The Immigration Debate
Turned Upside Down

Sam Quiñones
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SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, MEXICO-- America's crackdown on illegal immigrants is finding an odd echo in this sleepy town in central Mexico. Townspeople are up in arms over the growing number of illegal Americans living here.

Last month, just after the videotape of Riverside County sheriffs beating Mexican immigrants aired nationwide, the town vented its feelings in an anti-U.S. immigrant march. About 150 residents - mainly farmworkers and people with relatives in the United States - demanded the ouster of illegal American immigrants. They claimed that Americans buy homes and rent them out without paying taxes on the proceeds, as required by law. Others, they say, work without visas or exploit Mexican workers by not paying them overtime. Americans who live here dispute the claims.
"Nobody will hire us without proper documentation," says Sareda Milosz, who moved to Mexico from California 20 years ago and now edits the town's English-language newspaper, Atención San Miguel. "There may be two or three. But most everybody around here who's working is definitely documented."

All this is a growing cause for concern in a town where the main activities seem to be shopping and sipping coffee.

U.S. immigration here began in the 1940s, when San Miguel was a hangout for artists and bohemians of every stripe. Neal Casady, the model for the central character in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," died in San Miguel in 1968.

Today Americans have insinuated themselves into town life. The mayor's mother is American. Americans are moving forces behind a variety of clubs that offer services to old people and children. They are important employers of maids and gardeners. Some now own businesses. Many own homes. The fact that Americans own some of the nicest, oldest homes in San Miguel rankles a number of residents.

Meanwhile, the buying power of the Americans has made life in San Miguel expensive by Mexican standards. In addition, people here complain that many landlords rent only to Americans, who are more likely to be gone in six months.

Prices for real estate and cars are in dollars. Signs announcing their sale are always in English. "Some people have been here 20, 25 years and still don't speak Spanish," complains Eduardo Lera, owner of a computer store and a member of the San Miguel Citizens Forum, which sponsored the march last month.

Still, there's a conviviality in San Miguel that only the American immigration debate, and the Riverside beating have undermined. The march left Americans feeling uneasy, according to Milosz. "I felt embarrassed and threatened at the same time," she says.

Since then, the issue has settled below the surface of town life.

"They're treated well here," says Eric Ramirez, one of the march's organizers. "What we'd like is that our people be treated the same way over there."

Currently the march's organizers are gathering documentation on illegal American immigrants but they're not sure what they will do with it. The Mexican government has as much interest in keeping illegal Americans out of the country as it does in keeping Mexicans in, which is to say very little. And San Miguelenses have no say in what goes on north of the border. All of which leads some townspeople to fear the frustration will grow "into some kind of retaliation (against Americans)," Ramirez says.

"People are truly mad. They come here two or three times a day to see what else can be done. They keep hearing about mistreatment up there," he notes. "But we also know that we need (the Americans)."

© 1996 Pacific News Service

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