Undocumented Victims

They are among the multitude of secondary victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the days just before the tragedy, Congress was on a fast track to approve a broad legalization program for the millions of undocumented immigrants who do much of the backbreaking work that drives the U.S. economy.

Even if we rarely look into their eyes, we see these people everyday. In New York, they're the Guatemalans behind the counter at the neighborhood pizza joint. In California and Texas, they're the Mexicans laying concrete and trimming our hedges. In Georgia, they weave our carpet. In Florida, they pick our fruit.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the economic and political convulsion of the so-called new war has further shaken the already wobbly foundation of their lives.

The deepening recession means that tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants will lose their jobs. Some Las Vegas hotel managers, for instance, already have let go of as much as 15 percent of their staff. The tourism industry nationwide is experiencing a similar drop-off.

While many Americans will be hurt by the economic slump, losing a job for an illegal immigrant is a double catastrophe. Undocumented immigrants cannot apply for unemployment compensation or food stamps. In many instances, an illegal immigrant is the sole supporter for his or her family back home. (Experts say the money sent home by Mexican immigrants, for example, is that nation's second largest source of foreign capital -- totaling about $8 billion this year.)

The security clampdown on the borders, particularly between the United States and Mexico, has many undocumented immigrants worried that if they go home now, it may be difficult for them to return.

In the meantime, many of my fellow documented Americans have already begun to search for scapegoats. They know that someone is to blame for the dive-bombing commercial jetliners and anthrax-stuffed envelopes. And since we can't wrap our hands around the throats of the people our leaders have labeled as "the evildoers," then we'll just have to settle for someone closer at hand.

The next in line are the evildoer look alikes -- Arab Americans or anyone remotely resembling a Muslim or native of the Middle East. After them come the non-Americans, such as Latin American immigrants, who in desperate economic times are easily remade into menacing, imaginary threats to our "American way of life."

President Bush, to his credit, has called upon Americans not to react to the Sept. 11 attacks with their own personal acts of terror against, as he put it, people "who happen not to look like you."

The president is right to condemn all acts of bigotry and hatred. But Americans must also avoid engaging in the kind of passive xenophobia that comes from our unwillingness to acknowledge the contributions of the country's undocumented immigrant population.

Because once we've ignored their contributions, it is too easy to neglect their needs.

James Garcia is editor and publisher of americanlatino.net. E-mail the writer at jgarcia@americanlatino.net.

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