Friday, June 29, 2007
AFTER SEN. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina joined 36 of her Republican colleagues, 15 Democrats and one independent in the Senate yesterday in squashing the last, best hope for now of overhauling the nation's bankrupt and busted immigration laws, she was asked what she proposed for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. "I think that is something that can be dealt with at a later time," she replied airily.
Tell that to Ernesto, Mrs. Dole. He's a 31-year-old Salvadoran handyman in Wheaton who sneaked over the border through California four years ago after paying thousands of dollars to a migrant smuggler, to whom he remains in debt. Mrs. Dole and her colleagues may imagine that Ernesto will simply evaporate now that the Senate has decided to avert its gaze, but he won't. Although he earns barely $1,200 a month, he does better here as a painter, carpenter, landscaper and electrician than he ever could in Cabañas, his hardscrabble native region of northern El Salvador, which is rich in beans and sugar cane but bereft of jobs.
Ernesto, who spoke with us on the understanding that his last name would not be published, was on Capitol Hill with a small group of immigrants yesterday. He watched ruefully as the senators dealt their lethal blow to his prospects for a normal life on the right side of the law. But he's staying put. With the help of Casa of Maryland, a local nonprofit, he finds work several days a week and sends $200 a month home to his family in El Salvador. His worldly possessions here, which he keeps with him in a tiny rented room, consist of a power saw, a few hand tools, a television and the cellphone he uses to talk to his wife and 5-year-old daughter every day.
It's enough, better than what he left behind in El Salvador, and plenty to nourish an immigrant's dream of earning a little more, of working full time, of maybe bringing his family to live with him one day. Ernesto does not intend to leave, but even if he were to be deported, there are still about 12 million people representing 5 percent of the nation's job force who cannot be ignored, hounded, harassed, wished or deported into nothingness. At some point Congress will come to its senses, steady its nerves and recognize that unimpeachable reality. Mrs. Dole and her colleagues may think they killed immigration reform yesterday. In fact the problem will just keep coming back, bigger each time than the last.