Petra Perez: After amnesty, a family flourishes

By Liz Goodwin

Fifth in a series: Petra Perez is one of six people Yahoo News has interviewed for our look into Americans who gained green cards under Ronald Reagan’s 1986 law that legalized 2.7 million immigrants. This profile concludes the series.

Petra Perez, preparing dozens of tamales in her small Los Angeles home for her extended family on a December afternoon, described embarking on the 1,500-mile journey to the U.S. some 40 years ago.

“It was dangerous because we came over the hills,” she said. “Then it was night and we were waiting for a truck [to pick us up].”

The 12th of 13 siblings, Petra was 20 when she decided to leave Jalisco, Mexico, in 1975 to find work in the U.S. Smuggled over the border in a truck with her two nieces and a few strangers, she moved into a rented home in East Los Angeles with her three sisters and a brother who had come over years earlier. Her sisters taught her how to sew, and a few months later she got a job in a small sewing factory. She hoped to save up enough money as a seamstress to return to Jalisco and buy her struggling parents a home.

But her plan to return home changed when she met and started dating a young man named Mario Perez, who worked as a delivery person at the factory and was also undocumented. Soon after they began dating, Mario moved on to a better paying job at a laundromat, where Petra’s brother, Fausto, also worked.

But a pall fell over their courtship when immigration authorities raided the laundromat. Mario, unlike Fausto, was lucky: A friend at the laundromat had tipped him off at the last second and hid him in a small crawl space near the ceiling. After the hours-long raid was over, Mario had to clutch a hot pipe filled with steam in order to climb down from his hiding spot. He severely burned his hands, and then discovered that 30 of his co-workers, including Petra’s brother, had been arrested while he hid. They were later deported.

Petra recalled the night that Mario showed up at her home with the news.

“When he come to the house, he showed me his hands and showed me what happened,” she said. “And we hoped that God would help my brother.”

Saddened but grateful to still be together, they persevered. The four sisters struggled to make ends meet on their sewing salaries alone and then, a year after he was deported, Fausto again crossed into the U.S., returning to his family. Not long after that, in 1977, Mario and Petra married.

Both had been living in the country without papers for more than 10 years when Reagan signed the 1986 immigration reform bill, which eventually legalized 2.7 million immigrants who had been living and working in the country without permission.

Petra said that prior to the law, she had been terrified to take any charity or government assistance. “We work really hard and we never went to the public to ask for help,” said Petra, explaining she had worried the government would know which illegal immigrants had taken help and would exclude them from any legalization programs. When Petra gave birth to each of her four children, she even shunned a local hospital that would provide services for free or reduced prices, instead scrimping and saving to pay full price.

Her worst fear, she said, was being separated from her kids, who were all born in the U.S. “I thought about that all the time,” she said. “I was always praying to God that wouldn’t happen.”

More than 20 members of Petra and Mario’s extended family applied and were accepted for the amnesty.

“After we legalized, we were much less fearful,” Mario said. After getting his green card, he was able to get a better job at a bakery, working nights while Petra took care of the kids and sewed from home.

Petra said she’s very proud that her children—two doctors, a lawyer and a social worker—all went to college. She stopped going to school after the sixth grade in Mexico, but she would tell her children as she walked them to preschool and every grade afterwards that they needed to go to college.

“I think that I always had a hunger that I couldn’t fulfill, and so I had kids who became professionals,” she said.

Mario and Petra became citizens in the mid-’90s, and Petra said she now feels both Mexican and American: “It’s difficult to describe. Sometimes you want one and then you want the other. It’s like, Mexico is your country but America is the country that opened the door and helped your family. I feel happy [that] I have both.”