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Poverty drives immigrants to Tahoe

Cory Fisher

The story of the Cervantes family is not unusual.

In fact, tales of immigrants coming directly from their homelands to South Lake Tahoe for a better life are told thousands of times over, said Gabriela Inigo, who works with families in need through the El Dorado County Health Department.

While there is a rapidly growing Filipino community, Inigo estimates there are now roughly 10,000 Latinos in Tahoe.

“Although some Guatemalans and Salvadorans are here for political reasons, most are here from Mexico due to poverty,” Inigo said. “There is now a huge gap between the rich and poor in Mexico. It’s sad. It separates families.”

Like the Cervantes family, quite often the husband will arrive in the U.S. first, and save money to bring his wife. Later, the couple will send for their children and attempt to get legal status.

“One hundred percent initially say they want to work here, save money and retire back in Mexico,” Inigo said. “But in truth, they end up financially stuck here. It’s like chasing your tail because it’s too expensive to save. Some don’t have bank accounts, and some get sick – without health benefits. I know a family who owes between $3,000 and $4,000 to Barton.”

Throughout Mexico, countless children begin working at age 14 or younger, and many towns don’t have high schools.

“School is for the elite. It’s not a priority among the poor there, survival is,” Inigo said. “So when they arrive here with a limited education, no legal status and no English skills, they can easily be taken advantage of.”

Afraid to go to the police, the immigrant population is often unknowingly robbed of thousands by cunning business people, including landlords providing substandard conditions, car dealers selling over-priced cars with interest rates in excess of 20 percent and “immigration consultants” offering green cards to those who aren’t actually eligible.

“This kind of fraud is a huge, endemic problem throughout California and the U.S. We see extreme abuse. It’s extraordinarily frustrating in South Lake Tahoe,” said Michael Consadine, a certified specialist in immigration and nationality law through the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.

“These people are easy targets. Law enforcement officials know these abuses exist, but I guess they have bigger fish to fry, saying the victims shouldn’t be here anyway. The fact that they are aliens should be irrelevant. I have sued a few and put them out of business.”

Last year, a Spanish-speaking Modesto man posing as an immigration lawyer swindled close to $1 million in six months, said Consadine, who has served as an expert witness on similar cases. When the con artist fled the country, no one pursued him.

“Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies because we know how to take advantage of one another,” Inigo said. “People justify it because they’ve seen how corrupt the Mexican government is, and they know no one will do anything about it here. More people are filing civil suits because no one is enforcing the law.”

Even legitimate attorneys can unknowingly offer the wrong advice, Consadine said, as “the government tinkers daily with immigration laws and keeping up to speed is a challenge.”

When it comes to employment, many immigrants are afraid to approach their bosses with concerns, said Jose Garcia, a family advocate for the Family Resource Center.

“Often they won’t get raises, don’t have benefits and can’t get needed time off – but they know what the answer will be: ‘If you don’t like it, leave,'” Garcia said. “It’s hard enough to find work, they want to hang on to what they have. If they are sick or injured they’re afraid to say anything. Many work hard but are not promotable because they don’t speak English.”

Ineligible for public assistance, many work two jobs to cover expenses for their children.

“For example, if I was able to get welfare, I would rather do that than work for minimum wage,” Inigo said. “I know one Latina with five kids who makes $6 an hour. If she was in the system she would make more.”

According to a 1997 study conducted by RAND, a nonprofit organization that conducts public policy research, “immigration still contributes to California’s economic growth. But as large flows of mostly poorly educated immigrants encounter an increasingly skilled labor market, the benefits have been steadily eroding … the demand for low-skill workers continues to decline.”

California is unlike any other state, the study concluded. As a group, immigrants here are younger, less educated, have higher fertility rates and are more likely to be illegal.

There are also many more of them – one-fourth of the state’s residents and workers are foreign born. The second highest state, New York, has 16 percent, with a national median of roughly 4 percent.

Increased competition among low-skilled workers has hurt the wage and job prospects of natives and immigrants alike, the study said. Yet researchers estimate that only 1 to 1.5 percent of low-skilled natives have been driven out of the California labor force since 1970.

The study found that the greatest burden falls on the schools and has “yet to be fully felt.” By 2005, the California high school population is estimated to increase by 25 to 40 percent.

Cherie Kagan, a family counselor for Family Solutions, says many immigrants use false or duplicated social security numbers for employment, and are therefore afraid to file for tax refunds.

“They’re paying into the system and getting nothing back – many are entitled to huge refunds. Based on their income they’d probably get every dime back,” Kagan said. “There’s a significant lack of social and school-based services for Latinos. The community commits many acts of omission – too often they simply don’t take this population into account. There’s a very large sector of the Latino community whose voices aren’t heard.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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