The uneasy path to the American Dream |

The uneasy path to the American Dream

Abigail Eagye

Juanita Lopez came to Aspen from El Salvador six years ago and began a manual labor job paying $8 an hour. She works at the same job today for $11 an hour, supporting her three children, her mother and occasionally her brothers back in El Salvador. She has the proper visa to live and work legally in the United States, but is still afraid to have her real name printed in the newspaper.As a legal resident, Lopez is eligible for benefits such as housing through the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority. Still, she lives in fear of immigration authorities, who periodically show up at her Aspen apartment complex looking for illegal immigrants – like her boyfriend.Because people such as Lopez live and work legally in the Aspen area, immigration officials know their address. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, often cluster together; Lopez believes authorities seek out the legal immigrants to check documents, expecting to find illegals nearby. If they find Lopez, they might find her boyfriend, and that means he could be deported.Mariana Velasquez’s situation is somewhat murkier. Also from El Salvador, Velasquez doesn’t have a work visa, but she doesn’t work. She’s a stay-at-home mom. Velasquez’s partner, Raul, has a visa to live and work in the U.S., and he supports Mariana and their two children doing just that. Nonetheless, when their lease at the Truscott apartment complex expires in April, Mariana won’t be allowed to stay in their rental unit – and she wouldn’t even if the couple were married. They must now decide whether to split up their family, sending Mariana and the children back to El Salvador, or look for more expensive, unsubsidized housing.Naturally, Velasquez doesn’t want to her real name in the paper either. She, too, lives in fear of immigration authorities knocking on her door.Lopez and Velasquez are feeling the effects of new Colorado laws that require immigrants to prove “lawful presence” in the country before receiving public benefits such as subsidized housing.Those pushing the tougher immigration laws send a message that the issue is simple: If you don’t have a legal right to be here, don’t be here.But Lopez’s and Velasquez’s situations exemplify difficult choices for many immigrants: Divide the family, stay in the U.S. illegally under an umbrella of fear, or move back home. But there’s a reason these women left El Salvador. When asked why she emigrated, Lopez gives a succinct answer: War, earthquakes and poverty.Life in El SalvadorThe national debate over immigration hits home hard for Salvadoran immigrants. Although Mexican immigrants are often the focus of discussions, El Salvadorans may have more at stake. According to a 2005 report by the United States Agency for International Development, “an estimated 2 million Salvadorans live in the United States, many of them illegally.”Although El Salvador’s civil war ended more than a dozen years ago, gang violence in that country’s urban areas has increased. The U.S. State Department considers El Salvador a “critical crime-threat country,” citing a 25 percent increase in the homicide rate from 2004 to 2005 and contributing to the nation’s dubious status of having one of the highest homicide rates in the world.The gap between the haves and have-nots in El Salvador continues at prewar levels, according to the Washington Office on Latin America. USAID reports the poorest 20 percent of El Salvador’s citizens receive roughly 3 percent of the nations’ wealth.And while only 6 percent of El Salvador’s citizens are unemployed, according to the CIA, many who have jobs are underemployed – one reason Lopez cites for seeking work in the United States.Although the country’s economy has continued to grow by about 2 percent over the past several years, the USAID report states that rural areas still suffer in poverty: Almost half of the rural population still lives below the poverty line; nearly 17 percent are illiterate; rural residents receive an average of less than four years of schooling; and almost two-thirds don’t have running water at home.According to the U.S. Department of State, Salvadoran immigrants sent home $2.8 billion in remittances in 2005, equivalent to roughly 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.Making the moveThe stats read like a civics textbook to many Americans. For Salvadorans like Lopez and Velasquez, they add up to circumstances that drive them to risk the trip to the United States – and to live in the shadows once they’re here.Three years ago, Mariana and Raul went to great lengths to get to the United States. They had to go through Mexico where, they say, locals don’t like Salvadorans. And they paid $5,000 each to get from Mexico into the United States; today, it costs closer to $8,000 per person, they believe.People who pay are essentially guaranteed entrance into the U.S. without trouble, but not everyone has that kind of money. Those without the cash who travel via Mexico are more likely to have problems, Mariana and Raul say, particularly immigrants from Chile and Brazil. A lot of people are robbed or even killed making the journey – and that’s before they even cross the border to the U.S.New laws targeting immigrantsIn his last legislative act before departing as Colorado’s governor, Bill Owens called lawmakers into a special session to draft a series of laws aimed at tightening the state’s immigration regulations.Among them was a “lawful presence” act, requiring immigrants to prove legal status in the country before receiving public benefits, including renting through the local housing office or social services assistance.Lopez and Velasquez say that since the state passed that law, their apartment manager has been telling tenants that if they can’t prove legal status for everyone in the home, those without proper documentation will have to leave. It is the same at all apartment complexes managed by the local housing office.The women estimate 15 families at Truscott alone either have sent part of the family home or returned all together to the countries they fled. Others have sought out unsubsidized housing, usually downvalley. But that can be more expensive, and it often means cramming lots of people under one roof, which is not conducive to family life.This year, the Colorado Legislature is entertaining several more laws directed at immigrants, including one that would make it a crime to be in the state if a person is in the United States illegally. Depending on the number of violations, the illegal immigrant could be charged with anything from a misdemeanor to a felony.For Lopez, the new laws would seem a moot point because she is already lawfully present. But an individual’s life isn’t limited to that individual, and she feels the effects as she watches other immigrant families – and possibly her boyfriend – split up or leave the country.Lopez feels personally targeted as well, just for being an immigrant. Lopez says it isn’t right: She has the right documents, she pays taxes, and she works as a housekeeper at a local hotel, a job she says many Americans aren’t willing to do.She balks at the notion that immigrants like her are a threat to the United States. Velasquez doesn’t fit the stereotype of an illegal taking a job that could go to a U.S. citizen because she doesn’t work. She does live in government-subsidized housing, but her partner would be eligible to live there without her – although he might be in a one-bedroom instead of a two-bedroom unit.They don’t know yet what they’ll do when their lease expires. Mariana says it doesn’t make sense to send everyone except Raul back to El Salvador just to keep the housing. Perhaps they’ll look downvalley. These are not the choices Lopez or Velasquez looks forward to making. But, like many immigrant families, difficult choices in America are often better than difficulties they face in El Salvador.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is


See more