A few weeks ago we wrote to you about the terrible week of raids on the homes and families of Painesville, OH – a small historically pro-immigrant community in the northern part of the state. The community is still healing from the attacks, and they are reflecting on the role of immigration in their community. Thanks to Veronica Dahlberg of HOLA for this article as an update and deeper analysis from the region.
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The Superior Americans
Illegal immigration might be the best thing going for Painesville.
By Jared Klaus
Published: July 18, 2007
The gathering on Painesville’s village green looks like a cross between a Fourth of July parade and a Ku Klux Klan rally. Faces are angry and untrusting.
One man, decked in head-to-toe camouflage, holds a flagpole like a rifle. Women sparkle in tinsel stars-and-stripes necklaces. A man spits furiously into a microphone in front of the white gazebo.
About 150 people have convened in this historic downtown, not to celebrate their country’s independence, but to fight for it. “We have been invaded!” a man in a straw hat shouts into the PA. “We need to clean house — get rid of every last one of ’em!” Cheers erupt from the crowd.
The man’s talking about illegal aliens — Mexicans, to be exact. You wouldn’t know it from the quaint bed-and-breakfasts, the country manners of the townsfolk, or all the red, white, and blue bunting hanging from storefronts, but Painesville is one of the nation’s top repositories for human smuggling. Until a ring was busted in May, thousands of Mexicans paid $2,000 each to be led through drainage ditches, packed ass-to-elbow into vans, and shipped like packages to Ohio.
The lure is the nearby tree farms, which are the size of cotton plantations and provide work both plentiful and well-paying. Women arrive to give birth, making their babies U.S. citizens — a green card that can never be taken away.
But there’s another reason they come: Painesville has rolled out the welcome mat. Spanish signs have gone up at gas stations and grocery stores. The library houses a section of Spanish books on everything from baby care to home improvement to getting your GED. Schools send out bilingual mailers. St. Mary Catholic Church offers Mass in Spanish. And the cops go after illegals with as much vigor as they do guys cruising down I-90 at five over the speed limit.
Yet the welcome mat was shredded two months ago, when men dressed in black from the federal government swept through town with paddy wagons and handcuffs, rounding up illegals. Part of a national sweep code-named Return to Sender, the operation was conspicuously timed just before Washington opened debate on an immigration bill, one that would grant legality to 12 million undocumented aliens. Dozens of Painesville’s Mexicans were arrested on the spot, their wives and children handed notices to appear for deportation.
Those on the village green, however, aren’t about to be pacified, if that’s what the raid was designed to accomplish. Many are men with the calloused hands of factory workers. One in a U.S. Navy hat tells the story of a friend who was laid off after his factory decided to hire Mexicans. The man in camouflage fought in Iraq.
“If they want to live in this hole so bad, they can fight for this country!” he tells the cheering crowd when it’s his turn at the microphone.
While congressmen and lobbyists try to reach a compromise (an attempt that eventually fails), these people are gathered in downtown Painesville to say there will be no compromise. Illegal means illegal. It’s time to finish the job started with the raids, a man shouts into the microphone. “Let’s take back Lake County! Let’s take back the city!”
But there’s one piece of logic that seems to be missing: If the Mexicans go, there won’t be much of a city to take back.
Just a hop from Painesville’s Mayberry-like Main Street is the town’s festering wound — an L-shaped strip of blight and poison.
A bar next to the train tracks, once an old spaghetti joint from the ’40s, is now Grand Central Station for the dope boys, despite the owner’s best attempts to stop them. The crack houses on the other side of the tracks have been booming with business since the Diamond Shamrock chemical plant packed up and left the city in the ’70s, taking countless jobs with it. It was around that time when Section 8 came in. Big apartment complexes like Argonne Arms went up. Neighborhoods rotted like meat lying in the sun.
But on a balmy afternoon, one house looks out of place. The vinyl siding is as clean as a new kitchen floor, the brass-accented front door as solid as anything you’d see in Westlake, the house’s windows still plastered with factory stickers.
A shy, slender man named Odilon is cutting weeds with a power trimmer. He came to the U.S. when he was only 16. At age 22, he married an American woman to become a citizen. Now the couple has opened a hair salon. “This land — it’s a land of opportunity,” says Odilon. “That’s all we want to do: get a good job, live the American dream.”
Add another to the several Hispanic businesses in the neighborhood — an odds-and-ends store, a handicrafts boutique, a Mexican restaurant.
Across the street, Pascual Rodriguez leans up against the exterior of his convenience store, La Hispana. The little brick building used to be Nino’s Lounge, a rough-and-tumble dive shut down by the city in 2001 after several shootings and complaints of drug activity. Rodriguez, who came to Painesville two decades ago to dig holes for a nursery, saved up to buy the place.
You won’t find any of Rodriguez or Odilon’s neighbors at the rallies. Mexicans are building a new middle class right here in the slums. They buy homes instead of renting. They do their shopping at the small Mexican store up the street instead of driving to Giant Eagle. They put their kids in youth groups and after-school activities. Those who can afford it pay the $2,000 tuition to send them to St. Mary, and the rest pack the pews at Mass.
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