Maria Valdez of Clovis sets a table at Juanito’s Mexican Food Restaurant. Born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, she came to the U.S. at 14 with her father and stepmother for work and to send more money back to Mexico. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
This mild-weathered Saturday afternoon, business inside Juanito’s Mexican Food Restaurant is brimming. Customers chat over chips and salsa at tables, while others cluster in the lobby to be seated.
The Clovis restaurant is a bright spot on Mabry Drive, with purple porch beams and window trim, a picture of a man in a sombrero, his head hung low, painted near the entrance.
The owner’s daughter, Amanda Garza, stands behind the cash register. Long before she was born, her father came to this country. Juan Garza is now a prominent business leader and Clovis city commissioner.
“He moved here for a better life, better work,” said Garza, her dark hair in curly rings. “He’s really come up in the world.”
Garza doesn’t know many details about her father’s life in Mexico, and she has visited the country only a few times. But she is proud of her father and her heritage. And she believes the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States should be allowed to move out of the shadows and become American citizens.
In her hometown of Clovis, diversity is woven into daily life. More than 33 percent of the population in Clovis is Hispanic or Latino, and about 38 percent so in Portales, according to 2000 U.S. Census Bureau data. For Garza and many other Hispanics in the neighboring cities, the immigration debates raging in the U.S. Senate are not so complex.
“We are a nation of immigrants,” said Mary Ayala, a Portales resident and an Eastern New Mexico University professor of Hispanic descent.
“We gain a lot by every cultural contribution we have,” she said. “We all brought something of that here ourselves. It enriches the United States.”
There are multiple immigration bills bouncing around in the Senate. The Senate Judiciary bill wants illegal immigrants who came to the United States before 2004 to pay to stay in the country and work legally. One wants illegal immigrants discovered at ports and borders put in detention centers. Another would make it a misdemeanor to be in the United States illegally.
The later proposals would cause more harm than help, according to Clovis City Commissioner Robert Sandoval, who believes stemming the flow of immigrants into America would bind the economy.
“I think it is vitally important we try to keep immigrants here now from Mexico because they have such an impact on our economy. Anyone who is talking about how Mexican immigrants take our jobs, I would invite them to work picking fruit. I would invite them to work at a meat-packing plant,” Sandoval said.
Isidro Garcia, who also sits on the Clovis City Commission, is intimately acquainted with hard work. He eked a living working on the railroad, in meat-packing plants and as a janitor.
“I have never been a businessman,” said Garcia, one of three Hispanic city commissioners who rose to the position, he said, to give others like him a voice. “I worked for a living all my life.”
His experience in gritty workplaces gave him respect for workers and employers, he said. In his opinion, setting too many limits on immigration would cripple the economy.
The jobs illegal immigrants do, he said, no one else wants to do. And the simple laws of supply and demand shouldn’t be tampered with, he said.
A guest worker program that would accord immigrants a certain time period to work, shuttling them between Mexico and the United States, according to Garcia, would also hurt businesses because trained workers would constantly be lost.
“(Immigrants) are people,” Garcia said, “just like us.”
“On the average,” he said, “they come here to work and make a decent living.”
Juan Garza doesn’t believe the situation will change despite more restrictions being placed on immigration.
“It is a very complex issue for everybody, whether you are on the other side or this side,” said Garza, who first came to the United States as a high school student from Monterrey, Mexico, to visit his mother who lived and worked in Muleshoe.
“People want to come here and work,” he said, because of the lack of jobs and resulting high crime in Mexico.
Garza returned to the United States after that first visit and applied for a permanent visa. He became a U.S. citizen in 1995.
He remembers what happened with the temporary farm workers who came here from Mexico years ago. “Once they came over, they stayed. It’s going to happen again,” Garza said. “Once they get here, they aren’t going to go back.”