America's immigration conundrum

The Italian Street Market, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Stallholders at the Ninth Street market

Juan Carlos Romero, a fresh-faced man from Mexico, sets out flowers in aluminium buckets in front of his shop in south Philadelphia's Ninth Street market.

They are a bright splash of colour on what starts as a rather grey day.

Latino music blasts from a clothes shop on the other side of the road. Pineapples and chillies, fresh fish and spicy sausages are on display.

The street is a buzzy, gritty sort of place. Originally home to the Italian Market, it is as much a product of South and Central America as of old Europe.

Everyone seems to know everyone else, it is an antidote to all those depressingly anonymous malls littering every US state.

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What is different now is the huge growth in the Latino population far away from the border”

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The cliche that springs to mind is "tight-knit", but the weave is made up of citizens and illegal immigrants and there are tensions in the fabric between old and new.

The flower man, Mr Romero, has a wife and little daughter. He works hard - sometimes 14 hours a day, he tells me - running both the florist and a restaurant he owns. He has been in the US for 10 years now, an illegal immigrant, without papers.

"I feel insecure, impotent. I feel like I am extraneous. It is a very bad sensation," Mr Romero says.

He is looking to Washington to change that - and now immigration reform has a real chance because of the support of some Republicans.

"I hear the Republican from Florida [Marco Rubio] and he says things that are good news, but the others sound very hard," he says.

The US city of Baltimore is actively inviting immigrants

"Some of them don't trust us - it's very sad. They have a big country, I hope the Republicans and Democrats make a good reform to help us.

"They say there are 11 million undocumented workers. I don't know, maybe it is more. But we need reform to help us live in this very nice country."

Immigration reform is the hottest issue on Capitol Hill right now.

Central is the idea of amnesty - allowing the millions of illegal immigrants to eventually become American citizens.

Many Republicans instinctively recoil from the idea, seeing it as a reward for people who have broken the law.

But it is a huge test for the party after their defeat in the last election.

It was an election where President Barack Obama took 71% of the Latino vote. Some think it tipped the balance here in Pennsylvania and other key states.

Latinos for Obama rally in 2008 Courting the Latino vote in 2008 too

At first sight, it may seem a puzzle how the treatment of people who are not US citizens, who cannot vote, might influence the outcome of elections.

Jorge Salazar, of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, explains it well.

He was brought to this country from Bolivia by his parents when he was seven. They came on a visa, but stayed on when it ran out.

He is now 30 and still has no papers. He talks about the constant threat of deportation as if it was a war.

"Family members can disappear overnight," he says. "I lost my aunt - she was deported 2001. Her kids are citizens, and they've never been the same."

Beyond outdated stereotypes of Latinos in the US

He say all parties have to get serious about changes.

"Republicans have a hard time with the Latino community because of their immigration attitude," Mr Salazar says.

"They are becoming aware the Latino community is very strong. Everybody who is here undocumented has someone who can vote.

"I am undocumented but my sister is documented so she can cast a vote for me. All my cousins, all my uncles - everybody apart from my small nuclear family - have the right to vote.

"They will exercise that right to help me out - a lot of Latinos know what's at stake. We have shown that in the last election and that is why Republicans have started to have dialogue about this."

He is going to the Pennsylvania state capital to talk about this with one Republican who is eager to help and wants to change his party's image with Latinos.

'Living the dream'

The elegant state capital, Harrisburg, is very different to the bustle of Philadelphia.

View of the Capitol building The State Capitol in Harrisburg

State Street is dominated by two buildings. One is St Patrick's Cathedral, built with German marble and the money of Irish immigrants. The other is the Capitol itself.

Inside, under the magnificent classical dome, State Senator Lloyd Smucker is meeting Mr Salazar and other children of illegal immigrants to discuss his new bill.

The proposal would make it cheaper and easier for people like them to go to university in Pennsylvania.

Sen Smucker is insistent this is about principle not politics: "These students came here through no choice of their own. This is their home.

"They are here to stay. They have a wonderful ability to contribute - we ought to give them the opportunity to do so," he says.

I believe Sen Smucker that for him this is not about harvesting votes, but he readily agrees that his party needs to change its image with Latinos.

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America is an immigration country - that's us, too”

End Quote Ahslie Rosas Mexican immigrant

"I do think so," Sen Smucker says. "We've had our own share of proposals from the Republican side here that I didn't agree with in the past.

"I think we do need to think about these things differently. The mood is shifting and I am glad to see it."

The immigration bill up in Washington DC is not his fight, but it is clear which side he is on.

"I think the immigration system is broken so I am glad to see debate about that," Sen Smucker adds.

"We should embrace diversity. My own personal view is that many people do still see America as a land of opportunity and we should welcome people who want to come here and live the American dream."

The whole idea behind the senator's bill is to make it easier and more comfortable for some illegal immigrants to stay in the US.

Man walking back streets in Hazleton A coal mining town, Hazleton's fortunes have fallen

I travelled on to Hazleton, one of those broken, old industrial towns of Pennsylvania. The message here is: "go home".

It seems a beaten-down place, struggling to keep its head above water after waves of economic bad news. But some seem to like the place.

In front of shops offering tax advice in Spanish, there is a bright yellow van, a Hazelton address on its side, promising door-to-door delivery from the Dominican Republic.

The Latino population has increased rapidly in recent years.

Way before the state of Arizona came up with stringent laws to encourage "self-deportation", the mayor here pushed for tough new laws punishing anyone who gave an illegal immigrant a job.

The law is now being fought over in the courts. But Lou Barletta is convinced he was right. Hazleton's former mayor is now a congressman in Washington DC and he will fight the new immigration bill all the way.

He says: "I don't think we should be talking about any pathway to citizenship or amnesty.

"At home you wouldn't talk about replacing your carpet if you still had a hole in your roof. On a ship that was taking on water, you would plug the holes first.

"We should be talking about one thing first and one thing only: securing our borders. Until we do that we are only going to make our problem worse."

The congressman says the only reasons Republicans are talking about this are political - and voters hate that. He adds that amnesty has always failed.

"We are only going to make the problem worse like we did in 1986 under Ronald Regan when 1.5 million people were going to be given amnesty," Mr Barletta adds.

Undocumented Latino immigrants look for love

"As soon as that declaration was made, that number quickly grew to three million people and here we are talking about it again and our borders still aren't secure.

"The 11 million that are here illegally now could double or even triple if we continue promising people they could have American citizenship."

Mr Barletta tells me at length about the problems illegal immigration caused his town - he talks about shootings and murders and drug deals.

He talks about illegal immigrants crowding into the local hospital for everything from "hang nails to heart attacks, putting strain on the fire service and the schools".

But he maintains he is pro-immigration. He says the presence of illegal workers hurts those who have come here legally more than anyone else, forcing down wages and damaging the quality of life.

Mr Barletta says his party has got it wrong.

"In a city that is 47% Latino, you would think I would be a poster child for the Latino community to go after," he adds. "I won my third term for mayor with over 90% of the vote.

"Why would the people who know me the best, those that were the closest, while I was proposing these ordinances - why would the Latino population grow every single year since the ordinance?

"I am probably the strongest voice for the Latinos in America because I want them to earn more money, so they can give their children a better life."

This debate is about the direction of a party.

Undocumented immigrants on Alabama's immigration law

But it is also about the continuing conundrum of America's attitude to immigration. On Ninth Street, not all the descendants of Italian immigrants welcomed people from different lands, be they legal or illegal.

There is a question about who should share in the American dream, and when the drawbridge should be pulled up.

I asked one of those meeting with the state senator why she felt she should be allowed to stay when she came here illegally.

At first 17-year-old Ahslie Rosas, who came from Mexico with her family five years ago, disputed the premise - they had come here legally but stayed when her father's visa ran out. But her final answer was eloquent.

"We might be breaking the law but we are seeking a better future," she says.

"America is an immigration country. Americans came from Europe to this land. That's us, too. "

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Scott: are we really prepared to use deadly force against people fleeing poverty and oppression?

    Are we really prepared to use deadly force against gangs, drug cartel and potential terrorists who want to harm us and take over our country?

    My honest anwser is that I am willing to do anything to protect my family, friends+ fellow Americans and defend our homeland
    b/c I love it that much

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Let's be brutally honest here

    This country was FOUNDED by the descendants of illegal immigrants

    Those who came here in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries had no LEGAL right to do so - they ended up stealing land that belonged to someone else

    Oh - but it was OK then but it isn't OK now

    Immigration needs managing - but there is the stench of hypocrisy about some of the current rantings...

  • Comment number 153.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 152.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 151.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    146. Me:"The border is too big to secure."

    Just to clarify: I'm not for an open border. I think we should try to secure the border and closely monitor every way of entry as much as possible. I just think the southern border is too big to secure it enough for amnesty for people entering the US illegally.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    #145: " are we really prepared to use deadly force against (illegal immigrants)"

    In the last resort, yes. Maybe those opposing border security would like to comment on the possibilities of foreign terrorist groups using an "open" border to enter the US to commit mass murder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    marieinausten @146,147
    No response from sieuarlu or yourself, on forced Mexican Repatriation @141. Does this suggest 'special status' owed to Mexicans, in fact of dual nationality, or of choice, perhaps to be negotiated between governments?
    Against moral case, from history & economics (in a world of US-style sham-democracy), is not angry anti-amnesty case pathetic, from 'inability to create jobs'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    146. I mean, in the long run. It won't be "fun," either, lol.

    It used to be: "Sure, I'll change the spelling and pronunciation of my name, I'll learn English. I want to work and keep my savings for my family." Now it's: "I don't have to learn English, give me a job, an education, and your taxes." With our economic troubles, they should be kiss-the-flag grateful if the US lets them in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    145. Scott0962.

    The border is too big to secure. If amnesty for illegals (i.e., not legal) passes, helicopters can film people in droves crossing the border. It will help no one in the long fun. Therefore, no amnesty for people who have entered illegally, i.e., outside the law.

    The world knows we have our own economic problems now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    If we decide to seal the border so no immigrants could cross are we really prepared to use deadly force against people fleeing poverty and oppression in their homelands--because that's what it will take. We already know catch and release won't stop them. Should we use minefields or just shoot them? What about the wounded ones? Come on you pro-border security types, answer the tough questions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    143. "I didn't know that when Europeans first came to America the language spoken there was English."

    Of course it was. Starting with their names. That's why when people got off the boats, their surnames were chopped up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    42 Lucy

    "But Americans who came from Europe learned English, adapted to the culture of this country and became Americanized"

    I didn't know that when Europeans first came to America the language spoken there was English.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    7 Hours ago

    "Obviously you're not old enough to recall that US has been built and developped by LEGALL immigrants; not by the illegals."

    Are these the ones that arrived in chains that you are refering

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    sieuarlu @135
    All known maybe, but Wikipedia has overview, complexity underlined by "two-thirds of LEGAL immigration" from "family reunification", 17% "humanitarian, 13% on "employment skills". Similar momentum likely for illegals

    Post-colonial influxes (N Europe, S & E Europe, now L America & Asia)
    with FORCED "Mexican Repatriation" (400,000) must complicate political and moral issues?

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    I had a friend came frm Mex as child-legally. Her father was janitor & moved family into apartment overlooking University of Texas. He said it would make College a part of life. She did go to UT. I don't know why people didn't say: I'm going to follow the businessman, investor, leader in his church, Rep governor of MA & be successful like him. Instead they said: I'm going to follow a young lawyer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    136Yes well that was the point.309 million Americans are not inclined to give the land America is on back to the 1 million descendants of Native Americans as Margaret Howard constantly rants it should.She's enough to make anyone anti British but that's hardly the reason in my case.I've read your history and I am repulsed.I'm not surprised UK and the rest of Europe are in the pickle they're in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Anyway, the people have spoken. Out of two opponents, neither of whom had an average American life, the people decided they wanted to follow the one with words & little success, even while POTUS, instead of the successful one with experience in business, politics, and proven work and family ethics passed on to his sons. Why be surprised at anything? The unexpected is the only thing that's certain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    "The people that will suffer the most in future or may get a bad deal in the end will be the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans...later their future will be all bad news, their women will be taken by white men..."

    Your attitude is disturbing but all too common. A fear of white male virility and of "losing" women to white husbands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.


    You're just angry that it doesn't belong to Britain anymore.Where do you stand on giving Gibraltar back to Spain?


    Oh look another anti Brit rant wrapped in a strawman.

    Regarding Gibraltar. If the population wanted to join Spain then good luck to them. The problem for you is they don't.

    1/10 must try harder


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