Invisible man 

A Hispanic immigrant chases the American dream -- and falls

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"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.


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