Behind the immigration debate

Stella Carrera helps newcomers navigate a rigid bureaucracy
By AMY LITTLEFIELD  |  April 2, 2008
Carrerainside
A FIERCE ADVOCATE: Carrera has firsthand experience in negotiating the US immigration process.

"Another perspective: The view from Mexico on immigration." By Amy Littlefield.
Over the desk in Stella Carrera’s cubicle are a few ceramic angels, a colorful bundle of rosary beads, and a cartoon of a fat, lazy American watching a televised protest for immigrants’ rights. There are pictures of Jesus Christ and photos of men, women, and children, of all different colors. In front of her desk are two empty chairs for her clients.
 
At a time when immigration is an increasingly contentious issue in Rhode Island, Carrera continues her work as the coordinator of Immigration and Refugee Services for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence. Last year, a total of more than 600 immigrants and refugees sought her assistance.
 
Her clients come to the low, white building on Broad Street for help with filling out forms and seeking understanding. Many of them have heard about the organization through church. Some are tired of paying the higher fees demanded by lawyers and notaries. Carrera helps immigrants to complete work permits and forms for change of status and naturalization. She helps them study for citizenship tests, accompanies them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and listens to their stories.
 
While immigration was already something of a hot button in Rhode Island, the issue has intensified since David C. Richardson, the owner of Rhode Island Refrigeration in Providence, last month asked to see the Social Security card of at least one of two Spanish-speaking customers seeking to buy a spare part for a boiler. Since Governor Donald L. Carcieri last week unveiled a six-part plan that he says is meant to curb illegal immigration, the reaction has been predictable: critics of illegal immigration hailed the move, while advocates for immigrants and others condemned it as a badly flawed response.
 
Because of an absence of detailed information about undocumented immigrants, it’s hard to know their precise economic impact in Rhode Island. Critics call them a drag on state spending, yet many observers note that undocumented immigrants often pay income taxes to the government without receiving benefits such as health-care. Some advocates also point out that many US businesses rely on immigrants, who are vulnerable to economic abuse by their employers.
 
In 2006, for example, Golden State Fence, a fence-building firm that worked on the construction of a wall between San Diego and Mexico, received heavy fines for hiring undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, although liberals and conservatives agree the status quo is marked by shortcomings, with an estimated 1.5 million immigrants coming to the US every year without legal documentation, how to create a better approach remains a subject of debate.
 
As the debate continues, Carrera sees the impact of the issue virtually every day. “[Undocumented] people, they are in panic,” because of Carcieri’s executive order, she says. Carrera believes the governor’s approach will have a series of negative effects, including undocumented immigrants being unwilling to contact police if they are victimized by domestic violence or other crimes.
 
Even before the latest ratcheting up of the debate, there were times when you would just cry with the newcomers, she says, because there is nothing you can do. The system can be almost impossible to navigate.

Carrera brandishes a citizenship test. Completing it successfully is a challenge for me, a college student born and raised in the US, as it would be for many people (see “Take the test”). There is a quiet rage in Carrrera’s words, a compact energy in every motion. She is 55 years old, four-foot-11, and full of fire.
 
The advocate proves a point with this citizenship test, putting it down with a smile when I fail to correctly answer a question. Her point is that the US immigration system is unforgiving. It cannot “put the law with a face.”

Emerging from fear
One of the faces Carrera knows is that of Carla Rodriguez (not her real name), a 42-year-old Guatemalan native who has been in the US illegally since 1994.
 
At that time, Rodriguez, her husband, and her five children flew to Mexico and walked across the border into California. Rodriguez was eight or nine months pregnant. A week later, she gave birth to her sixth child. The family flew to Providence to be with Rodriguez’s brothers and sisters, who had moved here years earlier. Her husband worked as a locksmith, and her children began to attend public school.
 
The family has lived in fear for 13 years. It makes them nervous even to be out in the streets.
 
They are afraid they will be stopped and deported. They don’t go out, except to go to church, to the grocery store, and occasionally to visit relatives. The children do not work, or go to parties. They come straight home after school.
 
Her daughter, Julia, is 14, and has no memories of Guatemala. “I lived here all my life, so it would be kind of weird to go back,” she says. But according to US immigration law, Guatemala is where Julia and everyone else in her family, except her youngest sibling, ought to be.
 
With Carrera’s assistance, and a lot of help from relatives, the Rodriguez family is finally gaining legal status. The tab for medical exams, documents, and fines for living here illegally comes to $14,000, with much of it borrowed from family members. Working as a locksmith, Rodriguez’s husband makes about $350 a week, if he’s lucky.
 
Carla Rodriguez says she is happy now. The papers are on their way. When they come through, her older children, who have graduated from high school in Providence, will be able to go to college. They will be able to “better themselves.” Julia will be able to get a job, and her friends will stop asking why she doesn’t work like the rest of them.
 
Carrera shakes her head when she talks about Carla Rodriguez. It will take up to a year, now that the money is paid, for the Rodriguez family’s residency papers to come through.

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