Is California Scaling Back Protections for Immigrants?

dreamers.jpgThere's countless stories of success in California's immigrants communities. But those immigrant protections that have made those stories possible are being scaled back.

When Superior Court Judge Raquel Marquez-Britsch was formally "enrobed" in Riverside's historic county courthouse last month, she made history. She is the first Latina judge in the combined Riverside-San Bernardino counties, where nearly half the population, about 2 million people, are Latinos. "I'm a bracero's daughter," she told me. "To be a judge here, in the Inland Empire, means everything."

Marquez-Britsch was actually sworn in and put to work on a backlog of cases a few months earlier. At that ceremony, the courtroom was filled with older Latinas whose faces gleamed with tears; some were from the Marquez side of her family. Meeting her in-laws, the Britsch family, I recognized their accents right away. Swiss and Austrian. Raquel, her husband and I are all immigrants or the children of immigrants. We realize how much our success has depended on the generosity of the Golden State, on each rung on the ladder we found here, and how broken the ladder is now.

Jesus Marquez came to California from Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1960, when he was sent to El Centro to work cotton fields as a bracero. The bracero program was begun to bring workers from Mexico during World War II, when a shortage of American men threatened the nation's harvests. But even after the soldiers came home, the program continued because cheap labor had become a staple of agriculture. The cotton harvest was the hardest work Marquez ever did, he would later tell his California-born daughter Raquel. But he received a green card and went back home for his sweetheart, Guadalupe.

They moved to Sacramento. Marquez worked in an uncle's restaurant, then in construction; Guadalupe worked in a Sacramento fish factory, and later as a nanny. Finally they saved enough to open their own restaurant, Lupita's. (It still exists.) They raised four children. Raquel remembers standing at the restaurant sink with her brother Miguel, "side by side, washing one dish at a time, and talking about what we'd be." (Miguel was appointed last month as the first Latino judge in the 6th District Court of Appeal.) This is the opening chapter in the story told by so many Americans, from turn-of-the-century Brooklyn to last week in Lawndale.

Hans and Gretel (yes, they laugh about their names) Britsch emigrated from Brig, Switzerland, to the U.S. in 1963, the same year Jesus and Guadalupe Marquez arrived here. Gretel, from Austria, met and married Hans in Brig. In California, their son Hans Thomas was born; his father worked days as a landscape architect, and his mother worked nights as a registered nurse. Eventually they opened Western Cactus, a nursery in Vista. The two families met when Raquel and Hans Thomas started dating, far from the restaurant and the nursery, at Santa Clara University.

And that's the second part of the story — education, enrichment, social programs. And for that, for generations looking to live the dream, California made a big difference.

My mother emigrated from Switzerland, my stepfather from Canada, arriving in the 1950s; they didn't work the fields and I didn't wash dishes, but we helped clean the apartment building my stepfather built and the Laundromats he bought after that (bonus pay: stray quarters!).

Raquel and I were public library rats, Bookmobile kids. School field trips opened our eyes to the world. We had free sports programs and after-school art classes, the mock trial competition Raquel participated in, the gifted student program her sister and I were enrolled in. Then, college scholarships and grants. Hans Thomas, Raquel and her siblings all graduated from college — UCLA, Stanford, Santa Clara, Harvard. A dream list for any student but especially for the children of immigrants.

"I was born here, but I spoke Spanish at home," Marquez-Britsch told me. "I went to Head Start, and then in elementary school, we got so much help. I was diagnosed with nearsightedness by a mobile health clinic, maybe the Kiwanis."

Now, at every level, the layers of help that used to be taken for granted for all kids are being erased. As California debates its future, how will it help young people climb, especially those like Raquel and me, whose parents had so little when they arrived?

School budget cuts are threatening to eliminate not just buses for field trips but transportation to and from school. Kids could walk six miles or more in some areas of Southern California if their parents can't drive them. That sounds like the 1930s, not the 21st century. Scholarships and Cal Grants are being decimated; early childhood education and adult education are on the chopping block along with librarians and library services and "extras" like sports and the arts. Newcomers and natives alike, we are all more and more on our own.

For my generation, California's welcoming generosity yielded rich payback. Marquez-Britsch now works two court calendars at Southwest Justice Center; in the morning, she adjudicates the misdemeanor criminal calendar, and in the afternoons, she presides over a civil court calendar packed with matters pertaining to foreclosures. Hans Thomas manages Western Cactus, which employs 50 people. Their three sons — Mexican-Swiss-Austrian American — have big plans and can afford to dream. Two want to go into law, but the youngest wants to raise cows in Vista on his grandparents' land.

At the enrobing ceremony, Marquez-Britsch told me, her mother cried, as she does every time she sees the American flag, and her father-in-law held a cowbell he carried to America from Switzerland. (I have such a cowbell in my house; handed down from my mother.)

So many of California's teachers, inventors, doctors and yes, judges, carry with them a story, an education, a sense of gratitude as well as an "old country" keepsake — ways to remember where we came from, how we got here, and who and what helped us climb. Those hands that reach down to pull up a child or an adult who need help should not be withdrawn, and that ladder should not disappear into thin air.

Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" will be published this fall.

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