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Some Immigrants Wary of Bush Plan

Times Staff Writer

The day after President Bush proposed a new guest-worker program that would include illegal immigrants, Santa Ana street vendor Alberto Garcia was dishing out more than chicharrones and cut fruit.

Standing at his pushcart selling bags of dried pork rinds covered with salsa and boxes of mangos and coconuts topped with lemon juice and chili powder, Garcia offered a dash of pessimism about the Bush proposal.

Like many of California’s immigrants, still stung by the reversal of a state decision to give many of them driver’s licenses, Garcia wonders if the Bush plan will help him or other illegal immigrants.

The plan would allow up to 11 million illegal immigrants to participate in a guest-worker program. Under the plan, immigrants could apply for a three-year worker permit. Recipients could travel abroad and return to the United States.

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“The Bush plan is pure politics,” said Garcia, who came to the United States four years ago and earns a wage based on the amount of fruit and snacks he sells near downtown Santa Ana, an immigrant enclave where more people speak Spanish than English. “It’s an election year, so I don’t believe it will get anywhere. They say they’ll get us work visas and give us the right to travel outside the United States and return. I don’t believe it. They can’t even get us a driver’s license to get to work.”

Garcia’s customers said they were happy when they heard about the plan, but they had doubts the overhaul would help them. Many complained that few Latino immigrants who do the toughest and dirtiest jobs are rewarded for their contributions to the economy.

Construction worker Arturo Espatia, 36, said the plan falls short of a thank-you because it would grant an undocumented worker like himself only two three-year visas. In six years, he said, “I’d be as illegal as I am now.”

“We can’t really take the politicians’ word anymore,” said Espatia, a resident of Orange who wore a colorful western shirt and cowboy boots. “We thought we were getting driver’s licenses, and look what happened.”

Like many immigrants interviewed, Espatia did not distinguish between the actions of Bush and the California Legislature.

State lawmakers in November reversed their decision to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to support an initiative campaign to repeal the law.

Espatia and others said they fear the Bush plan would meet a similar fate or, worse, would be used to further exploit immigrants who frequently work long hours for little pay.

“If a boss has to sponsor me, I really wonder if he would,” Espatia said. “And if he did, wouldn’t he use that to make me work harder? It would be like he owned me.”

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The election-year proposal drew criticism from Democrats and union leaders who said it does not offer a means to gain citizenship.

Some Republicans and conservatives said the plan was too generous.

Jose Vega, a 33-year-old Santa Ana resident, doubts the plan affirms the contributions of Latino immigrants to the economy. On talk radio and on the streets, immigrants were once again reminding themselves they work as janitors, assembly workers and maids -- jobs that few others take.

Vega works a 7 a.m.-to-midnight shift at a wholesale plant nursery, pulling heavy pots off an assembly line.

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“Maybe it will work out in the end for us,” Vega said. “I think that’s why I tried to be happy about the news. I want to think that after six years in this country, they won’t just kick us out. And I think we’ll be able to stay because the bosses need us. Who else will do this hard work?”


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