The faces of amnesty: Six immigrants' stories

By Liz Goodwin

Ubaldo was 26 and working as a cashier in a Los Angeles gas station when he learned that his status as an illegal immigrant was about to change. He had turned on a Spanish radio station as an announcer was shouting the news:  Ronald Reagan was expected to sign a new amnesty bill into law. It was 1986.

“I felt like I just won a million dollars or more,” he said.

Ubaldo is just one of the six immigrants Yahoo News has interviewed for our series on Americans who gained green cards under Reagan’s 1986 law that legalized 2.7 million illegal immigrants. The mass legalization was commonly referred to as “amnesty.” These U.S. residents and citizens — including an elementary school teacher, a struggling out-of-work truck driver and a pastry chef—had either crossed the U.S. border illegally, overstayed visas or were brought to America as children by their parents.

As Congress begins what’s sure to be a contentious debate over whether to legalize most of the nation’s unauthorized immigrants, many of the 2.7 million people legalized under conservative icon Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) may feel a sense of déjà vu.

To those we interviewed, the debate is eerily familiar and also incredibly personal. They remember when, just 25 years ago, their fates dangled in the balance as politicians decided whether they should “come out of the shadows,” as Reagan urged, or remain unacknowledged elephants in the room, subject to deportation at any moment.

Reagan and others openly called the immigration plan a one-time amnesty for the nation’s illegal immigrants, which was supposed to be followed by increased border security and workplace enforcement measures that would discourage future illegal immigration. But illegal immigration continued at a rapid pace, giving the law a bad reputation, especially among conservatives. The word “amnesty” has now become an immigration-reform-killing epithet, with one pro-reform conservative group recently advising Republican lawmakers to never bring up Reagan’s bill or say “amnesty” in interviews. Democrats also shy away from the word.

The ’86 amnesty transformed the political landscape in California, which swung from red to solidly blue on the strength of newly naturalized Hispanic voters and their citizen children. (As of 2009, about 40 percent of amnesty recipients have become citizens.) And in 2012, 70 percent of Hispanic voters—some of whom were naturalized through amnesty, or are related to people who were—voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, painting a worrisome picture for the Republican Party, which has had trouble making inroads with the fast-growing demographic.

That electoral landslide has made immigration reform seem more politically feasible than it has in recent years. A bipartisan group of senators has even laid out a reform blueprint that’s attracted tentative support, in part because some GOP leaders think the bill would help them rebrand as a more diverse party.  And Obama, who campaigned on the issue, said last week in a speech in Las Vegas that “the time is now” to pass reform.

To avoid the “amnesty” label, any bill with a shot of passing will most likely be much more restrictive than Reagan’s, which granted legal status to any undocumented immigrant without a criminal record who had lived in the country for five years. Immigrants would likely have to pay a fine now, for one, and face a much longer wait to get their green cards. Most proposals also include a national mandatory employment verification system, to prevent employers from hiring those without papers in the future. 

A lot has changed since the six people we profile first learned they had a shot at becoming citizens. The size of the unauthorized population is nearly four times as large—11.1 million people—in part because the ’86 bill provided no adequate legal avenue for future low-skilled workers to come to the country to seek work. (Democrats and labor unions were opposed to a broad guest-worker program, saying it would drive down wages.)

Meanwhile, the gradual buildup of security on the border—from essentially nothing in 1986 to tens of thousands of Border Patrol agents and hundreds of miles of fencing today—means that undocumented agricultural workers are less likely to go back home between growing seasons. The illegal immigrants of 2013 are thus on the whole more settled in the U.S. than those of 1986: At least two-thirds of them have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade and a third have children who were born here.

Each of the people we profiled in this series has his or her own unique story, but all spoke about how hard work has shaped their lives, and about the deep relief they felt when IRCA passed. Below, we start our series with Ben and Byron Monterroso, brothers who left Guatemala more than 30 years ago to find work in Los Angeles. Each day this week, we’ll introduce you to another of the six. Tuesday, we profile Maria Hernandez, an elementary school teacher who crossed the border as a baby, and became a permanent resident at the age of 12.

When Ben Monterroso left Guatemala City, Guatemala in 1977 to journey 2,600 miles to Los Angeles, he was sure he would return.

His goal, he said, was to find work, save money and then go home—despite his country’s increasing violence and scarce job market—to start a business.

But three years after he arrived in L.A., Ben, who is now a leading immigration reform activist, met and fell in love with Marielena, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, and the two soon married and had a child. A few months later, his younger brother, Byron, decided to follow in his footsteps and made the dangerous journey over the border with a friend, squeezing into the studio apartment Ben shared with his new family.

But the four of them, crammed into one room, made the best of it. “I remember it had one of those sofa beds. To pass across to the kitchen you had to lift the bed,” said Byron, who is now head pastry chef at the Omni Hotel in Los Angeles. Thanks to Ben’s help, he found a job as a dishwasher.

“It’s just work,” said Ben of their early jobs. “You don’t ask. A job is a job and whatever it is, we’ll … do it. Or learn how to do it."

As the Monterrosos moved up the economic ladder through hard work at a litany of jobs—dishwasher, janitor, furniture delivery, pizza delivery—Congress began debating a plan to give illegal immigrants who did not have criminal records a path to citizenship.

“The rumors started to go around,” Byron recalled. “It became a big question: Who’s going to qualify?” When he realized they met the bill’s requirements, Byron said, he was overwhelmed with joy.

“It’s one of those things you can’t explain. It’s emotional,” he said. “It’s one of the dreams come true.” Not long after the bill passed, he and his partner had a child. “That’s when I first thought, I’m going to be here with my son when he grows up,” he said.

But Ben, who at the time was a budding activist working as a labor organizer for the Service Employees International Union, felt anger in addition to relief and happiness.

“I was angry about how I was being treated,” Ben said of how illegal immigrants are made to feel like criminals. “I felt like it was very unfair. … Even when immigration reform got changed it helped some of us: But I’m still angry because I have some relatives who are being treated the same way I was treated when I first came to this country in 1977.”

Byron and Ben, who became citizens in 1995, have several sisters who live in Los Angeles without legal immigration status. It frustrates them, they said, that there’s no way for them to help their sisters.

“There is no legal mechanism to sponsor anybody nowadays,” Ben said. “I have one sister that is married to a citizen [but there is still] nothing we can do.”

(Congress passed a law in 1996 that said people who overstayed visas or entered the country illegally could not apply for legal status through a U.S. citizen spouse or family member without first returning to their home countries for at least three years, which means long separations from loved ones.)

Their sisters, they said, live under constant fear of deportation. Byron said one sister, who works as a waitress in a local restaurant, was stopped by a police officer recently while driving and asked to show her driver's license, which she does not have. She was crying when the police officer noticed her uniform, which displayed the name of the restaurant. “You work in this restaurant? That’s one of my favorite places,” Byron said the officer told her. “You always take good care of us. Next time make sure you carry your driver’s license.”

Byron said the police officer was like a guardian angel for not questioning his sister more closely about why she didn’t have license, which could have led to her deportation. “Even though maybe he did something wrong, he did something very right to our family,” Byron said.

Ben, who co-founded Mi Familia Vota in 2006, a national nonprofit that encourages Latino immigrants to naturalize and register to vote, thinks immigration reform has a shot at passing this year. Hispanics overwhelmingly voted against Romney in the past election, he noted, which sent a message to the GOP. (Romney was opposed to any legalization for undocumented immigrants.) While Hispanic voters are U.S. citizens, and most are not immigrants, many, like Ben and Byron, have family or friends who are undocumented, which colors how they view immigration reform.

“When you say immigration, all I can think is my family,” Byron said. “All those behind me that don’t have papers.”