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Invisible man 

A Hispanic immigrant chases the American dream -- and falls

Editor's note: Some last names have been withheld to protect sources from retribution based on their status as illegal immigrants.

Pablo threw back the comforter and slipped out of bed. Pale light spilled through the bare bedroom window as he pulled his lean arms through a T-shirt, buttoned his jeans, and laced up his work boots. Leaving the room, he was careful not to wake his two little girls, huddled under the covers in their crib.

Pablo's wife, Birai, felt the mattress shift and rolled out of bed a moment later. She padded into the kitchen, her belly five months swollen into her third pregnancy. She packed her husband a lunch of fried eggs and green salsa. He grabbed the Tupperware and, from the bag that held his dirty work clothes, an off-white baseball cap stitched with the word "honor." He softly kissed Birai. "Goodbye, you old lady," he said.

Pablo trudged a quarter-mile through the mist to the meeting spot on Ga. 138. Since the night before, when it started drizzling, he figured that today's job would be tough. He hated working after it rained. The ground was damp, the machinery cold and slippery.

The boss's assistant pulled up, and Pablo crawled into the back of the pick-up truck with three other men, all of whom had been working beside Pablo for the past four days. The truck eased through Atlanta traffic in its hour-long trip from Stockbridge to Alpharetta.

Pablo wasn't his usual self. Typically, he entertained the other men by singing an upbeat corridos describing barroom brawls or brassy women. His trilling tenor energized the sleepy-eyed workers. But not today. Even after his friend Adan asked for a song, Pablo remained silent.

The truck turned off Ga. 400 and passed rows of strip malls before the road narrowed to a single lane. Drops of dew glistened on wooden fences and horses flipped their tails as they grazed in overgrown fields. The truck stopped in a gravel driveway near a butter-colored mansion. Pablo hopped out and made his way toward the north end of what would soon be a horse rink, its looming metal frame filling the sky.

Birai stood on her tiptoes, aligning screws to hang a set of blinds above the window. The night before, she'd asked Pablo to install them, in the bedroom of the trailer they'd moved into that day. He'd prodded her to try it herself first. Now, with 3-year-old Leslie and 2-year-old Denise plopped on the couch watching cartoons, Birai grabbed a screwdriver and went to work. Her calves wobbled as she twisted the screw into the wall. It took her about an hour, and the work wasn't perfect -- the screws were a bit loose, the valance somewhat crooked -- but it was her work.

Pablo will be proud, she thought. She'd grown up a lot since they first met five years earlier, when she was a 16-year-old schoolgirl watching him through the window of a San Pedro, Mexico, tortilla shop.

As she fiddled with the shade's cord, she glanced through the window to see Lorraina and Sanjuana, the wives of two of Pablo's brothers, walking toward the trailer. Their pace was labored as they passed the boxwoods and stepped onto the pebbled path. One of them carried a cord-less phone. Birai smiled at them. They didn't smile back.

The two women's flip-flops gently slapped the trailer's wooden steps. Without a word, they shuffled into Birai's room, collapsed into her bed and started to sob.

Birai remembers liking his confident, wide-legged strut, and her stomach had fluttered as he passed the tortilla shop. But he didn't even glance inside, failing to notice her long dark hair, gray-green eyes, and lean legs extending beyond her pleated school uniform.

She knew him as Pablo, a 21-year-old handyman with a firm gaze and a pointy nose. He harvested crops and occasionally worked at a hotel in Toluca, a three-hour drive from San Pedro. The two jobs brought in a meager but steady income for his mother, three brothers and three sisters, whom Pablo had been caring for since his father died when he was 11.

Birai watched Pablo's slim, muscular frame through the shop window until he disappeared down the road.

Two weeks later, Pablo spotted her outside Papeleria Nancy, a school supply shop that she began frequenting after learning that Pablo hung out there. He was struck by her shy eyes and petite curves. Birai had her little brother in tow, her hands smeared with mushy baby food. She quickly wiped her palms on her skirt as Pablo stuck out his hand for her to shake. He walked with her for 10 minutes, making small talk. She stopped.

"You better go back," Birai said. "From here, my mother can see us."

"OK, that's fine," he answered. "But could I see you some other time?"

About a week-and-a-half later, after meeting Birai every day after school, Pablo told her he had to return to the United States. He'd spent most of the past four years landscaping in Paris, Texas, and the pay -- more than double the average 300 pesos a day he earned at home -- was impossible to resist. Tears rolled down Birai's chiseled cheekbones as he broke the news.

Pablo then asked her to come along -- and to marry him. He said he'd be waiting at the school library for her decision at 5 p.m.

That evening, Birai told her mother she was going to do homework. On her way to the library, she made up her mind. She hadn't been with Pablo long, but she knew she loved him.

The next day, after gaining the slightest approval from Birai's parents, Pablo and Birai married in a courthouse in Tlatlaya, a small town next to San Pedro. They slipped thin gold bands onto each other's smooth fingers and softly kissed. Eight days later, they left for America.

Every year, approximately 630,000 Hispanic immigrants enter the United States. An estimated 70 percent of them, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, become permanent or semi-permanent illegal immigrants. There are now 41 million Hispanics -- approximately 14 percent of the U.S. population -- dispersed among America's big cities and small towns.

The influx of illegal immigrants has triggered a debate in communities across the country and in Congress. National immigration laws, which haven't been updated in nearly two decades, fail to address the rapid population growth. As a result, several bills have been weaving through the Senate. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have floated a proposal to legalize undocumented immigrants after they work for six years in a comprehensive guest worker program and pay a portion of their wages to the government. At the other end of the spectrum, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., have co-authored legislation that would attempt to shrink the illegal immigrant population by hiring an additional 20,000 law enforcement agents to beef up U.S. Border Patrol and to conduct work site monitoring.

Though immigration historically has been a federal matter, some states, including Georgia, are trying to regulate their own influx of illegal immigrants.

Over the past 10 years, Georgia's Hispanic population has increased by a whopping 300 percent, ranking the state among the nation's highest for Latino growth. The Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce estimates that more than half a million Hispanic immigrants now live in Georgia, comprising approximately 6 percent of the state's population -- and most of them are illegal. Half of the immigrants who venture to Georgia settle in Gwinnett, Cobb, Fulton, and DeKalb counties, making one out of every 13 metro Atlantans Hispanic.

In the upcoming General Assembly, state lawmakers will consider several bills prohibiting illegal immigrants from obtaining licenses, food stamps, public health care and access to college classes. State Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the primary sponsor of most of the bills, says he was moved to introduce the proposals because of the toll illegal immigrants take on health care and school systems subsidized by taxpayers.

The only Latino lawmaker in Georgia, State Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, says such legislation would marginalize thousands of Georgians who play a crucial role in the state's economy.

The fact is, illegal immigrants and certain industries feed off each other in near-perfect symbiosis. Those industries, which have come to depend on the flow of cheap foreign labor, fuel illegal immigration by offering undocumented workers minimum wages in a first-world economy. Many Hispanics find work in construction, installing windows at the 41-floor Symphony Center on Peachtree Street, digging utility trenches for suburban subdivisions, or lining up outside the Home Depot on Sidney Marcus Boulevard awaiting a needy contractor.

In additional to building a healthy chunk of the state's infrastructure, Hispanic buying power in Georgia has grown faster in the past decade than any other segment of the state's economy, according to Liany Elba Arroyo, a senior program manager for the National Council of La Raza. It's no surprise, then, that Latino communities are popping up in nearly every metro ZIP code.

Wedged between Cabbagetown and Grant Park, "Taco Town" has grown into a well-known Latino neighborhood, thanks in part to the eclectic work of Argentina-born artist Normando Ismay. Outlying communities in Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton counties -- formerly a landing pad for white flight -- now provide affordable housing and other amenities for Latinos. And the hub of all Hispanic communities, Chamblee's Buford Highway, boasts dozens of carnicerias that sell cuts of barbacoa and carnitas and serve as meeting grounds for newcomers looking for homes and work.

But while their contributions and culture are visible almost everywhere, Hispanics' influence is highly limited. From under-representation in state and local government to the inability to open a bank account to the proposed illegality of obtaining a driver's license, the Hispanic condition is eerily similar to that of African-Americans almost 50 years ago, says Adelina Nichols, a Mexican immigrant and president of the Coordinator of Community Leaders in Atlanta.

As a result, Hispanics have ghettoized in an attempt to replicate their culture in the shadow of a much less welcoming one.

"We're forced to be invisible," Nichols says. "When we're excluded from the system and ignored, except when people want our work, we have no other choice."

The town square kiosks of San Pedro quickly disappeared as dust shot up behind Pablo's truck. Three hours later, in Toluca, he and Birai boarded a bus. After a day-and-a-half, the bus passed through the last Mexican town of Piedras Negras and approached the U.S. border at Eagle's Pass. The way Birai recalls it, a U.S. Customs patrolman stepped on the bus, asked if everyone was a U.S. citizen, and waved the bus through -- a rare occurrence for the typically vigilant Border Patrol. The couple continued on past the tumbleweeds and cacti for another eight hours before reaching the country diners and trailer parks of Paris, Texas.

Like he did in the past, Pablo took a job landscaping with a company that covered his room and board and paid him $300 a week. But Pablo's brothers, who lived in Georgia, kept bragging about raking in $1,000 in 10 days' time. Wooed by their success, Pablo and Birai left Texas a month later for Stockbridge, about 20 miles south of Atlanta. Pablo's eldest brother, Roman, worked as a cook at Folk's and got Pablo a job as a dishwasher.

Pablo soon learned, however, that Roman had sugarcoated his success, failing to point out that he had to work two jobs to bring in that kind of pay. After three months, Pablo quit.

While looking for work, one of Pablo's friends introduced him to a man named Clyde Sawyer, who owned a construction company called Metal Building Erectors. Sawyer offered Pablo $9 an hour, a decent raise from the minimum wage he earned at Folk's.

Finally secure in his job, Pablo began to help his young wife acclimate to American culture. He'd often urge her to try harder to memorize certain English words -- "hello," "fine," "goodbye" -- just as his brothers had memorized "eggs" and "chicken" to understand the meal tickets at Folk's.

By the beginning of 2001, the couple began to feel settled. In the evenings, after a stroll around the neighborhood, Birai would prepare Pablo's lunch for the next day. As she wrapped tortillas and beans in foil, Pablo often would sing "El Culumpio," a song by his favorite singer, Trini. Sometimes, when Pablo's brother, Miguel, would join in, Pablo would yell, "Miguel, shut up, man, you can't sing for shit." They'd laugh and tip back their beers.

Other times, when Pablo was alone with Birai, he'd softly serenade her, singing Enrique Iglesias' "Nunca tel olvidare" ("I'll Never Forget You"). The confident, at times cocky attitude he assumed in certain company would disappear as he would sing, "I could die tomorrow, my soul could dry up, but I'll never forget you, but I'll never forget you."

On a July morning in 2004, Pablo, Birai and their two daughters lugged their clothes, pots, pans, children's books, dolls and sheets up the wooden steps of a gray trailer trimmed in blue. For the past two years, ever since Denise was born, they'd been living with Pablo's brother in a trailer park off a rugged road flanked by piles of dirt. But the three-bedroom mobile home wasn't offering enough space for the four members (soon to be five) of Pablo's family. After all, they shared the trailer with six other relatives. The trailer next door, where Roman, his wife and their one child lived, offered more space to the growing family.

That night, Pablo and Birai went shopping at Wal-Mart and returned with a new comforter, blankets for the girls, and a set of plastic blinds. Birai quickly fried Pablo's eggs and green salsa for the next day while Pablo set up the bed frame and pulled the sheets and comforter over the mattress. It was 10 p.m. when Pablo came into the kitchen and whispered, "Mira werita, I put the guachitas to sleep. I tucked them in really well."

His steady tone soothed Birai. The past few weeks of living in cramped quarters, and now the move, had exhausted the couple. Perhaps the stress was the reason Pablo had begun speaking strangely to family and friends -- and why he had started to pray. He told his younger brother, Miguel, to return to Mexico, because there was too much trouble with police in America. "Go home, where it's safe," he said. Around the same time, he told his friend Adan, "You never know when death might come."

Birai thanked her husband for tucking in the girls as he crawled into bed. She told him she'd slip in next to him after she found her purse. She looked for 30 minutes around the trailer, unsuccessfully, before climbing into the car. Perhaps I left it in the Wal-Mart parking lot, in the shopping cart, she thought. She told Roman to tell Pablo she'd be back, if he woke up.

In the empty parking lot, the cool drizzle slid off her forehead. She checked dozens of carts, none of them containing a small purse. Wet and distressed, she climbed back into the car and drove home. She peeled off her drenched clothes and cuddled up to Pablo. Her feet were freezing, so she intertwined them with her husband's. "You're so cold, move over," Pablo whined. Birai sighed, turned her back to him and closed her eyes.

The next morning, at the construction site of the Alpharetta horse rink, damp red clay stuck to the tread of Pablo's boots. It was a quarter after 7 when he stepped onto the Sizzor lift and ascended 34 feet on the joystick-operated platform, eventually reaching the top of the steel beams supporting the rink's ceiling. Pablo's first task was to ensure the newly erected, 1,850-pound vertical support beams on the north side of the horse rink were correctly aligned and rooted to the ground. The morning breeze whipped through the frame of the horse rink, humming as it hit the steel. Pablo worked alone, away from the five other workers building the 48,000-square-foot arena.

Each of the rink's 24 steel columns was anchored to a 5-foot-deep concrete pad with three, 3-inch-diameter screws -- one less than mandated by federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration building standards. Despite the fact that the construction company, Metal Building Erectors, hadn't yet received certification stating the concrete was of the required strength to support such a structure, the company's owner told the men to continue building.

Minutes into the day's work, Pablo began lowering a metal weight attached to the bottom of a steel cord. It started oscillating and bumped one of the beams. The beam began to wobble, then to sway. Its sheer momentum, the weight of its own steel, brought it down.

It crashed into the Sizzor lift. The lift flipped 90 degrees, its wheels turning perpendicular to the ground. It threw Pablo into the air. He tried to grab onto a stable beam, but he missed. He fell nearly four stories. He wasn't wearing a hard hat. The back of his head smashed into the red clay. The beam quickly followed him, its cold steel collapsing on his groin, pinning him to the ground.

Three hundred feet across the site, Adan gazed up at the sky as he situated himself in a forklift's seat. The giant beams often looked to him as if they were swaying back and forth. Of course, Adan knew it wasn't the beams moving, but the clouds behind them.

But now, as he watched in disbelief, he realized the clouds weren't moving. Adan heard a crash that made his heart skip, then a scream. He jumped a couple feet off the forklift's seat and raced across the moist clay to the fallen columns. He instantly focused on a spot on the ground. He stopped at Pablo's head.

Pablo's eyes were jutting out from his skull. His mouth was cocked open. He didn't move. Adan started shaking. He turned and ran toward the other four workers.

Two of the workers sprinted back with Adan. He tried to shove them back, knowing they wouldn't be able to stomach the sight of the pool of blood forming around Pablo's head. But they pushed through Adan's grasp and leaned over the fallen worker.

"Pablo, Pablo," they pleaded. "Wake up." Pablo let out a grunt.

At 7:29 a.m., an EMS ambulance arrived. It took paramedics nearly a half-hour to shovel Pablo out from under the beam. They gingerly placed him on a stretcher, careful to keep the flap of skin dangling from his head intact, and drove him six miles to North Fulton Regional Hospital. They arrived a little after 8 a.m. and rolled him into the emergency room.

Birai laughed when Lorraina and Sanjuana told her to sit down on the bed. She was still beaming from her morning accomplishment -- her newly installed blinds.

"What's wrong?" Birai asked.

"We have very bad news," Lorraina said. "Pablo had an accident."

"Oh boy, he's clumsy," Birai replied. "So how's he doing?"

The women explained how part of the steel-framed structure had collapsed on top of her husband. Birai shook her head. That's impossible, she thought.

"No," Sanjuana said. "The truth, Birai, is that he died around 8 this morning."

Birai's body went numb. She felt her heart rise to her throat as tears spilled from the corners of her eyes. From the living room, cheerful cartoon voices and the girls' giggles drowned out Birai's soft sobbing. She begged the ground to open up and swallow her.

Last year, OSHA, the arm of the federal Department of Labor that monitors workers' safety, investigated 75 construction fatalities in Georgia -- a 70 percent increase from the previous year. The investigations included the cases of a worker crushed by a tractor while clearing land for a new subdivision, a welder burned in a tunnel when a spark caused a flash fire, and Pablo, who was crushed by a steel beam after falling 34 feet from a Sizzor lift. Of the 75 deaths, almost half were caused by falls.

Benjamin Ross, OSHA's assistant regional administrator for compliance programs, says the majority of falls could've been prevented if guardrails and harnesses had been used. In Pablo's case, a safety belt and a hard hat might have saved his life. Ross says OSHA has rolled out a comprehensive program on falls, with traveling compliance officers to help prevent future accidents.

In February, OSHA settled the investigation into Pablo's death with Metal Building Erectors. The agency originally fined the company $49,000 for five safety violations. The violations, each carrying fines ranging from $100 to $7,000, included erecting the steel structure without written approval, improperly anchoring the steel beams, building on an insecure framework, failing to stabilize the structure, and exposing workers to a hazardous site.

Clyde Sawyer, the company's owner, appealed OSHA's findings. As a result, two citations were dropped, and the other penalties were reduced. Consequently, the original fine was reduced to $8,820.

OSHA's fines never are meant to penalize for the loss of an employee's life.

"We don't issue a citation based on death, but on the hazard that attributed to the death," Ross says. "We can't put a monetary value on an employee's life."

Sawyer admits that proper safety precautions on his company's part could have prevented Pablo's accident.

"[OSHA] never found any fault in the accident," Sawyer says. "But I guess he could've had the harness on to keep him from being ejected."

Sawyer wouldn't elaborate on the details of Pablo's accident.

While falls may show a pattern of negligence that can be prevented, a site manned by illegal immigrants often isn't as secure as one manned by legal workers, says David Moskowitz, a workers' rights attorney.

"Every time [contractors] get an injured worker that's a Hispanic worker, they'll say 'Oh, he's just a day laborer,'" Moskowitz says. "I don't care if they hire horses. It's their responsibility to protect their workers."

Between 1992 and 2001, fatalities in the construction industry decreased by almost 40 percent. But during the same period, the fatalities among Latino workers jumped 67 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Last year, 11 Latinos died in construction in Georgia. While safety experts believe some of the workers were victims of language barriers, and therefore misunderstood instructions, immigrant advocates think lax safety measures could be to blame.

The problem, Moskowitz says, is that the mistreatment of many illegal immigrants remains, like the workers themselves, undocumented. Workers simply don't know they have any recourse against employers.

Yet according to Georgia law, any person -- not just a citizen -- is eligible for workers' compensation. If an illegal immigrant gets hurt on the job, he or she is entitled to medical treatment or benefits paid by the employer.

But that seldom happens.

"Most of the time, undocumented workers are petrified to file a claim," Moskowitz says. "They'd rather stay hurt than enter the legal realm."

Birai, as a surviving spouse, was in a unique situation. Shortly after Pablo's death, Metal Building Erectors filed an insurance claim that awarded Birai compensation that will be paid, she says, until her youngest child is 18. Although she wouldn't disclose the amount, Moskowitz says typical death benefits amount to the worker's weekly pay for 400 weeks, for a maximum of $125,000. If that were the case, Birai would collect about $300 per week.

 

Leslie peered into the casket to view her father's body, his face peacefully composed and slender arms held flush to his side. She grew impatient when he wouldn't move.

"Daddy, get up," she said as she grabbed his cold hand. "Let's go home. Mommy, I want to go home now. Why doesn't Daddy get up?"

Days later, Leslie ran into her mother's room and slammed the door.

"Why do [my cousins] say that my daddy is dead?" she asked.

"Sweetie, your daddy won't return," Birai answered. "Your daddy is in heaven."

For Leslie, heaven is San Pedro. She has often asked when they'll visit, because that's where Daddy is. That's where, during one stay, Pablo plopped Denise on his shoulders and held Leslie's hand as they strolled into town to buy fresh popcorn and frozen Kool-Aid. Pablo asked her, "Hey, you, how are you going to pay for that?" and she responded, "Well, you're going to give me money, so give me money, Daddy." He reached into his pocket, bent down and placed a few shiny pesos in her palm. She proudly presented the money to the vendor.

Four months after Pablo's funeral, Birai delivered a baby boy whom she named after his father. She began to face the predicament of a single mother of three with hardly any education -- who can neither speak nor understand English. She got pulled over for running a red light and was briefly jailed on six traffic violations. She sat at her brother-in-law's house, cooped-up day in and day out, baby-sitting Pablo's relatives' children along with her own, feeling like a burden to her lost husband's family. She contemplated moving back to Mexico but decided against it. If she stays in America, her children -- who are U.S. citizens -- will have the chance to receive a quality education.

In October, Birai left Stockbridge for Dallas, where her cousin lives, to escape the constant, painful reminders of Pablo. One of the only keepsakes that comforts her is the last item she remembers her husband picking up before leaving her that July morning.

Two days after the accident, Birai, Leslie and Denise had driven to the construction site in Alpharetta. Birai got out of the car and wandered around the fallen structure, ducking under its contorted columns. She paused next to the Sizzor lift, the one the boss told her Pablo had fallen from.

A couple of feet away, Leslie and Denise dug into the red clay with sticks. The ground was dry that morning, unlike the morning of Pablo's death, and the clay was hard and dusty. A light breeze rustled the leaves of nearby oaks and the long, black strands of the little girls' hair. Birai walked over to see what her girls were tugging on.

From under a small mound of red clay, Leslie pulled an off-white baseball hat stitched with the word "honor." The cloth was stained with dried dirt, the brim misshapen.

Birai slowly took the hat from Leslie's hand and cradled it in her own child-sized palms.

News Intern Alejandro Leal contributed reporting for this article.

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