Margarito has a decision to make: After more than a decade of living and working illegally in the U.S., is it time to go back home to Mexico? He and his wife lost their jobs recently (he from a pallet factory, she from Burger King, both for having invalid Social Security numbers). He has been looking for other work, but his search is greatly complicated by measure 5-190, a ballot initiative enthusiastically approved by his neighbors and former colleagues that will, if it survives a court challenge, impose a $10,000 fine on anyone in the county who gives Margarito or any other undocumented worker a new job.
If Margarito, 39 (who, like the other illegal immigrants in this story, requested that only his first name be used), leaves the U.S., it will qualify as a self-deportation, which has long been a grail of the Galahads who wish to protect America's borders. What could be simpler, after all, than watching the 12 million to 20 million illegal immigrants too many to forcibly remove from the country simply leave on their own?
To help nudge undocumented workers out the door, states, towns and counties have been busily legislating against them. In Georgia, both houses passed a bill that would make the written driver's license test English-only. Farmers Branch, Texas, continues to fight for the right to require that all renters in town show proof of citizenship. In 2008, statehouses passed more than 200 laws relating to immigration, the majority of them looking to clamp down on illegal immigrants or their employers. And there are plenty of signs that as joblessness grows, so too could populist outrage against undocumented workers and their families. Think of Fox News host Glenn Beck and his suppurating monologues about dark forces allied against real Americans and you can get a sense of the escalated tensions facing illegal immigrants. (See pictures of the fence between the U.S. and Mexico.)
As a candidate, Barack Obama campaigned on a moderate mix of increased border security and a path to legality for long-term residents, but the economic crisis has pushed immigration reform off the White House agenda. At the end of March, Vice President Joe Biden told a summit of Latin American leaders that "it's difficult to tell a constituency while unemployment is rising, they're losing their jobs and their homes, that what we should do is in fact legalize [undocumented workers] and stop all deportation." Congress is similarly disinclined to tackle the controversies of reform this year, so the near future of illegal immigration will ride on millions of decisions like the one facing Margarito.
There's just one problem: illegal immigrants aren't going, at least not yet. Their ties to their home countries have grown too tenuous; their investment in their off-label version of the American Dream is too great. Tougher border enforcement makes leaving a more final and difficult decision. They don't go home because they know they probably won't get to return. This has Americans in St. Helens, Ore., and elsewhere facing a set of decisions of their own: How hard should they press the case against illegal immigrants? And will putting more pressure on the undocumented end up damaging the community in the process?
St. Helens, a town of about 12,00, lies along a riverfront rust belt that extends northwest from Portland as the Columbia River leads to the Pacific Ocean. From the downtown shoreline, where the historic courthouse stands near the chain-link fence surrounding an aging lumberyard, one can watch freighters laden with Chinese goods heading east to Portland and then watch them returning with little or no American merchandise out to the open ocean. (See pictures of the high-seas border patrol.)
It's just one sign that long before there was an immigration crisis in St. Helens, there was a globalization crisis. "This is a timber town that never came out of the recession in the 1980s," says Marcy Westerling, a longtime resident and pro-immigrant activist. Blessed by an abundance of Douglas fir and hemlock, the town once hummed with pulp plants, stud mills and palletmakers. A few decades ago, though, the mighty Columbia began delivering logs from Canada, then ready-made office paper from Asia. The financial swoon of 2008 was just a final insult to what remained of the town's manufacturing base. Most of the major employers have closed in the past six months or drastically cut hours and staff. The town, whose motto in the good times was "The Payroll City," is on the brink of economic ruin or, perhaps worse, of becoming a bedroom community for Portland, with no economic life of its own.