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Being an immigrant shouldn't be a felony

Published April 2, 2006

People know this Dade City neighborhood as Tommytown.

But with Pilar's Taco stand across the street and Iglesia Cristiana Morada De Paz next door to the Farmworkers Selp-Help office, Little Mexico City would be a more suitable name.

Down Calle De Milagros (some still call it Lock Street) is La Onda Dancehall. A flier on Pilar's stand advertises a big dance Saturday night.

More fliers on the Farmworkers' office door tout a weekend march to protest the draconian immigration laws being considered in Congress.

But on this Friday morning, the business isn't about politics or protest. It's about the day-to-day struggle to survive in a foreign country with a foreign language. A steady stream of people walk in, envelopes in hand. Ana Limas sits behind the desk and patiently answers each question.

This day marked the third anniversary of life outside the fields for the 29-year-old mother of seven. She came to this country from her native Mexico when she was 4. She and her siblings were illegal even though her father was born in this country. Her mother did housekeeping in Texas.

Limas lived the nomadic life of a farmworker - Texas, Minnesota and Florida. She got her papers in the 1980s during the big amnesty in those days.

Tired of life on the farm, in 2003 Limas walked into the Farmworkers Self-Help office. Director Margarita Romo hired her.

Limas has come a long way. When she started with Farmworkers, she didn't know how to use the copier or the fax machine. Now, Romo can leave her in charge when she's out on business.

Limas is one of the thousands of Mexicans who have been changing the face of these counties. They have been picking oranges and strawberries, mowing our yards, installing stucco on our houses.

They've been part of an unspoken social compact that has made our lives easier, our houses cheaper, the oranges on our tables fresher.

But since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the fervor for more homeland security has finally turned the hostile political spotlight on our neighbors, those illegal immigrants who are attracted by jobs, more secure lives for themselves and their children. They're not asking for freebies, just opportunity.

Full disclosure: I am an immigrant. I came to this country as a student and stayed legally. I hear people talk about illegal immigrants trying to get to the front of the line. I've stood in that line outside the immigration office in Manhattan at 5 in the morning. If you had a lawyer, you didn't have to stand in line.

For proponents of this recent crusade to toughen our immigration laws, border security is the next front in the never-ending war on terror.

In our color-coded era of insecurity, the desire for tighter borders is reasonable. Turning 12-million people into criminals isn't.

The U.S. House of Representatives in December passed a tough immigration bill that would make it a felony to be in this country illegally. It would also penalize those who knowingly assist illegal immigrants.

Never mind that scores of farmers, landscapers and plant nursery owners throughout the 5th Congressional District would go out of business without undocumented workers; Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, voted for the bill.

If the measure is adopted, Romo and her staff could get arrested for trying to help those in need.

When farmworker advocates lobbied Brown-Waite to support a bill that would give immigrant farmworkers a chance to get permanent residency, she demurred. Her constituents wouldn't approve, she said.

I don't often agree with President Bush, but his guest worker idea is a humane and practical way to bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows. That's what the protesters in Dade City and elsewhere are saying. It's a message the merchants of fear ought to heed.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is

[Last modified April 2, 2006, 01:23:12]

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