Monday, January 30, 2023 Jan 30, 2023
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Cover Story

The Mexican Invasion

What it means to the city. How it will change your life.
By D Magazine |

Half-visible men in hooded sweatshirts, jeans, scuffed boots, and gimme caps mass in the parking lot of Otra Parte, an immigrant nightclub on rough-edged Ross Avenue, as dawn breaks through the gray wintry gloom just east of downtown. The pickups and SUVs of blue-collar rush hour aren’t far behind, slowing at the intersection of North Carroll like johns looking for hookers. But it’s day labor they want. They pull up to the curbs, engines idling, exhaust vapors condensing in the cold air like fog machines, waiting for one of the Mexicans to walk up and haggle over the price of a day’s work.

The Latino driver of a late-model black pickup truck has been outlining his compensation and benefits package for two prospects in front of Triple J Auto Sales for five minutes. The men hold their arms tight to their chests to stay warm, but their stance indicates that the negotiations are not going well. A police patrol car drifts down Ross but doesn’t stop, because the cops wouldn’t have probable cause. Finally the workers shrug and head back toward Otra Parte. The truck moves on. It will be easy to find another group of these urban campesino equivalents of the migrant farmworkers who have been coming to the United States from Mexico legally and illegally for decades. Ross Avenue is good hunting for the undocumented, but so are the streets around Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, or, for that matter, hundreds of informal pickup sites throughout the city and county, and at city-funded day labor sites in many suburbs.

Good news if you’re looking for cheap foreign labor; not so good if you’re worried, as many are in North Texas, about complications from those immigrants’ presence. Construction companies can find plenty of workers, and restaurant owners can staff their kitchens, but at the other end of the pipeline, neighborhoods swell with the undocumented newcomers and their families—mostly poor, mostly from rural Mexico. Those who don’t like the newest wave of American immigrants say that they bring down property values, turn apartment complexes and rental home tracts into junk-car eyesores. They propagate recklessly, flooding the schools, hospitals, and streets. They don’t learn English and generally bring down the culture. Worst of all, they are everywhere. It is as though we have been invaded.

Of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States (out of 31 million total immigrants), 1.4 million to 1.6 million are thought to be in Texas. Statistically, that’s 4 percent of the population nationally and 5 percent for the state. But the presence is much higher in Dallas, which is ranked, with Fort Worth, as an “ethnic hypergrowth city” by the Brookings Institution. Only the Mexican consulates in Los Angeles and Chicago top Dallas in volume of services, such as matricula consular ID cards provided to Mexican citizens. Houston is fourth.

POLITICAL FRIENDS: Councilmember Dr. Elba Garcia, born in Mexico, says immigration is a political “piñata.”

No one knows exactly how many undocumented immigrants live among the 1.2 million residents of the City of Dallas, but the figure can be estimated. Approximately half of Dallas’ 516,000 Hispanics (43 percent of 1.2 million) are immigrants, or 258,000. Only 19 percent are naturalized citizens. According to the Dallas Federal Reserve, about 30 percent of U.S. immigrants are undocumented, which would indicate 77,400 of the immigrants in Dallas are undocumented. But the immigrant information clearinghouse DFW International says close to half of the foreign-born in Dallas are without documents—which would make about 126,000. That’s about one person in 10 in the city. And the odds are at least six in 10 that he or she will be Mexican—10 percent of that country’s population is in the United States, as is 14 percent of its workforce, mostly sin papeles, without documentation.

About six in 10 are working, and the other four are dependents. They tend to be young, reflecting both the dramatic youthful population trend in Mexico and also in the United States, where the bulge of the Hispanic population is under 25. About half live in poverty and without health insurance. The one in three who have been here less than five years is also likely to be bewildered by the contradictions of working in a society that simultaneously seems to lure them here and to hate them for showing up.

Their presence, though significant, is part of an even larger upsurge in the general Hispanic population. Dallas will become a majority Hispanic city well before 2030, when the entire state will have shifted that way. As Dallas County gained 175,000 Hispanic residents (now 35 percent of the population) from 2000 to 2005, 130,000 Anglos moved out. Immigrants now account for 100 percent of the county’s net population growth; in the North Texas region, it’s 40 percent. Half the 1 percent population growth rate of the United States is thought to be from Hispanic immigrants.

The psychological and social implications of the new, browner Dallas were never more clear than on April 9, 2006, when between 350,000 and 500,000 protestors, the largest demonstration in Dallas history, filled downtown streets for a Mega March to protest harsh anti-immigrant legislation pending in Congress. Many were 18 and younger. For much of the preceding week, students from Dallas and area high schools had seeded the Mega March with sporadic walkouts and rallies—a youth-led movement echoed around the nation and somewhat reminiscent of the children-led protest marches that helped integrate Birmingham in 1963. Praised for its peaceful nature, the Mega March had no specific goal beyond national immigration policy. It had no clear leadership and claimed no overt victories. It didn’t have to.

The backlash came quickly. The mood in the city about the immigrants among us turned ever more divisive, from radio talk shows to bars, diners, offices, and family dinner tables. Facts seemed elusive if not irrelevant; emotional responses to race and class overruled any rational analysis. Among politicians, whose confusion and ignorance seemed to mirror that of the public, dramatic urgency was given to figuring out what to do about a threat that at once seemed real and surreal. Lou Dobbs, whose road tour of live broadcasts included Dallas, reinvented an entire CNN career as the media’s point man on the subject.

ON THE JOB: Undocumented Mexican workers wait to be hired near a labor pickup site in McKinney.

Fury over “illegal immigration” hit a flash point in Farmers Branch in November. Lawyer Tim O’Hare, who, despite having represented undocumented clients, championed a unanimous City Council vote to pass three controversial ordinances. The measures established English as the city’s official language, subjected landlords to punishment for renting to illegals, and required police to take immigration enforcement training and to apprehend “criminal aliens.” All of these measures will be challenged in court and are already the object of citizen recall petitions. Lawsuits filed by MALDEF (Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education and Defense Fund) and others in previous cases have made it clear that municipalities cannot write immigration law. But in Farmers Branch, the measures were seen as a stand against both a local and national crisis.

Similar actions might be forthcoming in other suburbs and cities. Meanwhile in Austin, legislative bills targeted at undocumented aliens are piling up, including proposed bans on birth citizenship and denial of health care and education to people without the right paperwork. But in December, Gov. Rick Perry surprised almost everyone by calling many of those proposals “divisive.” And he astonished Dallas Morning News columnist and conservative talk radio host Mark Davis by saying: “Quit [saying] that people who come over here from another country ought to be banned from coming into America. If we don’t have individuals who are willing to do a substantial amount of work, your hotels shut down, your agriculture shuts down, and your building industry shuts down.” At the national level, both the Democratic and Republican parties are fractured over immigration reform and likely to remain so. Adding more confusion to the political milieu, AP exit polls in the November midterm elections showed that two-thirds of Texas voters surveyed said illegal immigration was an “extremely” or “very important” issue, half said the undocumented should be given a chance to apply for legal residence, and only one-third said they should be deported.

City Councilmember Dr. Elba Garcia, an advocate of immigrant rights and reform and herself a naturalized citizen born in Mexico City, calls immigration “the piñata of the political system.” Even that may be generous. Anyone watching the Anglo supporters and Latino opponents (it played out almost exclusively on racial and ethnic lines) of the measures screaming at each other barely an arm’s length apart in a skirmish line outside the Farmers Branch City Hall had to be stunned by the complete inability of one side to communicate with the other. One woman repeatedly berated her opposite numbers with a single tautology: “But they’re illegal! Okay? They’re illegal!” For her, that was the end of the story. It’s not, though. It’s barely the start.

Even the word “illegal” is loaded. It is true that people who cross the border without permission from the United States have violated the law. But entering the country without documents is a civil violation. It’s neither a felony nor a misdemeanor, as is, say, driving without insurance documents. If an illegal entrant is taken to immigration court, the punishment, if so adjudged, is called “removal.” Usually the entrants are allowed to leave voluntarily, avoiding formal deportation. That’s important because re-entry after voluntary departure remains a civil violation, but after formal deportation becomes a felony. Immigration attorney David Swaim says most of us simply don’t understand the muddled intersection of immigration and law. “The people who say it’s against the law think it’s a willful violation—you should go and do it right. But there is no right way,” he says. “Americans have this Ellis Island notion that if you show up and you do it right, you can come in legally. But there is no Ellis Island. You can’t just show up.” Swaim says that’s because there’s really “no legal process” under existent immigration categories and quotas to absorb the millions of workers demanded by the economy. The impasse creates enormous downstream complications. U.S. Sen. John McCain has proposed a new category for unskilled and semiskilled workers that would formalize procedures and address immigration as it exists, not as it is theorized or vilified. Various guest worker plans also have been advanced in Washington, but none has been adopted.

WHAT ABOUT MEXICO? Businessman Guillermo Galindo wants the Mexican government to stop shipping its problems north.

Legal status is but one of many complexities in a dilemma that defies simple solutions. “We don’t know each other, the different racial and ethnic groups,” says Hector Flores, past national president of LULAC and an administrator at DISD. “We kind of work in our own power vacuums and geographic vacuums, only talking to each other at work and wherever we run across each other. … It brings out the worst in people.”

For those trying to bring out the best, to fill those vacuums with civic purpose, and to survive the biggest identity crisis in Dallas history, the first task is to address a widespread and virulent sense of 21st-century urban angst: what will happen to my city? What will happen to my job? What will happen to my neighborhood? My property? My children? What will happen to me?

They Come Because We Pay Them
When Minyard-owned Carnival Supermarkets built its new 56,000-square-foot, Mexico-oriented flagship grocery store in heavily Hispanic southwest Oak Cliff, near the DART station at Westmoreland and Illinois, it made sure to include a window for international money transfers. Not only can the immigrants who shop there get the yucca, sweetbreads, corn shucks, cactus paddles, brown sugar cones, and chiles familiar to their kitchens back home, they can also wire money to their families in Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, or Tamaulipas. So prevalent are these transactions that there’s scarcely a neighborhood in Dallas without a convenience store, loan shark, or Western Union office offering the service, usually at a hefty fee. This is the belly of the beast. Each lonely campesino in striped rodeo shirt, straw hat, and jeans sending money home on Saturday morning is part of a complex economic system without which both the United States and Mexico (for that matter, the rest of the world) would plunge into deep recession or worse. The numbers are huge. U.S. remittances to Mexico climbed to about $24 billion for 2006, according to the Dallas Fed, an increase of about 25 percent annually, and are becoming about 2.5 percent of Mexico’s trillion-dollar GDP—third after oil and maquiladora exports. Economists say that each dollar sent to Mexico increases that country’s GDP by about $3.

About 70 percent of workers send remittances, usually between $300 and $375 per month, or about 30 to 40 percent of a worker’s income. The poorer the family, and the more rural, the more the worker is likely to send. In Mexico, the money is more or less equally split between consumption and asset investment (houses, land, farm equipment, small businesses). The transferred money also brings more access to health care and better education at the village and farm level. According to Dilip Ratha of the World Bank, the process “generates substantial welfare gains and reduces poverty” in countries of origin (such as Mexico), a finding many other economists have noted. In fact, says Ratha, a 10 percent increase in per capita remittances equals a 3.5 percent reduction in poverty levels back home.

HOME STYLE: Mexican immigrants are drawn to Latino-oriented staples such as fresh fish and cow heads at Carnival’s  new flagship grocery in Oak Cliff.

One corollary, says economist Philip Martin of UC-Davis, is that reducing the inequality of wages and resources between migration-linked countries such as Mexico and the United States tends to staunch the flow of immigrants over time. Moreover, says Pia Orrenius, senior economist at the Dallas Fed, once migrants gain legal status in their host country, “they stop remitting.” That’s because the now-legal workers bring up their families, ending separations that can last for years. And as remittances help Mexico’s intensely poor communities get on the economic grid, there’s less and less incentive to leave home seeking work in the United States. But it doesn’t happen overnight.

And Mexico is just one Latino country. According to a study sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank, immigrants (of all types) in the United States send at least $45.3 billion (another estimate says $53.6 billion) to all Latin American countries, including Mexico’s 40 percent share. Texas’ estimated 2.8 million Latin American immigrants (predominantly Mexican, both legal and illegal) account for $5.2 billion of that. The study said that Latin American immigrants in the United States have a total income of more than $500 billion. It estimated that in Texas, Latin American immigrants as a whole contribute $52.8 billion to local economies.

Last June, a group of more than 500 economists, including five Nobel Laureates, sent an “Open Letter on Immigration” to President George W. Bush. “Overall,” the letter said, “immigration has been a net gain for American citizens, though a modest one in proportion to the size of our $13 trillion economy.” The Texas Comptroller takes a similar position. A special report issued in December says that on balance, undocumented immigrants (it used the conservative 1.4 million estimate) produced $1.58 billion in state revenues in fiscal 2005, exceeding the $1.16 billion cost of state services to them by $424.7 million. As a caveat, the report said that local governments tended to pay out more, with a net loss of $928.9 million statewide. That’s across the board. Some counties lose more than others; some probably gain. Dallas, for example, with a greater population and percentage of the undocumented, is likely to have much higher revenues than Travis County, one of those on which the comptroller’s office based its local-government estimate. And the undocumented in Dallas, according to the Dallas Fed, tend to have higher skill levels than most other parts of the state. But the most eyebrow-raising figure from the state report said that one of the best ways to consider the impact of the undocumented in Texas was to consider their disappearance, which would drop the gross state product by an estimated $17.7 billion in various kinds of lost revenues.

Those numbers start to jibe more when integrated into the global economic outlook. The world population of 6.5 billion souls rides on a labor force of about half that total, or 3.2 billion. A disproportionate 85 percent of those workers are from less-developed countries, an imbalance that produces an expanding global migration, now about 190 million people, 95 million of whom are workers. Until recently, most of the migrating workers and their families used the so-called south-north route between less developed and developed countries, but today, it’s everywhere. South-to-south migration (between less-developed nations) now all but equals south to north. No matter the path, the result is a world economy heavily dependent on remittances. This may be one of the defining characteristics of the trans-global “free trade movement,” of which 1994’s NAFTA agreement, which joined the United States and Mexico at the economic hip as never before, is but one component. Any time of the day or night at the international bridges between Nuevo Laredo and Laredo, you can measure the impact of NAFTA in the endless lines of 18-wheelers waiting to clear customs. But as capital flows, so does labor: that you can see in the trampled brush left by the mojados, as they are disparagingly called, on the banks of the Rio Grande.

POWER AND GLORY: Amateur boxing is among the recreational and educational programs at Casa Guanajuato.

The dynamic is in some ways elementary. People come to the United States from Mexico, and elsewhere, because our demand requires their supply. Yale economist Mark Rosenzweig says it has to do with transnational imbalances in “skill units,” a measure of the value of labor. The more skill units a worker has, usually from education or apprenticeship, the more he or she can claim in wages. When there is “uneven growth” across borders, which is just about everywhere, people with more skill units rationally migrate to where their skill units get comparatively higher reward. Rosenzweig compares the skill-rewards of Mexico, where a carpenter makes about $125 per month, to the United States, where the same carpenter could make $2,299. Add to that everyday factors like cheaper U.S. prices for a pound of chicken or a gallon of milk, and it’s easy to see why the carpenter and his family don’t need calculus to justify the desperate trip up from a rural pueblo or ejido to a cheap apartment in East Dallas.

Fine for the Mexicans, immigration critics say—not so much for American workers. Unions have tended to advocate strict immigration barriers while employers generally do not, another irony inside the conundrum. But mounting evidence tends to show that U.S. laborers don’t suffer from job-stealing by undocumented immigrants at any but the lowest skill levels, and those are mostly the jobs that pay so poorly or are so dangerous that U.S. workers decline them. And most of those aren’t unionized, at least yet—service-industry organizing campaigns are increasing.

The Mexican government, meanwhile, can sit back and enjoy the show, effectively shipping its economic troubles north. Which hasn’t escaped notice, either. “Nothing will happen until Mexico has a radical change in their government and their distribution of wealth and their jobs, until Mexicans can make a decent living in that country,” says Guillermo Galindo, president of Tizoc’s International, a translation service, and former president of the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He joined the April Mega March, insisting the problem is not with the Mexican workers here, but the corruptions back home. “When you have 60 families in Mexico that control 40 percent of the wealth, you have serious problems in the quality of life and equitable distribution of resources in the country. That’s where we should be aiming our argument against Mexico. They’re going to have to do something. The United States cannot be the excuse for them not changing their system of government.”

In theory, things could change. Newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderón wants to create new jobs and lower poverty in his country as a way of stemming migration, while also favoring some kind of legalization program for those already here. But he faces huge domestic opposition following his narrow win over Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who said the election was stolen. Most diplomats hope for a bilateral solution, the only kind thought to have a chance of effectiveness, 700-mile fences and more border patrol notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, somebody needs to do the work. The unemployment rate of Dallas-Fort Worth, hovering around 5 percent, means there’s not enough labor here to fill jobs, especially at low and unskilled levels. If everyone who worked in construction were deported, for example, where an estimated 70 percent of the workforce is immigrant and mostly undocumented, the North Texas economy would seize up like a dry engine. And that’s just for now. According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the state will need an additional 35,200 truck drivers and 124,800 restaurant workers by 2012.

Demographer Dr. Bud Weinstein of UNT, who says “the U.S. will face an acute shortage in the not-too-distant future,” says looming shortfalls of workers explain why, in general, “Dallas-Fort Worth has been hospitable for the most part and accommodating” to undocumented labor. The aging population and lower birth rate among Anglos, as well as African-Americans and Asians, mean there simply won’t be enough people to sustain economic status quo, let alone growth. Unless you factor in the undocumented. Without them in 2005, said the comptroller’s report, the state’s workforce would have declined by 6.3 percent. “The most significant economic impact of losing undocumented workers would be a noticeable tightening in labor markets,” the report said. Or in Weinstein’s words: “Demographics is economic, political, and social destiny.”

They Reproduce, They Fall Ill, They Struggle With School
Each day at Parkland Hospital, some 32 babies of undocumented, foreign-born parents, mostly Mexican, are born into this world of woe and U.S. citizenship. That’s 75 percent of the 16,489 deliveries in fiscal 2006. Medicaid pays the bill—or at least some of it, some of the time. Parkland has to go through Kafkaesque bureaucratic hoops to get the money. Federal guidelines limit what the hospital can bill to the government without obtaining documentation from pregnant mothers. But Parkland (like the DISD) cannot legally demand proof of citizenship of parents, nor does it want to get into the business of doing so. When immigration-obsessed Washington recently announced stricter application of citizenship status, Parkland’s CEO, Dr. Ron Anderson, more or less wondered what was new. “Texas never had an automatic addressment of Medicaid eligibility as many states did,” he said. “So all along we’ve had to send a ‘newborn letter,’ as it’s called, and they accepted that as proof of birth and citizenship until they got their birth certificate and we had paid retroactively to 90 days. So we’ve basically never had the easy way. It’s always the hard way in Texas anyhow.”

Reimbursement for indigent care is critical to Parkland’s bottom line. It’s the public hospital for Dallas County and indirectly, punishingly, for North Texas. Last year, says Parkland, it racked up $26.8 million in unpaid treatment costs. The bulk was from the deadbeat counties around us. Collin County, which sends its indigents, including the undocumented, to Parkland, owes Dallas County about $7.6 million. Parkland doesn’t track the cost of treating undocumented immigrants, but using the comptroller’s estimate from Harris County, it eats up about 14 percent of Parkland’s $926.6 million operating budget.

That’s just the start of the cycle.

Once the citizen-infant (an “anchor baby” in the terminology of nativist critics) leaves the hospital, she—and also her noncitizen parents—face an uncertain future just getting through the pitfalls of survival. They are likely to continue to be among the 25 percent of Texans without health insurance, meaning little access to preventive or other care except through emergency rooms. Undocumented Mexicans are doubly at risk, because the uninsured rate for Hispanics is almost 50 percent, and at least that much again for the undocumented. They lack insurance because they are poor and their employers provide no coverage. If 18 percent of Texans live in poverty, the undocumented take it on the chin again, tripling the rate to about 57 percent. Almost two in three.

Fast forward in time. The Mexican-parented baby born in the United States enters the DISD or a suburban school district. Because the first-generation immigrant child likely comes from a home where the English skills of the parents are weak, those of the kid will be, too, at least at first. Studies indicate that low English skills plague about 33 percent of DISD students—and that a language other than English is spoken in 43.9 percent of homes in Dallas, compared to 19.4 nationally. It is not surprising that Hispanics in general—and the foreign-born most acutely—do poorly on tests. The city’s graduation rate, according to a study sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is an abysmal 46 percent. (It says the state’s claim of 81 percent is flat wrong.) For Hispanics in general, the graduation rate is an almost criminal 32 percent—one in three. Undocumented rates are worse.

Because more than two-thirds of all DISD students are Hispanic, things that weren’t a problem previously become so dramatically. The mixed-language conversations heard on almost every school playground in the city can turn into the stuff of ugly fights among adults. In August 2005, the late DISD trustee Joe May managed to pass a motion at the school board requiring principals to become bilingual by 2008; last fall the new board retreated from that position for elementary school principals, allowing assistant principals to meet the criterion, as is already the case in high school and middle school. A side effect of the debate showed strong, even vicious, anti-immigrant feelings among Dallas African-American school staff who felt their jobs were being threatened and were generally chafed at Latino dominance of the DISD administration. Meanwhile, DISD was nearly 1,000 classrooms deficient in meeting state requirements for bilingual teachers in elementary classes with Spanish-speaking pupils last year. It is actively recruiting bilingual teachers, some directly from Mexico. It may not be enough. The bilingual teachers DISD does have are so weak linguistically that MALDEF has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Spanish-speaking school children, saying they are not getting an adequate education. Councilmember Garcia says, “Education has to be the No. 1 priority of the Latino community.” But it is clearly an achievement that DISD finds elusive.

Once the kids of the undocumented get home from school, life can become even more tenuous. In the apartments and rental houses occupied by new immigrant families—the most recent arrivals rarely buy homes—the familiar dangers found in low-income sectors breed rapidly. It’s a life of constant stress from gangs, drugs, and assaults. All too common are the young mother and children afraid to go out even for groceries. Mexican families try to offset some of this by their cohesiveness. They tend to be close and supportive, which also produces more isolation, as happens in expatriate communities worldwide. Ironically, there is some emerging evidence that the tight-knit family structure of Mexicans may be a factor in actually reducing overall crime rates in cities such as El Paso and San Diego, according to the New York Times. But the undocumented are far more likely to be victims than instigators.

The undocumented are also easy marks for white-collar crime. “You often talk to immigrants and they’ll tell you, ‘Well, my employer didn’t pay me for two weeks because he said he’ll call immigration on me if he does,’” says Marisol Pérez, staff attorney for MALDEF’s regional office in San Antonio. “It happens in every context. Landlords, you know, will not fix routine things that need to be fixed between the landlord and tenant because they know that they’re here undocumented. You’ve got people that were brought over to the United States and are still in some kind of servitude to these individuals.” What’s the worker to do? Nothing, usually. But last October, 40 illegal immigrants, some from Dallas, filed a complex class action suit against their employer, Cafe Express, owned by Wendy’s, after being fired for missing a deadline for a legalization program—an error allegedly caused by the company’s law firm.

Meanwhile the steady northward movement of Mexico to and through Texas continues, and thousands—including more and more from too-expensive California—choose to stop in the vibrant economy of Dallas-Fort Worth. The counter effect is that many counties in rural Texas are losing population, Anglo and Hispanic, as the urbanization that changed the state after World War II shapes an entirely new population and social geography. While some immigrants—almost any nationality can be found in Dallas—tend to cluster around beachheads established by earlier arrivals, the Mexican immigrant population has managed to find purchase just about anywhere. And not every burb, to which the Anglo population of Dallas (as well as middle-class black and Asian) is actively fleeing, is anti-immigrant. McKinney spent $138,000 to build a day labor pickup center; Plano operates a labor site near the city’s bus station; Garland launched programs to help immigrants adapt; and Irving, where a third of the city is immigrant (many Asians) and 65 percent of the school district is Hispanic, has said no to Farmers Branch-style initiatives.

No matter one’s view of the undocumented, it’s incontestable that tens of thousands of poor people cannot move into a city without some kind of adverse effect—beyond the crowding of schools, hospitals, jails, and roads. The U.S. Census Bureau says that the median household income of Dallas County fell in the period 1999-2005 by 16 percent; in Collin County by 15 percent. Plano dropped by 20 percent. For the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the Census said, the median income in 2005 was $49,740, down from $55,545—about 10 percent overall. This can almost certainly be traced to a tenth of the population working and living at the lower edge of the economic ladder, in effect dragging down the class average. State demographer Steve Murdock says this trend is inevitable, given the disparity in pay between Hispanic workers, especially undocumented, and whites. In a 2002 study, Murdock’s Center for Demographic and Socioeconomic Research and Education predicted a continuing household income drop for Texas through 2040 of $6,500, a decline that also would affect the state’s tax base and poverty rate, as well as social services such as Medicaid and food stamps.

But Murdock says there’s another possibility. If income disparities between racial/ethnic groups were reduced (such as through better education and nondiscrimination in hiring and promotion), then the Hispanic majority’s sheer numbers could eventually increase aggregate income in Texas by $295 billion by 2040. Average household income would rise by almost $10,000 rather than fall, as the Census study says it is doing already in Dallas. “Changing the socioeconomic differentials existent in Texas society is of clear significance for changing the economic future of the state,” Murdock says. But he could not say how that can happen in a hostile political environment.

For Dallas-area Anglos accustomed to having grown up at a time less than a quarter-century ago when the Latino population was only about 10 percent, and generally concentrated in places like Little Mexico and West Dallas, these changes of people, landscape, and economics can feel like identity theft. Blowback is not limited to the suburbs. Last November, U.S. District Court Judge Sam Lindsay ruled, in a suit brought by MALDEF, that the principal at Preston Hollow Elementary School had deliberately segregated Hispanic and black students from whites for years in an effort to mollify white parents. “The court is baffled,” Lindsay said in a head-shaking opinion narrating a throwback tale of racism inside one of the most privileged redoubts of the Dallas establishment.

Urban Campesinos
You have to duck to get through the Hobbit-sized door at Casa Guanajuato in Oak Cliff. Unless you’re a kid. Each afternoon, about 5:30, they start showing up at the old brick warehouse just behind the Ice House Cultural Center a few blocks south of Jefferson Boulevard, a virtual main street of Latino retail culture in Dallas. Some of the children, many of them from undocumented families, come to play basketball or kick around a soccer ball in the play area in back. Some come just to see their friends, and some come to box. At one end of the 10,500-square-foot space, with Virgin of Guadalupe murals on one wall and a musical stage against another, is a red-trimmed professional boxing ring. Every day, boys train hard to compete in Golden Gloves and other contests. Conditions could not be more Spartan, although the place got a little sprucing up two years ago from Telemundo, which used the center as a location for episodes of its telenovela La Ley del Silencio.

Tereso Ortiz usually gets in about 6, barely taking time to go home after a full day as a yard foreman at Hanson Pipe and Precast, the big lot full of concrete pipe forms off I-30 in Grand Prairie. He’s been helping people from Guanajuato, a state in central Mexico, almost from the time he first came to the United States in 1971, “hiding like everybody else.” Now a U.S. citizen, Ortiz pushed the community center to become official in 1994. It has grown into a kind of expat home for the maybe 500,000 Guanajuatenses in North Texas, by far the largest Mexican state presence in the area, and maintains informal contacts with the governor and various agencies in Guanajuato. (D Magazine wrote about this phenomenon in “The Long Journey Home,” in April 2004.)

Ortiz, who says he “owes too much to Dallas not to do anything,” relies solely on donors and volunteers and gets no direct support from the state of Guanajuato. He doesn’t want it. “If you let somebody pay for it, they want to say, ‘Okay, I want you to do this now,’” he says. “Our objective is pretty clear. It’s an organization for the community.” As such, it’s still hand-to-mouth, but the Casa has now bought the warehouse, spruced up the brick exterior with cream and rust-colored paint, and, with the help of Hanson (which has featured Casa Guanajuato in its international newsletter), added a fence around the parking lot and play area. Citizenship classes are offered in the evenings, and English classes whenever a volunteer can be found to teach. Referrals to lawyers are also made for immigrants seeking legal status, which can cost about $700 to $2,000 to pursue. One of the center’s biggest jobs is to help Mexican nationals arrange for burials—shipping bodies of the deceased home and negotiating with funeral homes—an often complicated and expensive process.

“Casas” for a dozen or so other Mexican states are also scattered throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but special help for the undocumented is sparse at best. The City of Dallas has no designated program. Churches are one of the main sources of unofficial assistance, and Catholic Charities, headquartered on Blackburn Street, has probably the most extensive operation. Although the bulk of its mission is for refugees, nearly 50,000 a year in North Texas, much of the work involves the undocumented, too. Sister Mary Anne Owens says that “99 percent” of the immigrants helped by the program are here for economic reasons—“Dallas is it” as a job destination. One of the most profound impacts of migration is the stress on separated families, she says. And abuse, such as women “being held by fear of being deported.”

Owens, whose Irish father migrated to the United States, thinks the “diversity is wonderful for Dallas” and marvels at what the families go through to cope with separation and sundry exploitations. Like many, she thinks the reaction against the undocumented workers reflects an unsavory part of American history against many ethnic laborers—Irish, Italians, Germans, Chinese. “We have always feared the newest immigrants,” she says. “Mexicans are no different.”

As the undocumented work through the city and both consume and re-supply its resources, they also tend to stay. Not so much yet as in San Antonio, where multigeneration families have rooted and are becoming increasingly more powerful, but it’s headed in that direction. It was said of the Mega March that it did not produce that many new voter registrations, nor that big a change in the vote. Yet. The children of immigrants become voters over time, and join the U.S. Hispanic baby boom, as it were, that is turning 18. According to many Latino politicos, it is a generation very much awakened by the April marches. “The reality is we have the kids all realizing, ‘We’re all Americans and guess what, we’re all here,’” says Dr. Garcia. One, maybe two more elections at most, before the mayor of Dallas will be Latino and no candidate can be elected without the Latino vote. The Latino vote, courted assiduously by both parties, is overwhelmingly sympathetic to immigration reform (Mexican-Americans clearly differentiate themselves from Mexican nationals) but opposed to the kinds of harsh punishments advanced by the Republican-controlled House last year. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the emerging political consensus of the city will more closely track with Dallas Morning News columnist Macarena Hernández than her occasional op-ed page colleague Mark Davis, if it does not already. 

Crossing Over
About once a week I like to go to El Jordan, my favorite Mexican restaurant in North Oak Cliff, for the caldo de res. It’s served as it is in northern Mexico, or the Valley, which are almost the same these days: big chunks of beef, fresh-boiled potatoes, corn on the cob, carrots, cabbage. On the side, a bowl of rice and a small plate with fresh onion, cilantro, jalapeños, and lime wedges. The waitress lets me practice my lapsed Spanish. I was fluent when I lived in Mexico City as a kid. At the American School, you never knew what language your teacher would speak, and it was totally uncool to be a norteamericano and not know Spanish. In Dallas, some day—who knows?

More than once, sitting at a booth on a  lumpy, vinyl-covered cushion, I’ve watched the mixed clientele around me and wondered how the city will take to its new identity in my own lifetime, or in that of my two Latina granddaughters. I actually think about it a lot. The scene in Giant in which Rock Hudson fights a racist cafe owner who reserved the right not to serve Mexicans comes up, too. Why, exactly, do Anglos make such an issue about the undocumented? Are we really that concerned about civil lawbreakers? About growth? Does it really feel like an invasion? I don’t see invaders. I see hard-working people doing Horatio Alger in Spanish.

I don’t think the undocumented are feared and hated for what they are as individuals, because each of them waiting to get into a pickup for a day of work no one else wants, trundling home at night along Maple Avenue with plastic grocery bags and young children, playing soccer on Sunday in a field off Northwest Highway, is without power, without vote, almost without corporeal substance. These are America’s untouchables. But that’s not why we don’t want them. We don’t want them because of what they represent.

The first time I ate at El Jordan, I asked the waitress what “Hor-DAHN” meant.

Es el río,” she said.


“Jordan,” she said, and turned to a picture tacked onto the wall. “The River Jordan.”


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