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Public Lives

An Immigrant Success Wants Others to Have a Chance

By ROBIN FINN

Published: April 7, 2006

A SYNONYM for the immigrant success story that he is, Guillermo Linares — who grew up dirt poor in a dirt-floored hut in the Dominican Republic, came to New York City at age 15 knowing not a word of English, drove a taxi to pay for a college education that culminated with a doctorate, and believes he is the first Dominican to hold public office in the United States — is having a touchy time keeping his cool as the immigration battle heats up on Capitol Hill.

"I fail to see the connection between immigrant workers who are looking to survive and help their families and the security threats that this country has."

More than 11 million life stories — Mr. Linares estimates that there are at least 500,000 illegal immigrants in New York City alone — are at stake, and some of them remind him of his own.

Yes, he takes it personally that politicians like Representative Peter King, a Republican from Long Island, have proposed a bill in the House that would make it a felony for immigrants to be in this country illegally. No documentation, automatic deportation. The bill also endorses a barrier wall along the Mexican border and seeks to criminalize some activities assisting illegal immigrants. "I fail to see the connection between immigrant workers who are looking to survive and help their families and the security threats that this country has," he says. "When I see a debate like this that tends to be driven more by political expediency than by real circumstances, I feel we are not being realistic. We are having a Band-Aid approach that solves nothing."

Because Mr. Linares serves as the commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, where his mission is to be a bridge between immigrants and city government and services regardless of his clients' immigration status, the pending legislation strikes him as un-American. Not to mention that Immigration History Week is right around the corner, running from April 17 to 23. He's in charge, and the festivities begin with a reception at Gracie Mansion. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is, he says, supportive of the city's immigrants: they are 43 percent of its work force.

"I agree with the mayor that we need to find a way of controlling our borders, but I also believe the mayor understands and values the place of immigrants in our city and favors a sensible approach that allows those who work hard and play by the rules, and have roots here, well, we owe them the opportunity to work to become legal citizens," he says, his posture erect and syntax meandering as he presides at a mini-conference table in his office, at 100 Gold Street. "It's consistent with the tradition of this country."

A GARISHLY sequined carnival mask — it depicts a congenial Dominican devil and was worn (not by him) in the Carnaval del Boulevard, a parade held in Washington Heights, last July — brightens the windowsill, and Dominican art decorates the walls alongside photographs of career highlights: there he is being appointed chairman of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans by Bill Clinton in 1999; there he is with Mayor Bloomberg, a Republican who endorsed his unsuccessful State Senate bid in the 2002 Democratic primary, and with the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, "by far the greatest ambassador we Dominicans have."

Well, that's not counting Pedro Martínez, whose arrival on the Mets has complicated Mr. Linares's territorial affiliation with the Yankees. (He grew up in East Tremont and lived in Washington Heights before buying a house in Marble Hill in 1994 with his wife, Evelyn, who is the principal of Public School 210 in Washington Heights.)

Mr. Linares, 55, with the silver moustache and undulating hairline of an old-time matinee idol and a halting way of genteelly hammering home his point, is a former teacher, city councilman and lifelong Democrat who was appointed to his position by Mr. Bloomberg in 2004. He is a dapper dresser and happily reveals that Mr. de la Renta, besides supporting a foundation that Mr. Linares established to promote scholarship among Dominican youth, designed his favorite sport jacket, a beige number that handles anything from jeans to finery. He gets around: Jackson Heights, Flushing, Sunset Park, Washington Heights, East Harlem, and Staten Island — where Mexicans are the second-largest immigrant group. "I'm on the side of facilitating legalization of those who are here working, and we've also got to take a closer look at our labor laws to make sure that those who do come here are not exploited."

Mr. Linares, the oldest of nine children, grew up in Cabrera, where school ended in the eighth grade. His father was a tailor and his mother a seamstress who spurred the family's move to New York; his parents arrived on tourist visas in the 60's, overstayed them, and later applied for green cards. He found a $15-a-week job in a bodega and struggled to finish high school: "My adviser said I was not college material."

He became an American citizen during his sophomore year at City College, where he received B.A. and M.S. degrees and took a teaching job. He served on the local school board, then was elected to the City Council in 1991, a job he loved and left only because of term limits. "I came into office as the first Latino elected to city government, but once in, I found myself representing not just District 10, but immigrants throughout the city." He is doing it again.

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