By Liz Goodwin
Fourth in a series: Ubaldo 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 illegal immigrants. On Friday, we profile Petra Perez, a seamstress and proud mother of four.
In 1975, Ubaldo faced a bleak future in Zacatecas, Mexico. Jobs were scarce, and he yearned for a better life. So, though only 15 years old, he left most of his family behind and was smuggled over the U.S. border.
For several years, Ubaldo lived with his aunt, a schoolteacher, in Los Angeles. Though Ubaldo hated school—where he was teased and sometimes called a “wetback”—she made sure he stuck with it.
After graduating high school, he moved out and got a job as a gas station cashier at 19, a job he held for many years. In 1986, Ubaldo heard on the radio that the government was allowing undocumented immigrants like him to become legal. He eagerly applied—and got temporary legal status in just five weeks. Three years later, he received his green card.
The green card, Ubaldo said, made him feel “like a million dollars. … I knew that I was going to get a better future.”
He could now legally visit his mother in Mexico, and he was able to quit his gas station job and find work at a warehouse that provided benefits to its unionized workforce. When, five years later, the warehouse employees went on strike for higher wages and were fired, Ubaldo, who is chatty and charismatic, decided to become a salesman. He bought and sold secondhand cars and other goods—“Everything!” he said—until he and his wife divorced, and he began to have financial troubles. He then became a driver of bobtail trucks, until he injured his back last year on the job. He’s been out of work ever since.
Like most of the 2.7 million people who received green cards under Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration law, Ubaldo never applied to become a citizen when he became eligible in the mid 1990s. Just this year he began to understand citizenship’s advantages. He recently married a woman from Mexico who overstayed her U.S. visitor’s visa and would have a better shot of legalizing her status if he had his citizenship.
He also worries about his 86-year-old mother, who lives alone in Mexico. “I want to get her a green card so she can stay with me,” he said. “I’ve got to take care of my mother.”
His earlier decision to hold off citizenship, however, was partly due to Ubaldo’s fears that a mistake he made in his 20s would prevent him from being eligible. When Ubaldo had received his temporary legal status in the 1980s, he went back to Mexico to visit his family—but immigrants with the temporary status were not allowed to leave the country while they waited for their green cards. On his way back to California, he told a U.S. border agent that he was a U.S. citizen, which is a felony. The border agent threw him in jail for 43 days.
Ubaldo says he didn’t realize that the incident was a felony. If he applies for citizenship now, it’s possible that the federal government would deny him based on this crime, as well as take away his green card and ask him to leave the country altogether. Because of this risk, Ubaldo asked that we use only his first name for this story.
About 40 percent of the 2.7 million people who obtained green cards under the 1986 law became citizens by 2009, the latest figure available. More than half decided never to take the next step and become citizens, which requires a fee of $680 and passing a civics test. In surveys, legal immigrants from Mexico cited cost and a lack of confidence in their English skills as the main reasons they haven’t naturalized. In Ubaldo’s case, it was fear that his earlier jail time would get him deported that kept him from taking the next step and becoming a citizen.
Ubaldo says it would be a medical as well as a personal hardship if his wife is caught and deported, because he is diabetic and she administers him insulin shots. If she’s ever able to legalize her status, Ubaldo said, he might leave California, which he said is too expensive and has few available jobs.
“There’s so many people now in L.A.,” Ubaldo said with a sigh. “There’s no jobs. Even if you’re legal, it’s hard to get a job.”
Ubaldo is considering moving to Oklahoma and opening a Mexican restaurant. “She’s a good cook,” he said of his wife.