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Immigration puts small town on cultural divide

America’s immigration impasse is a daily, dispiriting fact of life in Mattawa, Wash., and many places where noncitizens abound

The town of Mattawa’s social hub is the Catholic church, where Spanish-language Mass is standing-room-only, even on a Thursday night.

JESSICA RINALDI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The town of Mattawa’s social hub is the Catholic church, where Spanish-language Mass is standing-room-only, even on a Thursday night.

MATTAWA, Wash. — Eloy Cervantes, a cattle rancher and father of four, has staked his family’s future on this remote farming city in America’s apple country — a city riddled by troubles he wishes he could help fix. Teen pregnancy. Grating poverty. And violent gangs that shot bullet holes into his neighbors’ trailers.

“If I could do something,” Cervantes, 40, said of the troubles in town, “you can be sure that I would.”

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But Cervantes is not a US citizen, so he is powerless to change a thing. In fact, the majority of people in this American town hundreds of miles from the southern border are not American citizens. Mattawa’s longtime mayor, a white woman in a town of 4,400 mostly Latino residents, won the last election with a grand total of 37 votes.

Congress has battled over immigration for so long that it has come to this: Immigrants who are not citizens are now the majority, or close to it, in Mattawa and a handful of cities and towns nationwide, including Langley Park, Md., an unincorporated borough near the nation’s capital; rural Mendota, Calif.; and the cities of Sweetwater, Fla., and West New York, N.J.

Nationwide, immigrants who are not citizens make up 20 percent or more of the population in more than 100 American cities and towns, US Census figures show. In Massachusetts, a third of the residents of Chelsea are not citizens, almost five times the national average. In Everett and Malden, 1 in 4 residents isn’t a citizen. In East Boston, almost half the residents could not vote on the recent casino referendum because they were not citizens.

In New York and Los Angeles, the numbers are staggering. New York has more than 1.4 million people who are not citizens, the highest in the nation. Los Angeles has more than 877,000, almost a quarter of the city.

For much of its history, the United States steered new arrivals toward citizenship, and through the early 1900s, some states even allowed noncitizens to vote. The integration of immigrants has been transformative, from the massive waves of Irish in the 19th century who used the vote to wrest control of Boston from an unwelcoming Yankee establishment, to the Mexican immigrants who altered the political landscape of California.

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But now, advocates for immigrants worry that federal officials and Congress are pushing citizenship increasingly out of reach, for legal and illegal immigrants alike. As immigration soared in recent decades, the share of foreigners who are naturalized citizens plummeted from 64 percent in 1970 to 44 percent today.

Roughly half of the 22 million immigrants who are not citizens are here legally, and most are eligible to apply for citizenship, but have not, for reasons that vary from the $680 application fee, more than 10 times the cost in 1990, to the fact that many do not speak enough English to pass the citizenship test. Some simply are not interested because they plan to return home eventually.

Another 11 million are here illegally, and they are at the center of a bitter national debate expected to erupt again this year over whether they deserve citizenship and on what terms. Opponents say citizenship would reward lawbreakers with benefits reserved for Americans, including full access to government aid, the ability to bring relatives to the United States more quickly, and protection from deportation.

But advocates for immigrants say making citizenship harder to attain has a broader effect on American life. Many cities and towns are thick with residents who cannot vote, run for office, sit on juries, and otherwise hold governments accountable.

Chamblee, Ga., had to rearrange its electoral map about a decade ago because so few people in some parts of the city were eligible to vote. In Cactus, Texas, a federal immigration raid in 2006 upended the whole town, emptying apartments, streets, and shops. In Bell, Calif., city residents were outraged in 2010 when they learned that elected officials had given themselves lavish salaries. Even now, roughly 45 percent of the adults in Bell cannot vote.

“You get the sense that people remain outsiders for far too long,” said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., research organization. “All of the instincts that I have suggest that this is a problem, and certainly in the long term, it becomes potentially a very substantial problem.”

In Mattawa, as many as 80 percent of the adults are not citizens, and many have been here illegally for 10 or 20 years. The civic leadership does not reflect the town: 99 percent of Mattawa’s residents are Hispanic, but the mayor, the police chief, the school board, and half the City Council are white.

For now, Mattawa and the rest of the nation are anxiously awaiting a possible solution in the nation’s capital. House Speaker John Boehner said this month that he is open to talks on immigration, but he has refused to consider a massive Senate bill passed last year that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship after a 13-year wait, the toughest requirement in more than 200 years.

The last time Congress made it that hard to become a citizen was in 1798, when they passed a controversial law forcing immigrants to wait 14 years to naturalize. An outraged Thomas Jefferson pushed Congress to repeal the law soon after he became president. In 1802, Congress restored the wait time for citizenship to five years, the same as it is today.

A town transformed

Thirty years ago, Mattawa was a fading town of 300 hardy white farmers on the banks of the Columbia River, which flows south through ocher-tinted gorges from the Canadian Rockies. City officials joked that Mattawa easily lived up to the meaning of its Native American name, “Where is it?”

But in the late 1990s, corporate farmers blanketed the brown hills with forests of apples, cherries, and grapes — with the government’s help. They tapped water from a federal irrigation project and some leased land from the state. As soon as the crops ripened, farmers were desperate for workers.

Few Americans applied for the low-paying jobs, but Mexican immigrants from poor towns in Mexico and other US states poured into Mattawa. They camped along the river, rented crawl spaces under houses, and crammed into trailers until the septic tanks overflowed. Most crossed into the United States illegally, because they wanted to work.

Mattawa’s population soon doubled and then tripled, transforming the little town into a full-fledged city. But with that came problems Mattawa lacked the political power, civic involvement, and money to fix.

Crime increased along with the population and quickly overwhelmed the small police department. Statistics are hard to find because the department fell into disarray, but city officials said the small town suddenly confronted big-city problems, including domestic violence, drive-by shootings, and gangs linked to the drug trade that took root in an area where it is easy to hide.

Two years ago, a 28-year-old woman, seven months pregnant, was shot and killed while unloading groceries. Also that year, alleged gang members fired shots at a high school soccer game. In August, a man was stabbed in a fight at home. In October, shots were fired at a car parked at a grocery store not far from City Hall.

Mayor Judy Esser, a woman who has run the town for 23 years, says Mattawa has severe budget issues that prevent the city from hiring more police officers or improving city parks. She said nonprofits, such as the public housing authority, do not pay property taxes, and they own more than half the housing in town. As a result, the city collects taxes from less than half the residents to cover basic services, such as a water tower.

“There isn’t anything we don’t need,” Esser said in an interview in the former gas station and car wash that is now City Hall.

The mayor, who is paid about $6,000 a year, said Mattawa has tried to get state and county officials to address the funding issue. But the city attracts little attention from politicians even though it has been one of the fastest-growing cities in Washington state.

“They quit doing stuff here because there wasn’t that many votes,” said Esser. “They would help, I suppose, if they were really pushed.”

But there is little political muscle to push them. Hardly anyone can vote, and few get involved in civic activities in a town that depends heavily on volunteers to get things done. Volunteers fight fires, screen candidates for the Police Department, and run civic activities, such as the annual Community Day parade and celebration.

Many immigrants shy away from civic duties in a town that has not always been welcoming. City Hall did not hire interpreters until 2007, when the Department of Justice investigated Mattawa for failing to provide translators in a community where most people only speak Spanish.

Instead, the town’s social hub is the Catholic church, where Spanish-language Mass is standing-room-only, even on a Thursday night.

Every week, immigrants crowd into the Our Lady of the Desert Catholic Church, spilling out the adobe sanctuary and into the rose gardens. In the summer, they kneel on the soft grass. In the winter, they come wrapped in wool blankets.

The pastor said he never lacks volunteers to sweep up or pray over the Virgen de Guadalupe. But over the fence, the dilapidated trailer parks and rutted roads are beyond his power, or his congregants’, to fix.

“It’s a third world in a first-world country,” said the Rev. Jorge Granados.

Esser, the mayor, said she does not treat immigrants differently because they are here illegally.

“We don’t know and I don’t care,” she said of residents’ immigration status. “I’m here to help them.”

But immigrants say it is time for more residents to take charge of the town.

A state audit a year ago revealed that the city’s Police Department had failed to properly store evidence and track citations, effectively letting many criminals off the hook.

As a result, the chief resigned. The mayor then hired a new chief, John Turley, who speaks Spanish he learned as a Mormon missionary in Central America. But he is the only one of four officers who speaks Spanish.

While the schools have won praise for helping students prepare for college, many students still struggle with low achievement and test scores are well below the state average. In past years, controversies have erupted at school committee meetings over budget cuts and spending.

Cynthia de Victoria was the only Hispanic on the school board in 2009 when she was appointed to fill a vacancy. She urged Latino parents to attend meetings and prodded the white board members to learn how poverty affects learning.

But she did not last. When she had to run for the seat in 2011, she lost to a white man.

“Should they become legal citizens and be able to vote,” de Victoria said, “things would look very different.”

Who deserves citizenship?

In the early gray light before dawn, during the annual harvest, hundreds of men and women flock to the apple orchards in Mattawa with buckets strapped to their chests. The air tingles with anticipation. Farm workers earn less than a dollar a bucket, so they march up the ladders and pick as many apples as they can, flitting from tree to tree until the desert sun chases them out of the fields.

Almost everyone says they are here illegally from Mexico, putting them at the center of the coming debate over citizenship.

“These jobs are hard for Americans,” said one of them, a 45-year-old farm worker, in an interview late last summer.

That so many of the workers are here illegally rankles some, who say illegal immigrants should not quickly become US citizens.

“If you get across the border and you didn’t get caught . . . you shouldn’t go to the front of the line,” said Dave Hargroves, the fire chief for the district that includes Mattawa. “And I don’t want to be insensitive and all, but go get in line like everybody else.”

But immigrants say they are essential to the city and state’s economy. Washington is the nation’s leading apple producer, and none of the farmers in the Mattawa area was, as of last year, registered with E-verify, a free US government service that checks workers’ papers.

People who favor citizenship said it would help immigrants and the town. To become a citizen, immigrants must pay a fee and pass a test demonstrating that they know English and how the US government works. And many immigrants in Mattawa say they want to be citizens.

“Everyone wants it,” said a 42-year-old woman, referring to citizenship, speaking on condition of anonymity because she is here illegally. “I pay everything, but without a right to anything.”

In the schools, the supermarkets, and the streets of Mattawa, immigrants say they have paid the price in other ways for coming here illegally.

There is the physics whiz who never went to college because he is ineligible for government financial aid. The minivan-driving married couple with children who could not get a home loan because they lacked Social Security numbers. The high school football player whose father was deported.

Some have not seen family in Mexico for years. Many live in decrepit trailers, like the one that caught fire in 2009 and killed a woman and two children.

Some say immigrants do not need access to citizenship because they do not plan to stay in the United States permanently. Instead, they say, the US government could give them a form of legal residency that would let them visit their relatives, work legally, and stop living in fear of deportation.

That would work for Javier Preciado, an aging farm worker in his 50s who pays $150 a month to bunk with two other men in a run-down trailer. He stays until harvest ends, and then returns to Mexico.

But many others have American children who have no intention of moving to Mexico, and citizenship — or the lack of it — is constantly threatening to separate them. Their parents say citizenship would be a solution for what has become a permanent way of life.

Eloy and Flor Cervantes have been in America for almost 20 years. Three of their four children were born here. They pay taxes using legal numbers issued by the IRS, which does not care about their legal status, and worry that they will never see any of the Social Security taxes they are paying toward retirement. They fret about crime, schools, and paying for college.

He works all day amid the stench of cow manure and also volunteers at the school, having taught himself English by jotting down words in a notebook and watching TV. She picks apples, weeds potato fields, and cleans houses — sometimes all in the same day.

At night, in their apartment decorated with ceramic apples and a small US flag, they dream of taking a little trip to Las Vegas, a vacation after so many hard years, for just the two of them.

“We’ve been here a long time,” she said.

Their children have bigger dreams, of college and careers.

One morning during the last harvest, Flor Cervantes took her 19-year-old daughter, Alicia, to pick apples as a summer job. Alicia dreads the orchards and their many hazards, the tall ladders, and the buzzing tractors.

Flor smoothed the straps of Alicia’s apple bucket against her back, and then turned to her own work. She marched to the top of the ladder and rifled through the branches with both hands until her bucket was full. She clambered up and down dozens of times.

Below her, Alicia stared glumly at the endless rows of trees.

“I wish it could rain,” Alicia said.

A day of community

With few solutions on the horizon in Congress, towns such as Mattawa are left to chart their own futures, amid divisions between workers and bosses, foreigners and Americans.

But on a Saturday morning in August, some volunteers tried to bring the town together for the annual Community Day.

Some were skeptical. A few years ago, the city had canceled the longtime celebration because there were too few volunteers. But Maggie Celaya, a city councilor, and her sister, Lola Cruz, who teaches citizenship classes, decided to bring it back in 2012.

“It used to be fun,” Cruz said.

That morning, hundreds of people converged on Hund Memorial Park. The sun blazed in the sky. White farmers in plaid shirts arrived for the pancake breakfast. A handful of runners set off on a 5-kilometer race. Latinas in long aprons cooked piles of enchiladas and grilled corn for lunch.

De Victoria, the former school board member, gave a speech honoring the grand marshals and longtime residents, Paul and Bonnie Parker. The Cervanteses worked that morning but went in the afternoon. Children shrieked with joy in the dunk tanks and bouncy houses.

Not everything went smoothly.

The Chamber of Commerce, which most businesses do not belong to, struggled to find recruits. A festive parade reflected the community’s cultural divide: The Boy Scouts were mostly white, and the high school cheerleaders were mostly Hispanic.

At one booth, a job-training nonprofit disappointed many immigrants because it could only help legal residents of the United States.

At another booth sat Wendy Lopez, a 32-year-old farm workers’ daughter who now works as an outreach coordinator at the Mattawa Community Medical Clinic. A few months after the festival, she ran for City Council and won.

“It’s good to represent your people,” she said. “Not just your own people, but it’s good to represent every person where you grew up, where you live, a place you call your home.”

Her parents could not vote for her; they are here legally but not yet citizens. Still, she won the November election, with a total of 32 votes.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.

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