At El Gallo Giro restaurant at Florence Avenue and Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park, Obama’s immigration reform speech interrupted a celebrity talk show playing on a Spanish television station.
The restaurant, with tables and chairs matching the colors of the Mexican flag, is at the center of a large retail strip catering to Latino immigrants. At the back of the restaurant is a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Yet as President Obama outlined his plan for sweeping change for immigrants, few in the sparse lunchtime crowd paid attention.
Only one man seemed interested.
Felipe Velasquez, 56, said he labored for several years as an agricultural worker in Arizona after crossing illegally into the country in the early 1980s. He received legal papers in the immigrant amnesty of the late 1980s and immediately left agriculture for Los Angles and construction and factory work.
“I like the idea,” he said, watching Obama on the restaurant’s screen. “It’s correct. I agree with it. It’ll help people legalize, but jobs will still be hard to find because of the economy.
“People come here thinking it means a future. It’s a fantasy,” Velasquez said. “The only ones who do well are banks and big companies. The rest of us struggle all our lives to get ahead.”
In eastern Los Angeles County, the owner of a trash hauling company said broad legalization would hurt his business and other enterprises that have come to depend on low-cost labor that is not in a position to demand higher wages or benefits.
"Once they’re legal, I’m going to lose half my guys,” said the employer, who asked not to be identified to avoid offending his several dozen workers, most of whom are illegal.
The employer, whose parents were both illegal immigrants from Mexico, said he’s tried to hire citizens and legal residents, spending $50,000 a year for a while on help-wanted ads.
“It doesn’t happen,” he said, surveying a lot of aluminum cans. “People show up wanting full benefits and stuff. I can’t compete.”
For a legalization program to work, he said, “they need to give employers a way to sponsor these guys” in guest-worker programs, he said.
“We need to bring in people who want to work."
Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), applauded Obama for leading on a tendentious issue.
“He is very clearly embracing the path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers,” she said. "I'm enthusiastic."
Obama has set records in deporting illegal immigrants, she said.
“We’ve been unbalanced in our approach,” she said. With his speech, “he’s really pushing an agenda that is much more compassionate for workers.”
Salas said she hoped a reformed system would allow expanded visas for immigrants from poorer countries neighboring the United States.
“There’s very little access for low-wage worker visas for service industry or agriculture. Getting in the back of the line, that would be great. For some people there is no line. There is no chance for them under the current legal system to come in legally and stay legally.”
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-- Sam Quinones
Photo: Felipe Velasquez talks about the potential for immigration reform Tuesday as President Obama speaks on television at El Gallo Giro in Huntington Park. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times