Six illegal immigrants sat inside, concealed behind a vaguely grandmotherly veil of lace curtains and potted plants. Naomi McNotHerRealName, 28 when I met her, lives in the two-bedroom house with a small green lawn in east Reno. It’s a throwback to the late ‘70s when the idea of a yellow house with green trim still seemed chic. Visitors must sidestep the children’s toys and tiny, foam soccer balls. Painted a mild yellow and surrounded by plastic tricycles and Tonka toys, Naomi’s house doesn’t look much like a cultural war zone.
Two knocks on the door and Naomi’s sister Jessica welcomes me in. It’s a quick right turn to settle on a comfy old couch. Naomi’s young sons and Jessica’s toddler bounce and giggle their way into a bedroom. There’s a peculiar shyness with those kids and I wonder if they know how quickly they could lose all that furniture, all that grass and green trim.
Naomi emerges from the super-clean kitchen and walks across the front room’s thick rugs to shake hands. She’s tall and elegant, with a square face and straight black hair.
“It’s nice to finally meet you,” she says.
She’s confident, she sounds like she grew up speaking English and she dresses like a typical middle-class American woman. A postman or cable guy would assume that Naomi was well-established in Reno, in Nevada, and in the United States.
Nearly 12 million illegal immigrants live in the United States. They form large parts of important and unglamorous industries like farming, construction and cleaning. Naomi works as an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant.
While a disproportionate number of illegal immigrants come from rural areas, Naomi hails from Guanajuato City. The general dearth of opportunity and official corruption in her ancestral home drove her north. To facilitate her journey, Naomi hired a smuggler, or “coyote,” in 2003 to get her across the border. He didn’t try to rape Naomi, so that was a bonus.
Naomi, with her smooth language skills, crossed the border in the comfort of a car’s front seat, the migrants who couldn’t speak English bounced along in the coyote’s trunk. Jessica, who crossed at a different time would have loved to share a trunk with three other people. She walked across the desert for two days armed with naught but Kool-Aid packets and a hand-drawn map.
“You mix the Kool-Aid with the water from cattle troughs,” Jessica said. “The map has where the farmers put the troughs.”
Naomi had traveled to the United States before. She first came as a 12-year-old. Her parents, Diego and Fran, worked full time to support her, Jessica, her younger brother, Diego Jr., and the family’s youngest, Beth. Diego labored in a packaging factory, and Fran worked as a pit boss in a Reno casino. Naomi rewarded them by maintaining an A average and becoming vice president of the Hispanic Club while attending a Reno high school.
When she was a 16-year-old sophomore, the Immigration and Naturalization Service caught up with the family. Diego and Fran had both used fictitious Social Security numbers and, as a result, jailed for six months. While Diego and Fran languished in jail, Naomi dropped out of school to prepare for the upcoming deportation. She and her siblings were never legally deported, but as juvenile dependents, they might as well have been. Naomi gets misty at this point in the story and I watch as slurried mascara runs down the creases in her cheeks.
“I’m sorry to get emotional,” she says. “I was only 16 years old, and somebody took from me the opportunity to finish school. It was frustrating that someone I didn’t even know took my opportunity to succeed, but it made me stronger.”
Naomi made the decision to return to the United States after her small business collapsed. In spite of Guanajuato’s large shoe industry, Naomi’s enterprise selling soles and shoelaces failed. Customers would simply refuse to pay, and local officials, largely indifferent to small businesses, ignored her collections claims and told her to get a lawyer.
“Corruption made it so I couldn’t collect,” she says.
Naomi also had to face the reality of her children growing up in Guanajuato. Uriel, then 3, and Alexis then 6 months, had little chance to succeed.
“The economy in Mexico is very poor,” she says. “Instead of helping you [the government] puts you down. If you don’t have money, you’re a nobody.”
Naomi also had smaller motivations. Scholarships for college are few and far between in her hometown of Guanajuato. Tuition at the University of Guanajuato was $130 per month. Naomi, who did better than many workers, made $300 per month.
Student loans are expensive and hard to get. Even elementary school is pricey. In a city boasting the Centro de Investigación en Matemáticas, children are expected to pay full price for their own books, their own uniforms and their own lunches.
By way of illustration, Naomi indicates a professional photo portrait of her two wide-eyed sons. She paid $115 for it, or about a week and a half’s wages in Guanajuato.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that in Mexico,” she says.
Naomi gets up and walks stiffly, like a much older woman, to the mantelpiece and picks up a photo from Uriel’s soccer league. The tiny photo shows Uriel in a green polyester soccer uniform, grinning alongside his teammates.
“He wouldn’t have been able to play in a soccer league in Guanajuato,” she says.
What is it about Latin America that makes people like Naomi so eager to leave? The answer may exist at the University of Nevada, Reno, where associate professor of history Linda Curcio waits to explain.
Curcio, a cheerful historial specializing in Mexico, sits in her tiny office, stacked high with dusty books and random papers. When I ask about Naomi’s situation, the smile disappears. The answers are not simple or clearly defined, she says. It’s not all bad, she says. Guanajuato, for example, is a beautiful city, filled with cobblestone streets, a colonial era city core, and naturally formed mummies. The soil around Guanajuato, Curcio says, has special properties that naturally preserve about one in every 100 corpses interred in it.
“You can pretend you’ve gone back in time,” she says.
Perhaps the time-traveling extends to more than architecture and human remains. While Guanajuato has public education, there’s very little support outside of the schoolhouse. Business practices are modernizing, but like Capone’s Chicago, muscle still buys more than it should. While Mexico is clawing its way into the first world, it’s building very few safety nets along the way.
In the rural farmland surrounding Guanajuato, Mexicans have little chance to advance. The big city bureaucracy and corporate-enforced economic order of Mexico City or Monterey is missing around Guanajuato. So is the education system to support them.
Instead, privately owned farms dominate the whitish soil. Maize, dry beans and cactus pears drive their stalks up through the powdery earth. The farms bring livelihood to the Mexicans living on them, but they do not bring prosperity.
“What’s the likelihood anyone could send her children to college on $300 a month?” I asked.
“None,” Curcio says. “Not a chance.”
The Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs estimates that a majority, as much as 90 percent, of cocaine smuggled into the United States comes through Mexico. The cartels shipping those drugs have already killed hundreds of Mexicans and engaged U.S. border agents in gun battles.
However, there’s evidence that immigrants lower the crime rate when they move into a neighborhood. Considering their low income, immigrants are remarkably law abiding. For comparison, while they have similar income and education levels, they are incarcerated at about half the rate of African-Americans.
Illegal immigrants and their children often go without medical insurance. Because of this, many citizens believe illegal immigrants clog up emergency rooms and damage hospitals.
While Hispanics, and particularly illegal immigrants, are less likely to be insured than the general populace, there is little evidence to suggest they are driving hospitals out of business or are even lowering the quality of care.
The impact of illegal immigrants like Naomi on jobs is hotly debated in the United States. Many blast illegal immigrants for all sorts of economic maladies, everything from higher unemployment to lower wages. These people are almost certainly wrong.
Naomi’s concerns are perhaps more concrete. Her modern refrigerator and well-maintained old Jeep would be luxury items in Guanajuato. The park she drives past every day on the way to work, the public school her children attend, the prospect that her children can attend college here— these are her stakes in America.
However, the process of gaining legal status in the United States is long, expensive and uncertain. Naomi estimates it will several years and around $10,000 to get real Social Security numbers for herself and her two sons. In addition, she has to prove she’s paid her taxes and stayed clear of legal trouble.
“I think the harder it is to be legal the more [legality] is worth,” she says.
For now, she just focuses on keeping away from the police.
“I’m trying to stay away from [legal] danger because if I don’t, my children will lose the opportunity to go to college, to become legal,” she says.
Twelve years after she followed her parents back to Guanajuato, Naomi finished her General Education Degree. She received her certificate in March and is looking to take more classes at Truckee Meadows Community College.
“Getting my GED, it was like kicking the INS in the balls,” she says. “They made me drop out, but they couldn’t stop me forever.”
Naomi rejects the notion illegal immigrants make it harder for native citizens to get jobs.
“I think [employment] is about each individual,” she says. “I see people who are born here who have everything because they have a real Social Security number; they’re just too lazy to do anything with it.”
Naomi says that illegals don’t get jobs by accident.
“If we have a good job, it’s because we’ve worked our butts off,” she says. “We’re not taking jobs. There are a lot of jobs out there.”
Most economists agree with Naomi. Many say illegal immigrants make the average American a little richer each year. They still fight over the impact illegal immigrants have on the working class, though. A few experts say they hurt the working class to help the rest of us. The majority say illegal immigrants help almost everyone.
The short explanation is that for every job an illegal alien takes, they create another one. Every time Naomi buys soda pop, she creates demand for soda that wasn’t there before. Every time she gets an oil change, she creates demand for more Jiffy Lube workers.
Perhaps the irony is the consensus between Latino migrants and native citizens. Naomi and about 60 percent of Americans think there should be a process for illegal aliens to become citizens. Naomi and a plurality of Americans think immigration has been good for the country. With this consensus, it’s easy for a typical native to wonder why earned citizenship and guest worker programs still flounder in the halls of Congress.
In the meantime, Naomi, Uriel and Alexis will continue to live precariously. Legally Mexican and culturally American, Naomi can only hope she doesn’t have to follow in her parents’ footsteps—again.