Mi casa no es su casa

Lupe, a Mexican illegal immigrant, lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Sandy Springs with her husband, their two children and four mice.

At least, that's how many she's counted scampering across the floor of her flat, where the rent is $885 a month.

"The carpet is so old that you can clean it, but it doesn't stay that way," she says. In the bathroom, the apartment management peeled the wallpaper off but never painted the walls. "It's very ugly," she says.

In Roswell, Raul's gas bill for his one-bedroom apartment was $400 last month. But he wasn't overcharged; his window was smashed by someone trying to break in.

It's been two months and still, he says, the landlord hasn't fixed the window.

This is not the kind of two-bedroom apartment most American renters would pay $785 for. The carpet looks like the coat of a mangy dog, with spots so worn you can see the burlap backing on the other side. Dozens of cockroaches swarm the kitchen counter. Paint peels off the basin of the sink and the bathtub.

But Raul, like Lupe, figures he doesn't have much recourse. To complain too loudly runs the risk of getting deported.

While the most recent census figures are still not in, estimates indicate that in Georgia's three main counties — Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb — the Hispanic population has more than doubled since 1990, from about 38,000 to about 79,000 — figures that include undocumented immigrants. By contrast, the non-Hispanic population of the three counties increased by only 14 percent since 1990. The rate of growth in Georgia's Hispanic population puts the state behind only Arkansas, Nevada and North Carolina.

With record numbers of immigrants arriving, more are being forced to live in squalor.

"There are going to be health concerns," says Carmen Rojas, director of family services at the Atlanta-based Latin American Association. "And [correcting the situation] is going to be good for everyone."

The apartment owners allow them to rent even though they have no Social Security number and no credit history, says Juan Sperling-Cavallero, a Doraville attorney.

"In a sense, it's nice that they provide this service," he says. "But they go to the extent of really absolute abuse."

"A lot of the landlords that cater to the immigrant community are owners of property that they have no interest in upkeeping," says Donald Coleman, who directs Atlanta Legal Aid's Hispanic outreach program.

Coleman and others say that apartment owners sometimes charge tenants for damages they did not cause. "They make a claim against the tenant for it," he says. "And then they keep their deposit."

Still, some immigrants, both documented and undocumented, have made it out of their apartment lease without being held liable for damages.

Atlanta Legal Aid has successfully prosecuted several cases in housing court, Coleman says. "We can usually achieve a settlement where we get damages for the plaintiff."

The Latin American Association, which is funded by contributions, the United Way and grants, is putting more resources into educating the Atlanta Hispanic community about housing.

"The tenants don't realize that they should complain in writing," Rojas says. "Or, you never sign a document if you don't read it, and if you can't read, take it to someone who can explain it to you."

Tenants also can complain to the city or county's housing code enforcement. Problem is, the violations can sometimes be so severe that the apartment is shut down, leaving the tenants with no home. The landlords will pick up and leave. "They figured they've drained that cash cow for what it's worth," Coleman says.

But despite all the legal options, the main struggle is convincing illegal immigrants to pursue them in the first place.

"The cultural background of Latinos in general is, you don't really go against the government," Rojas says. "Because usually in Latino communities, the governments are corrupt and it's very political, unless you know the right people, the right family."

While it might not seem prudent to fight the very system that allows them to have an apartment in America, illegal immigrants don't run a big risk of being deported if they speak out, say lawyers in Atlanta's Hispanic community.

"The INS does not have the resources to deport everyone," Sperling-Cavallero says. "So long as they comply with the law and they don't drive drunk or commit certain offenses, they're pretty safe."

But overcoming an ingrained cultural habit is difficult. One Latino worker lives in a two-bedroom mobile home with six other workers. Each worker pays about $100 a month. One of the bedrooms is soaked with water and is beginning to mildew, because a leak in the bathroom has not been fixed.

"This is not the way Americans live," he says with a smile as he approaches the stairs of the mobile home. "This is not the good life. We don't know about that."??