explaining that he stashes his earnings in secret places for safekeeping because without a Social Security card, he can't open a bank account.

"I was very afraid to have so much money," he says. "Then I had a terrible dream that the apartment caught fire. The next day, I went to a bank and wired it to my family in Mexico."

Pablo is sitting in the kitchen of the $550-a-month apartment he shares with five other illegal Mexican immigrants. Around him on small wooden benches are his brother, Jesus, 25, and Jesus' wife, Linda, 21. (These names, like Pablo's, are pseudonyms at their request.)

Jesus and Linda have been married for five years. They sleep in the only bedroom, surrounded by photographs of their 3-year-old son, who was born in Mexico and lives with his grandparents. They haven't seen him for two years.

"A day doesn't go by when I don't think about him," says Linda, a housekeeper in Malibu, Santa Monica and Calabasas who makes about $180 a week. Her husband makes $250 at a dry cleaners.

Pablo, his sister, Rebecca, 21, and two friends, Elida and Lola, both 24, rest in sleeping bags on the living room's carpet. The quartet share two chests, where clothing and personal items are stored.

Elida, who has a 7-year-old daughter in Mexico, has been here a year; Lola, less than three months. The two women also work in service industries, getting their jobs through other immigrants. They are all paid in cash, from $200 to $300 a week.

The group's living quarters are cramped, and furnishings are sparse in their second-floor apartment because they cannot afford luxuries. Nor do they want them. They barely make ends meet with individual contributions toward the rent, food and long-distance phone bills to Mexico that often total $400 per month or more.

For entertainment, they listen to Spanish-language radio. On weekend evenings, they gather at the kitchen table to play loteria , a Mexican version of bingo, or a round of konkian , a Mexican card game. On those nights, friends from the apartment building join in, bringing food and drinks and photos and stories of families far away.

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Lorenzo, 26, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who lives with a younger brother across the hall, is Pablo's best friend.

Lorenzo, who has lived in Los Angeles four years, works at a Downtown leather handbag factory and makes $280 a week, more than twice the money he earned at his previous job. At that job, Lorenzo recalls, "The owners would shout at us in a very bad way. I felt they were treating us unjustly and badly because we were Mexicans."

"Prejudice against my people is everywhere," Pablo says. "All you can do is take the abuse and be tolerant because of the necessity to send money to Mexico."

In Pablo's case, that means sending money to Antonio and the boy's mother. Pablo never married, although he and his son's mother, who is back in Macua after a brief stay in Los Angeles, have remained friends.

For their families, Pablo, Lorenzo and the others will endure the risks, including the constant fear and threat of immigration officials. Several times, Lorenzo has run from his job because la migra was making a sweep in the area.

"We're gone just like that," he says, snapping his fingers. "But the fear we have is that it is going to happen again."

At his current job, Lorenzo is paid by check, but no taxes are withheld. For a fee, he cashes his paycheck at a neighborhood grocery store, where no identification is required and no questions are asked, he says. Because of gang members who prey on immigrants, Lorenzo always exits without giving the impression that his pockets are loaded with cash.

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No one, Pablo says, is immune to being victimized.

Last year, his brother, Jesus, was walking through MacArthur Park on a Saturday afternoon when he was beaten by several gang members. His wife looked on, horrified, as he tried to shield the blows to his head with his hands and arms.

"They kicked me. They beat me everywhere with their fists. All for $20," Jesus says.

Linda managed to get her husband home on foot. But because he wasn't bleeding, despite bumps and bruises on his head, he refused to get medical care.

He chose not to go to a clinic or Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center because he thought questions would be asked about his immigration status. (Adelaide De La Cerda, the center's public information officer, says patients are not asked their immigration status. Regardless, Jesus would have been eligible for emergency medical care.)

Jesus says he stayed home in bed, lapsing in and out of consciousness for almost eight days.

"I became very traumatized psychologically," he says. "I still am. I don't feel tranquil here. I don't have the spirit for wanting to remain much longer."

His plan is to stay another eight months so he and his wife can buy a two-bedroom house in Macua.

Until then, Jesus will continue his daily grind: up at 5 a.m. to drive his wife to a freeway bus station in the used car he and Pablo purchased. He returns to the apartment to take his sister to her job and again heads home for Pablo. In the afternoon, everyone rides the bus home. Elida and Lola travel by bus to and from work.

"I'm going to miss the taxi service when he leaves," Pablo says, laughing.

Jesus says he'll miss the beaches, especially Santa Monica.

His wife says she always will remember strolling through Echo Park, spending afternoons with other immigrant families.

Lorenzo, who has no intention of staying here permanently, will miss the dances in Panorama City. "The quebraditas (a stylized Mexican dance) and the girls," he says, smiling.

Says Pablo, ever the adventurer: "I want to stay. Macua is too small for me, too boring. I have bigger dreams."

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Dreams, he says, are what keep him going.

"I always thought that joining a gym would be a sign of success here," Pablo says, so less than a year ago he began lifting weights three nights a week at a Hollywood gym.

Getting a better job is another goal. Computers fascinate him. So does hotel work.

"I'd like to be a bilingual concierge," he says, one reason that becoming proficient in English is important.

If he's bilingual, Pablo figures he can travel anywhere in the country with no problems, which is what he hopes to do.

"You might think I am crazy, but I want to be a vagabond," he says. "I want to wander all over the United States. Today I am here, tomorrow I'm in San Francisco and the next day I am somewhere else. I've always liked that idea because in Mexico, I was always absent from my hometown. Thousands of us are.

"Every time I speak to my mother on the phone, she asks, 'Don't you want to come back?' And I say, 'No. Not yet.'

"Here, a person has chances and choices. You can go to school. You can learn to be a mechanic. You can learn to be a teacher. You can have a business. You can do so much."

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About This Series: Today's article is part of an occasional series, "The Great Divide: Immigration in the 1990s." As debate about immigration grows more heated, The Times examines the significant issues for California and the nation.

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