Immigration? We've Got Bigger Problems

Why our noncitizens are our best citizens

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I don't speak Spanish, but I know the cadence of "The people, united, will never be defeated" when I hear it. And you could just about believe it, standing among the 1,500 persons gathered outside Costa Mesa's City Hall April 1. Boy, can these folks protest! They were organized, peaceful and passionate, marching in the rain with their U.S. flags.

I ran into Taco Mesa founder Ivan Calderon there. He's been active for years in charitable and community work but has previously avoided getting involved in political issues. "It's never good for business," he said. But like others at the protest, he's deeply troubled by Mayor Allan Mansoor's drive to make Costa Mesa the first city in the U.S. to have its police act as immigration officers.

"This is not the way to build community," Calderon said. "It's divisive, at a time we should all be working together. It's hard to come up with reasonable solutions when everyone's divided and people in government hold to such opposing views that they can't find a common ground. I don't have the solutions, but I know we won't find them that way."

It isn't like the city was in crisis, he said, pointing out that it has one of the lowest crime rates in the county, the result of good community programs and responsible policing. Now he sees a chill going through his town. "This law is bad for businesses, and it will leave people vulnerable. They'll be afraid to come forward to report crimes," he said, noting that for just that reason police chiefs across the nation oppose having their officers used to enforce immigration laws. (Costa Mesa Chief John Hensley, who had struggled to keep the new law from derailing the community trust his department had built, announced his retirement on April 5.)

Calderon, whose restaurants and catering business employ more than 100 people, came to the U.S. legally in 1961 when he was 6. His father had been a bracero "guest worker" for years before he could afford to bring his family to the States. "So for those first six years of my life, I only saw my father once or twice a year when he could come to visit."

Having done it all legally, does he feel any resentment for those who sneak in without playing by the rules?

"None whatsoever," he said. "On the contrary, I feel sorry for these people, sorry that they have to come here and put themselves through these situations. Mexico is such a beautiful country, you know? There is so much there to love. I don't see why folks come here unless they're hungry and this is the only way to make ends meet. They want a better life for their families. So I just feel sorry for them, and I wish the government in Mexico would get it together and help provide jobs for them. Instead, the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, and that's not helping things."

Immigrant-rights organizers are next planning a May 1 "Day Without an Immigrant," in which they're asking that people not work or shop on that day. Come May 2, I'll be back at Taco Mesa, enjoying a blackened calamari tostada, which is as American as apple pie.

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