Fishwrap Archive

The new enemy

ENGLEWOOD, N.J. -- After Mario and Noira Gutierrez arrived from Colombia in 1973, they did what immigrants were supposed to do. They worked hard. They became U.S. citizens. They got involved with their community. They raised two sons and taught them to value education, hard work and personal responsibility.

But after 23 years they no longer feel welcome.

With the anti-immigrant sentiment in the nation today, one can understand why.

In the current political climate, legal and illegal immigrants are being blamed for taking jobs away from citizens, for overwhelming social service programs and for undermining American culture. Republicans, like Pat Buchanan and Pete Wilson, and Democrats, like Diane Feinstein, have been quick to single out immigrants as the root of many of the nation's problems.

With all that the Gutierrezes have accomplished, they don't feel it's fair.

Mario and Noira Gutierrez's apartment reveals a hard-working, intelligent, curious family. It also reveals a lot of their past. Neat, well-organized and comfortable, the apartment has a more pleasant ambiance than the dingy, hospital-like corridor outside their door. Colombian and Mexican paintings and other arts and crafts, some with religious motifs, adorn the walls and sprawl across the tables. Seemingly out of place is a collection of Chinese statuettes, which are an interest of Mrs. Gutierrez.

The Gutierrezes come from Pereira, a small city in the central part of the Colombia. In the late 1960s, Mario moved to Mexico, where he earned a sociology degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. While there he met a number of academics, writers and artists fleeing repression and political instability in Latin America.

After graduating in 1969, Mr. Gutierrez returned to Pereira, where he and Mrs. Gutierrez both grew up and where they were married in 1970. Fearful of the violence and instability in Colombia, they emigrated to the United States three years later and settled in Englewood.

Both had difficulty finding work, because of language barriers and the fact that they entered the United States on tourist visas. Their visa problem was taken care of one year later with the birth of their first son, Jorge, at Englewood Hospital. Since they were the parents of an American citizen, they were allowed to obtain green cards, and they could work legally.

But, Mr. Gutierrez could not find work as a sociologist. He accepted a variety of full- and part-time jobs to support the family, which left little time to study English. He eventually took a job at a pharmaceutical laboratory. He advanced through the years and remains in the industry today, although for security reasons is reluctant to name his employer.

When not raising their two sons, Jorge, 22, and 16-year-old Carlos, Mrs. Gutierrez has worked for several businesses. She helped one firm grow from a basement seamstress shop to a large clothing manufacturer before being laid off after 12 years.

Although he is not employed as a sociologist, Mr. Gutierrez has never really left the field. He studies and writes about the problems Latin American immigrants face in the United States.

Mr. Gutierrez is also president of the Latin Lions Club of Englewood, and he and Mrs. Gutierrez are involved in many of the group's community service projects. In addition, they assist other immigrants to become citizens. When life in the United States doesn't work out -- as happened recently with a undocumented Guatemalan whose employers refused to pay for his labor but threatened him with deportation if he complained -- they help the person return home.

Stories of people like the Gutierrezes, however, seem to be lost amid the din of horror tales of parasitism of and threats to U.S. society by immigrants. As a result of the political climate, laws like California's Proposition 187 and pending legislation in the Congress seek to limit services to immigrants, such as access to education, health care and welfare. Two bills in Congress, H.R. 2022 and S. 1664, seek to make it more difficult for immigrants to enter this country while making it easier to deport those deemed undesirable. Buchanan declared a cultural war against the dangers of the immigrant tide during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

The Gutierrezes would not be directly affected by Proposition 187 or the pending legislation in Congress. But the atmosphere which brought them into being has created a more hostile environment than that which existed when the Gutierrezes first came to the United States.

Why the apparent hostility? Carlos Gutierrez, who works for a different pharmaceutical company but who will soon open a barber shop near Shop Rite's Palisades Court in Englewood, offered an explanation.

"It is a way for Americans to lash out against someone," he said. "They used to have the Russians to lash out against. Now that the Cold War is over, they need someone else. It was once an east-west thing, but now it's a north-south thing.

"They always knew that someone was the enemy, but the Russians are gone. Now immigrants are the enemy."

David M. Lawrence