ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- By the time Evelyn Sabando started seeing walk-in clients at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, 15 people were already seated in her office waiting room.
She helped one man looking for work apply for a replacement green card. Later, she helped a U.S.-born 21-year-old casino housekeeper start an application to get her mother a green card. The woman and her mother have lived in Atlantic City for 21 years. Her mother has cleaned hotel rooms nearly the entire time.
Sabando, a government-certified Board of Immigration Appeals representative, has spent the last 23 years working with the nonprofit Camden Center for Law and Social Justice. For most of that time, she has served clients inside a converted three-story brick convent-turned-Catholic Charities building in Atlantic City, just blocks from casino row.
Here in this once-seedy gambling destination nearly three hours south of New York, most jobs serve the gaming or hospitality industries. And much of what goes on in Atlantic City is powered by immigrants. Most of the glittering casinos could not run without men with names like Samir, Anoop, and Jorge, who squeegee-clean one casino’s stainless-steel trash cans, light outdoor fire pits, vacuum gambling pit floors and fetch hotel guests’ cars. And without women named Valentina, Lourdes and Wanda, who make another casino’s beds, deliver room service, wipe down slot-machine handles and ensure the lobby floors gleam, the city would look very different.
The Huffington Post agreed to use only the workers’ first names because of their immigration status or, in most cases, concerns that they could be fired for speaking with a reporter.
Some live and work in the country legally. Others rank among the roughly 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. For these Atlantic City residents and many of the legal immigrants who are members of their families, news of a bipartisan Senate blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform last week, chatter about similar ideas in the House and President Barack Obama’s Las Vegas speech signaled the possibility that meaningful immigration reform will happen this year.
The hard work of creating a new national immigration policy seems to have begun. Now, citizens and elected officials across the country may be forced to confront the poorly kept secret about immigration readily apparent in Atlantic City. We accept and, in some cases, depend deeply on immigrant labor. We expect those who are undocumented to live with some degree of exploitation, vilification and exclusion in the process.
Members of Congress will have to decide whether to respond to voters who think the solution to the country’s immigration problem sits somewhere between former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s call for “self-deportation,” and a massive undocumented immigrant round-up, and those voters who insist neither approach is affordable, reasonable or humane.
November’s election results may have changed some minds. But in Atlantic City and New Jersey’s surrounding 2nd Congressional District, Republicans have dominated politics since the Prohibition era days when real-life Nucky Thompsons controlled the city. That fact makes immigration reform anything but certain.
And what becomes of people like Samir and Valentina will be anyone’s guess.
IMMIGRATION REFORM A 'MUST'
In every election cycle since 1994, voters in South Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District have sent moderate Republican Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) to the U.S. House of Representatives. There, LoBiondo has cast votes in favor of environmental protection and some against school vouchers. As a result, he enjoys the support of traditional Democratic Party backers such as some of the area’s building trade unions, teachers and groups concerned about climate change. Atlantic County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Schroeder calls him “the kind of guy who, if left to his own devices, stays pretty quiet in Washington and away from the extreme edge.”
When it comes to immigration, however, LoBiondo is a little different, Schroeder said. The Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR) -- a group that advocates strict immigration law enforcement and mass deportations -- describes LoBiondo as voting “with us,” on 20 of the last 28 immigration-related measures. LoBiondo voted against relief for immigrants and for measures such as expanding the border wall just over 71 percent of the time.
LoBiondo’s staff said the Congressman was unavailable this week to comment on immigration reform and what sorts of measures he will and will not support. Atlantic County Republican Party officials also did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
In 2008, during an interview with DiggersRealm.com (Click HERE to watch video), LoBiondo explained that he would support an electronic system that employers can use to verify every applicant’s work eligibility, but would not support certain types of relief for undocumented immigrants.
“Amnesty is not the right way to go,” LoBiondo said. “I have not supported it. I will not support it. There’s a legal way to do it. And, and when we granted amnesty to people in the 80s it sent a message to people that if they broke the law and waited long enough they’d be granted amnesty. We can’t make that mistake again.”
Just like many other parts of the country, in Atlantic City, immigration issues haven’t been at the top of many voters’ minds these past few years. The economy, unemployment and foreclosures outrank immigration in many 2nd District voters’ priorities, said Robert McDevitt, president of the 14,000 member Atlantic City–area service industry union, UNITE HERE Local 54.
What’s more, economic struggles in New Jersey’s 2nd District are bigger and longer-running than the recession. The casino industry that as recently as 2006 pumped $5.2 billion into the Atlantic City-area’s economy and employed about 55,000 people contracted by 2012 to a $3.2 billion business with about 33,000 employees, according to McDevitt.
“The casino industry is the tide that rises or sinks all boats in this town, that's just the way it is,” he said, noting that somehow Atlantic City and the surrounding 2nd District haven’t managed to germinate, “many nativist psychos willing to go public with their ideas."
In other words, LoBiondo’s record on immigration really just hasn’t mattered that much to voters. They might not have noticed that during the last two election cycles, an Atlantic City political group -- Liberty and Prosperity-- fielded deeply conservative candidates who pushed LoBiondo further to the right and rendered him even less likely to support comprehensive immigration reform, said Schroeder, the Democratic chairman.
But now that national immigration legislation is a reality, LoBiondo’s stance on the status of those people toiling in the area’s hotels and casinos is very much a concern.
“Immigration reform is very important," said Bessie Blanco, a native of Honduras’ Olancho region who came to the United States legally in the early 1990s. She is still in the long process of becoming a U.S. citizen. “It's more than important, it's a must.”
Blanco, a housekeeping supervisor at Atlantic City’s Tropicana Casino and Resort, is also a member of the Hispanic Alliance of Atlantic County, an advocacy organization that gives away annual HAAC scholarships to beauty-queen contestants each year and in 2012 worked to register eligible voters.
“We need to settle this situation not only for the people who don’t have papers, but because the country will be better off,” said Blanco, who in her home country was a social worker. “People won’t be afraid to call the police anymore when they need them. And, some of us are people with professional training. We could offer our skills to this country tomorrow.”
'THE IMMIGRANT COMMUNITY IS HERE'
The limited electoral influence of growing populations is hardly unique to Atlantic City, said Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners, a Washington, D.C.-based polling and research firm heavily involved in Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
“Unfortunately," Belcher said, “what Republicans have done is create House districts so corruptly gerrymandered that they no longer allow the real demographic and social changes redefining America to shape policy. Think about it, there is no majority constituency for slashing Medicare or Social Security. But, there have been points where this is all we heard out of the Republican-controlled House.”
Complicating the situation: In some sections of the country where minorities make up the majority or near majority of the population, many residents are too young to vote or aren’t American citizens. So the population that has the right to vote and the people who live in these places can look quite different.
What’s developing is a scary brand of unrepresentative democracy, Belcher said.
“When Congress habitually does the things only a few people want and ignores or refuses to act on what a lot of people need, we have a serious problem,” Belcher said.
The 2nd Congressional district is evolving in that two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of way. During the last decade, when the number of immigrants in South Jersey grew 40 percent, according to Census data, a few other trends have also been taking shape.
The Obama campaign helped to boost Democratic registrations to a very slight majority over Republicans in Atlantic County in 2008, and just a bit further in 2012.
Still, about 24 percent of Atlantic County voters are registered Republicans who vote regularly, according to county voting records. Democrats -- who make up 29 percent of the area’s voters -- continue to struggle with turnout in non-presidential election years, Schroeder said. Independent voters, many of whom lean right, actually comprise the county’s major voting group. In the remainder of the 2nd District, a few counties swing back and forth between blue and red, he said.
Immigrants, African Americans and other Latino and Asian voters in Atlantic City have transformed city government, returning Atlantic City’s second African-American mayor -- first elected in 2001 -- to office in November. City voters also elected four black city council members, one Latino and the group’s first Pakistani-American member. Three white men serve in the Democratic Party-dominated council’s remaining seats.
“I would say the immigrant community is here; it is starting to make its influence known," said Sabando, the immigration advocate. “But in some ways they are still treated …. Let’s put it this way, they are hired, but not always treated fairly.”
LAND OF OPPORTUNITY
Jeffrey DeCristofaro is the executive director of the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice and Sabando’s boss. He says Sabando is right that the community is growing in influence but still suffers all-too-frequent mistreatment.
In 2011, a Northern New Jersey woman admitted to bilking immigrants out of about $700,000 by pretending she could resolve their immigration concerns. She used the money to cover personal expenses and to gamble at Atlantic City casinos.
And, when DeCristofaro's agency helped a young woman apply for Obama’s Deferred Action program a few months ago, one of the forms of proof of residency the young woman provided to the government was a whistleblower lawsuit, he said. A hotel where the young woman and a group of other undocumented immigrants once worked had paid the women less than minimum wage to clean rooms, required them to live on the property and demanded they work 60 hours per week while only compensating them for 40, according to DeCristofaro.
“There are certainly people in Atlantic City who are suffering because they don’t have [legal immigration] papers,” DeCristofaro said. “Common sense says it’s time, it’s well past time, to reform the system.”
Maria Serrano, a native of San Vicente, El Salvador, came to Atlantic City legally in 1994 and later became a naturalized American. She started out working as a nanny and office cleaner.
“This country has given me so much opportunity. I am a single mother who can support her kids. I have a house. I have a voice and options I would never have had in my country,” said Serrano, who works as a housekeeper at the Taj Mahal Atlantic City and is a UNITE HERE Local 54 shop steward. “I have really tried to make sure my kids understand that.”
Serrano was able to immigrate with the help of her mother, who met and married an American and navigated the tricky and then lengthy process of becoming a citizen. But many people facing abject poverty and outright hunger don’t have such an option, she said. Serrano understands why some chose to come to the United States without permission.
Last year, she learned a personal lesson on the risks undocumented immigrants face. The parents of some of her children’s friends were deported and forced to leave their U.S.-born children -- young adults and teenagers -- behind.
“I cried with them,” Serrano said. “If you know this country’s immigration system, it isn’t hard to understand their pain.”
In November, Serrano voted for LoBiondo’s Democratic opponent and Obama.
And then there are the voices of the other side of the debate, people like Chris Russo.
“There are times when it’s pretty scary, when you look around and really see what this city has become,” Russo said, at the city’s famous White House Sub Shop.
At White House Sub Shop -- a 70-year-old restaurant where a nine-inch “half-sub” runs about $7, cash only -- locals and visitors alike pile in. Out-of-towners come to soak up some local color and stare at the walls proudly displaying autographed and framed pictures of movie stars, singers and several Miss America winners. Locals seem more interested in the some of the longtime staff and the sandwich menu.
Russo, a self-described “computer mechanic,” is a white Atlantic City native who has a foot in both of the city’s worlds. Russo spent the first portion of his childhood living in the shadow of the casinos. His father started out parking cars, and his mother worked at a hotel front desk. Both eventually moved into management, started earning the money to move to the suburbs and helped put their son through Rutgers and their daughter through Princeton.
“I know this may sound crude, crass, politically incorrect, what have you,” said Russo. “But immigrants have just taken over this city. I think it’s time to start looking long and hard at what could reasonably be done to send some of them back to the places they come from and maybe give work permits -- not citizenship -- to a small group.”
“I think that if LoBiondo wants to stay in Washington, he knows how he has to vote,” Russo said.
In November, Russo voted for LoBiondo and Romney.
Back in the Atlantic City Catholic Charities building Thursday, Sabando invited two of her last clients of the day -- an 18-year-old Honduran-born undocumented teenager and his father -- into her office. Once the pair sat down in the metal folding chairs stationed in front of Sabando’s desk, the father started to explain their situation in Spanish. He wondered if his son, who graduated from middle and high schools in Atlantic County, might be eligible for the Obama administration’s deferred action directive.
The June deferred action order gave as many as 1.7 million young people brought to the United States as children who meet certain requirements a way to obtain temporary and renewable permission to live and work in the country. Obama has described it a sort of stopgap measure necessary because Congress refused to move on immigration reform.
In late 2010, a variation of a long-pending measure known as the Dream Act -- designed to offer immigration relief to many of the same young people now helped by Obama's deferred action -- failed in the Senate by a just few votes.
In the House, LoBiondo cast a vote against the measure.
“OK, young man,” Sabando says in Spanish, “When were you born, and when did you come to the United States?”
The teenager was born in 1994, the same year LoBiondo arrived in Congress. He and his family came to the United States when he was about 12 years old.
He is completely bilingual. In Spanish, he admits that his father’s description of him as a procrastinator is correct. But he’s ready to work now and enroll in college. Maybe he will study something that has to do with computers, he says. He will decide later.
It’s not clear whether the 18-year-old will qualify for the deferred action program.
Sabando thinks it’s likely and explains the kind of proof of his life in the United States that the teenager and his father will need to provide. Then she hands them a checklist that looks a lot like the school supply run-downs the teenager’s teachers handed out each year. Only, instead of facial tissue, binders and No. 2 pencils, this list includes things like school transcripts, medical records, emails and social media postings sent from Internet connections inside the United States.
What is clear is that what the United States and LoBiondo decide to do for and to the teenager, his father and millions like them will say a lot about the kind of country we want to be.