Immigration officials unfairly targeting Mexicans — study

More people of Mexican descent than ever before are settling in the Hawaiian Islands, and while “an overwhelming majority” of them are legal U.S. citizens, the community is still being unfairly targeted by immigration enforcement authorities, according to a new study published last week.

“About 9 in 10 Mexican-origin residents in the state are U.S. citizens either by birth or naturalization. Only a small number of Mexican residents in Hawaii are unauthorized, roughly 4,000,” said the report, titled “Newcomers to the Aloha State: Challenges and Prospects for Mexicans in Hawaii.”

The joint venture between the Migration Policy Institute and the University of Hawaii’s ethnic studies department began a few years ago because very little data about the emerging Mexican community were available, so researchers started to survey members of communities living on Oahu, Maui and Hawaii island.

There are between 4,000 and 5,000 Mexican-origin residents living on Maui, according to the researchers. Many were recruited from the Mainland and Mexico in the late 1980s to work as pineapple pickers and agricultural workers for Maui Land & Pineapple Co., county records show. As part of the Migrant Seasonal Worker Program, the county through Maui Economic Opportunity provided laborers with housing, training, recreation and English classes.

Cesar Gaxiola remembers moving from Mexico to the Valley Isle to work in the plantation when he was in his early 20s.

“When we were working out in the field, everybody had different dishes, Japanese, Portuguese, whatever, and that was the initiation,” Gaxiola said. ” ‘Potluck’ was one of the first (words) we learned. If you go to other places (on the Mainland), you don’t have that. Over here, you have the openings, with food, you get to everybody’s heart.”

During his four years working for ML&P, Gaxiola helped MEO establish a program to help seasonal farm workers like himself get year-round employment. The program, which has since evolved into a service called Enlace Hispano (Hispanic Link), provides English classes, helps with immigration papers and offers Hawaiian culture classes.

Today, Gaxiola is the executive director of the J. Walter Cameron Center in Wailuku that provides offices for island nonprofit organizations, enjoys multiethnic dinners with his wife and kids, and says that Maui is “an open, very friendly” place where his children have benefitted from being around so many ethnic backgrounds.

Gaxiola is a naturalized U.S. citizen now, but for others who have had difficulty with the process, like local business owner Adolfo Casanova, things are different.

Born and raised in Mexico, Casanova traveled to Maui 17 years ago with his Mexican passport to visit a friend, fell in love with the island and never left. He found a job in a restaurant as a dishwasher, learned to speak English, worked his way up to prep cook and then manager and is now the proud owner of Tapatia Mexican Market in Wailuku, which sells wholesale products to Mexican eateries like Amigo’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant, Cilantro Mexican Grill and hotels around the island. He has a wife and three kids, ages 7, 9 and 12, who were all born on Maui.

But Casanova’s “dream life on Maui” hangs in the balance, because authorities arrested him earlier this year and transported him to Honolulu, where he was given a November court date when he will either be granted a work permit to stay on Maui or be deported back to Mexico.

“This is my life here, my kids, my family, my business are all here, but in a few days they can just say, ‘No more, you got to go back,’ ” Casanova said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Maui is a safe place for the kids and for the family. What’s happening in Mexico, the crime, it’s really bad and that’s why I worry for my kids.”

Casanova said that he had no idea why the authorities came for him now after 16 years, because he has never been arrested or “gotten into any trouble” here.

Authors of the study suggest that people of Mexican descent, whether authorized or unauthorized, are targeted unfairly by immigration enforcement authorities.

“Everybody knows that current immigration laws are broken, the system is broken,” University of Hawaii-Manoa ethnic studies professor Monisha Das Gupta, one of the authors of the report, said in an interview. “For Mexicans, there are very few avenues to migrate legally because of very long lines to get any kind of work permit or permanent residency.”

Most unauthorized immigrants living in Hawaii are of Asian descent, but half of those detained in and deported from Honolulu immigration facilities from April 2007 to March 2008 – the most recent data available – were Mexican, according to the report.

“Even on Maui, this community is targeted disproportionately,” Gupta said. “Citizens are facing immigration status screenings, and they’re very fearful. . . . The community is still in the process of establishing itself, so it lacks social cohesion and a political voice.”

Casanova said that he had tried to file for residency on Maui in 2001 but “was ripped off by a lawyer.” He said he paid $3,000 cash upfront, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the lawyer told him “everything was canceled.” He did not try again after that but did file for an individual taxpayer identification number issued by the Internal Revenue Service when he started his business three years ago and has been paying income taxes ever since.

“The authorization for Mexican people is really hard (to get),” Casanova said. “If I was single, maybe I could marry an American lady to get my papers, but I’m not the kind of person to use somebody to get that.”

Lizzette Cortez, a case manager for Enlace Hispano, agrees that keeping up with proper documentation in Hawaii, even for those with legal authorization, is difficult.

“The Mexican consulate is supposed to come twice a year, but this year they haven’t come once,” Cortez said. When representatives do make the trip from the San Francisco office, she added, it is usually only for two days, which is often not enough time to update everyone’s papers.

“It’s really sad because sometimes, that’s the only documentation that these people have,” Cortez said.

In the past, many have advocated for immigration reform both locally and nationally, including Maui County Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa, who helped start Enlace Hispano in the 1990s in her then-capacity as MEO executive director.

“America is a country born of immigrants. Hawaii is definitely a state full of immigrants,” Baisa said. “The vast majority come here for one reason, and that is to avail themselves of the American dream. For them, coming to live in America is a miracle and they want the opportunity to be free and feed their families. We need to honor that, but we also need a process, a path to citizenship.”

She said that Maui has much to gain from “adding another layer to our already diverse culture,” as she herself has learned much about Mexican food, the culture and work ethic over the past two decades.

“We’re afraid of the unknown and what we don’t understand, so the more we learn, the more chance we have to get along. . . . This is one of the greatest privileges I’ve had in my life . . . to get to know the Mexican people and their culture,” she said.

Other findings in the study include:

* Establishing a permanent Mexican consulate in Hawaii will ease the difficulties that Mexican nationals face in keeping their identification documents updated.

* The community represents a relatively small but growing population in multiethnic Hawaii. In the past two decades, data show that Mexican-origin residents have jumped 165 percent, from 14,600 in 1990 to 38,700 in 2011.

* Nine out of 10 Mexican-origin residents living in Hawaii are U.S. citizens either by birth or naturalization.

* Mexicans are dispersed within and across the Hawaiian Islands, with the majority – 64 percent – on Oahu. About 7,200 Mexican residents were reportedly living on Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kauai.

* Wailuku, Kihei, Kahului, Lahaina and Honokowai are associated with Mexican residents, many who work in agriculture and tourism.

* Mexicans were first introduced to Hawaii in the early 1840s as 200 vaqueros (cowboys) from California to teach cattle ranching to Native Hawaiians. The locals called the cowboys “paniolo,” some say because they wore panuelo, the Spanish word for a handkerchief, around their necks.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at