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The Superior Americans

Illegal immigration might be the best thing going for Painesville.


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.

"I have no complaints about those people," says a white-haired man in a sailor's cap, shuffle-stepping up his driveway just a few doors down from La Hispana. The man's lived in this house for 50 years, back when the neighborhood was all Irish, and the Italians were the outcasts. It was good old Americans who turned this neighborhood to shit, he says. Now Mexicans are revitalizing it.

"I found out one thing about the Mexicans," says the man. "They're clean. They clean up their property. They clean up their house. They make it look decent."

The changes aren't limited to this small corner of the city. Go a few blocks over to Jefferson Street, once one of the roughest strips of Painesville, and you'll find a neighborhood on the rebound.

"Jefferson Street completely changed from a drive-by drug mart to a neighborhood with families and everything," says Police Chief Gary Smith.

The Mexicans aren't a perfect people, residents acknowledge. They can get drunk with the ferocity of any Irishman. Sometimes their parties get a bit rowdy -- blaring music, parking on the front lawn, and people spilling out onto the sidewalk. And it's not uncommon to see single-family homes crammed like motels -- one family per bedroom.

At times, Smith finds himself acting more like a high-school principal than police chief, teaching freshmen correct behavior in their new environment. "If they don't know it or don't understand it, we have to explain it to them," he says.

Yet for the most part, it's the gringos who cause him real problems -- the crackheads, the meth-freaks, the wife-beaters. Painesville Municipal Judge Mike Cicconetti sees them all in his courtroom, over and over again. Mexicans, says the judge, tend to stay away from the hard drugs, save for a bit of ganja here and there.

"Most of them are all employed," says Cicconetti. "You can't be high and work."

In fact, it's the Mexicans' need to get to work that usually lands them in trouble. On any given day Cicconetti sees as many as dozens for driving without a license. He lets most off with a small fine. And they pay it, which is more than the judge can say for most misbehavers. Entire extended families chip in for fines and costs -- anything they have to do to take care of it.

"We rarely have to chase any of the Hispanics around here," Cicconetti says.

If the anti-immigration protesters think Painesville law enforcement is turning a blind eye to illegals, they're right. Why make problems for peaceful, hardworking people?

"[Mexicans] are a very low percentage of our arrests . . . They're family-oriented. Most of them have jobs," says Chief Smith.

He has no qualms about laying out his indifference in plain English: "We don't care what your status is."

Jim Zampini is proud to take credit for opening the door between Mexico and Lake County. Back in the '70s, Zampini imported the first man from the city of Leon to work his father's tree farm, Lake County Nursery.

Felix Pacheco came alone with not a dime, only his hands. He started at the bottom, digging out shrubs and ornamental trees with a spade, from sunup to sundown, seven days a week. Then he started saving.

Soon Felix's brothers came to work the fields with him. When his sons sprouted high enough, they too worked under the sun. His friends came for jobs, bringing along their families. Felix was once found in violation of the city's housing code for allowing almost 40 men to live in his house.

These days, Felix and his sons don't dig holes. They pay their own people to do that. He started his own digging business. His sons split off and started their own as well. The family bought condos and apartments, and opened a body shop. Felix Jr. drives a shiny Hummer with all the bells and whistles. His two sisters are going to Ohio State on full academic scholarships.

"I think I need to go work for him," jokes Zampini's daughter, Maria.

But the years have been just as kind to Lake County Nursery, which -- thanks in large part to reliable labor from across the border -- has grown from a quarter-acre plot of rose bushes to an 800-acre plantation employing 130 people, 100 of them Mexican.

The Zampinis laugh when they hear complaints about Mexicans sucking away American jobs. Anyone can apply, they say. Just show up. For unskilled labor, it's hard but decent work: $9.88 an hour. But they long ago discovered that native-born Americans weren't into the hard part.

Twenty years ago, the Zampinis would enlist high-school kids over spring break to help plant and harvest thousands of trees. Hundreds would show up for some extra spending cash.

But times have changed. A few springs ago, the Zampinis called six high schools and found only six kids willing to work. Two quit before the week was over. "It's not easy work, and it's not something anybody can do," says Maria.

If anyone's sponging off the fruits of Lake County, it isn't the Mexicans. Of 10,480 public-assistance cases the county handled in June, only 400 were Spanish-speaking clients. The Mexicans prefer to dig holes for their meals -- a task that's just as hard as it looks.

"You have to know exactly where to cut with your spade, exactly how to wrap, how they hand-shape the ball and get it out of the earth," says Maria. "They got it down where they can pop one out a minute."

So it's no wonder the Zampinis get a little nervous when they see the feds rolling into town. They do their best to ensure their workers are legal, says Maria, but the guys who sell fake green cards try harder. Some are bound to slip through the cracks.

Economically speaking, it's good they do. Lake County's nursery industry employs nearly 3,000 people and pumps tens of millions of dollars into the area, making it one of the few growth sectors of Northeast Ohio.

"There are just so many jobs that are created as a result [of Mexican nursery workers]," says Veronica Dahlberg, director of Hispanic Organizations of Lake and Ashtabula. "They are creating jobs for all the supervisors and the truck drivers and all the office people . . . The people who make the buckets for the plants, and the factories that make the burlap, and the mulch and fertilizer factories. It's all connected."

And Painesville's merchants surely aren't asking for green cards when the Mexicans show up to spend their paychecks. Deposits at banks skyrocket each summer during the nursery season. It seems the Mexicans are also superior financial stewards. "They save leaps and bounds above many of our clients," says Kevin Davis of Sky Bank.

"Bob the Barber," who runs a small shop out of his downtown home, doesn't want to get into politics. He just knows the Mexicans are among his most loyal customers. One will come in, then return with 30 friends. Bob used to close some days at noon. Now he sits around with his amigos -- sipping cervezas, reading Playboys, telling dirty jokes, and making money.

Gaghan's Supermarket, like so many independent grocers, was run out of business in the early '90s when big fish like Giant Eagle came to Painesville. So the store's Irish owner, John Gaghan, folded up shop and started fresh, this time with La Mexicana, a specialty store catering to the seasonal workers. Now business is booming. "The Lord has been good to me," says Gaghan.

Not that the Mexicans don't take up their fair share of resources too. The biggest hit is taken by the schools. Painesville City, a district that's now 35 percent Hispanic, spends a sizable chunk of its budget each year to bring the children of migrant workers -- many of whom don't speak a word of English and have never had formal education -- up to speed. When their parents go back to Mexico at the end of the nursery season, many kids vanish from their desks for two months.

Yet to many here, such costs are just investments in the town's future. Jim Zampini likes to pose the question to people: "What would happen to Painesville if all the Latinos were put on buses and sent back home? Who would buy the groceries? Who would buy the cars? Who would buy the houses? Painesville would be a ghost town."

Amy Jimenez knows enough about economics to realize she's stuck. And it's all because she and her husband tried to follow the law.

Armando Jimenez jumped the border from Leon to Painesville in 2001. He found work washing dishes at Don Pablo's restaurant, where Amy, a spunky white girl with cornrows, was a server. The two started dating and fell in love. Then Amy got pregnant. She and Armando married in 2003, two weeks before their son was born.

But this type of life -- Armando living in the shadows, always wondering if this would be the day agents would arrive with handcuffs and a notice from Uncle Sam -- was not what they wanted for their child. So they decided to do the right thing: go back to Mexico and have Armando reenter legally, the spouse of an American citizen.

They were told he had a solid case for citizenship. Federal law says you must wait five years to reenter the country after being here illegally, but that requirement could be waived if they proved Armando's absence was creating an "undue hardship." They had a compelling case. Armando would be providing for his American family.

"I'm alone with two children, a mortgage, and a car payment," Amy says. "I'm working 45 hours a week and not seeing my own kids."

But like so many Mexicans lusting after the American dream, Armando got caught in the red tape. Amy was told it would take only a year for Armando's papers to go through. Three years later, she's reaching her breaking point.

There's little Armando can do to help. He works long hours in Mexico driving a delivery truck, but only manages to bank $60 a week. It's gotten so bad that Amy has to wire part of her waitress salary and tip money down to Mexico to help her mother-in-law pay utility bills.

The couple is awaiting a second interview at the consulate in Suarez, where they'll find out whether Armando's citizenship will be approved. If he's denied, then to hell with the law. Amy's thinking like a wetback now. "I'll get him here anyway I can," she says, packing her son into his car seat in front of La Mexicana. "What are you gonna do?"

On this day, the village green is neither the time nor place to debate the Mexicans' contributions to Painesville's rebirth. Those attending the anti-immigration rally don't want to hear it.

It's about what's fair and what's not, they say. And to one man, it's certainly not fair that after 35 years of his working at a rubber plant, his boss decided to start hiring illegals. Nor was it fair that to save even more money on labor, the company eventually moved to Georgia, and the man lost his job.

To Steve Salvi, an anti-immigration activist and leader of the group Ohio Jobs and Justice, it's not fair that Americans should pay for Mexican kids to learn English, when their own kids are already falling behind.

Reasonable people often argue for the sanctity of American borders -- but there's also an undercurrent of paranoia to the rally. Claudia, who organized it, is a taskmaster with boy-cut hair and a necklace of red, white, and blue stars. She won't provide her last name, for fear of retribution from some unknown force of Mexican gangbangers. And she compares her idea of a fence between the U.S. and Mexico to the one that once split Germany in half -- as if the Iron Curtain was a good thing.

Another marcher talks about the Mexicans as if they're the pod people. "They want to replace us," says Sue. To her, the fact that Mexicans are building an economy of their own is the problem. "The invasion is almost complete," she says.

Then someone mistakenly hands a microphone to the town drunk. "The only l-l-l-last L-L-L-Latino I s-s-s-seen is playin' on a b-b-b-baseball team," the stuttering, unshaven man slurs at the gathering. Heads go down, hands go over eyes, and you can feel 100 people suck in their breath at once. "Keep it clean," yells one man in the crowd. "There's kids here," says another woman.

But this train has already left the tracks. "Amnesty. How do you say it nicely?" says the drunk, stumbling a bit before answering himself. "B-b-b-bullshit!"

Groans and boos erupt from the crowd. The drunk slinks away like a kid who said a bad word he heard on TV. Claudia rushes to grab the mic. "You get the hook if you talk like that," she says with a nervous laugh. "We don't want to give the media anything they can latch onto."

The rally regains its sense of propriety, and the crowd marches in a circle around the green, led by a potbellied man in American-flag suspenders, who's holding a sign that reads "Remember the Alamo."

Off to the side, leaning against a light post, stands a dark-skinned man. His name is Hugo. His parents are from Honduras, but he was born in New Orleans. He relocated here after Katrina and got a job working construction.

To the marchers, he looks just like the rest of them. As the parade goes by, one woman turns her sign toward him as she chants in unison with the crowd. "It's not too late! Shut the gate! It just makes sense! Build the fence!"

Yet once again, the marchers haven't fully thought through their plans. For example: Who's going to build the fence?

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