This week the Senate takes up an immigration reform bill, as the House struggles to write its own version.
The last time Congress passed a comprehensive immigration bill, Ronald Reagan was in the White House. Nearly three million undocumented immigrants were put on the path to citizenship. But what happened to them? How did immigration amnesty change their lives and the lives of their families?
One young couple worked their way through the process 26 years ago and it led to their own version of the American dream.
The story of Oscar and Martha Mendoza began with a mountain of paper three inches high -- rent receipts, pay stubs, tax returns, even uncashed checks for coins lost in that ancient technology known as a pay phone. Oscar said he got a big box “and every time when I receive papers, put them in the box. Put them in the box.”
Oscar Mendoza came to the U.S. in 1979 in the trunk of a car. He was 19 and fled El Salvador after his uncle was killed in the civil war. Oscar met Martha on a bus near Los Angeles. She was also undocumented, an immigrant from Mexico. They married and worked jobs at an auto detail shop and a balloon factory. And by 1987 they had two American-born children: 5-year-old Tony and 2-year-old Kelly.
Oscar had heard rumors of a new law that promised legal status. He knew he'd need proof that he¹d lived and worked in the U.S. for a number of years. That new law -- the Immigration Reform and Control Act was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. That next year, Oscar showed me the precious box of papers that he hoped would become their ticket to legalization. “This is my life, you know,” he said.
And then he began to cry. His attorney explained that for him, this was the only way he had of remaining in this country. “He has a great deal at stake here,” she said. “The country means a lot to him. He¹s established himself here. He has a new life. He can't afford to forfeit it.”
The process of legalization wasn't fast and it wasn't easy. Martha Mendoza said it was also expensive - costing the couple more than $1,000. There were doctors' examinations, interviews with immigration officials, a civics exam and the dreaded English test.
Looking back, Tony Mendoza remembers playing in the back of a crowded classroom with the other kids as his folks tried to learn a new language. And he remembers the Spanish-English dictionary that they used to bring “everywhere” with them. Tony is 31 now, living outside Washington, D.C., supervising construction projects for the U.S. Navy. He also recalls the day his mom failed the exam. “I remember her crying,” he said.
Tony also remembers a constant, nagging worry about what was going to happen to the family.
What did happen was a surprise. Once the Mendozas got legitimate Social Security numbers, checks started rolling in. They'd paid taxes over the years. But with phony numbers, the refunds they deserved were never sent.
Enough money rolled in for the family to move out of their one-bedroom apartment in Pomona. A quarter-century ago, Martha Mendoza took me on a tour of that new tract house in Colton, glowing with pride as she described her kitchen looking like “it's for rich people.” For Oscar, the house was proof he belonged. He described his own version of the American dream – a house, a job, a car, “your family, your dog, your bird. So, yeah, I made it!”
In the late 1990s, Oscar and Martha finally qualified to become American citizens and registered to vote. Tony said his folks wouldn't say, but he thinks his mom votes Republican. “And my dad switches. I think most recently, he voted Democrat.”
It had been a few years since I spoke with Oscar and Martha, so I picked up the phone. Oscar told me the family moved out of California to keep Tony away from gang trouble in the schools. They had another son, Dakota, who today serves as a U.S. Marine. The couple started their own business, making dentures and dental implants. Today, they're living outside Phoenix and even buying a vacation home in Mexico. Oscar said becoming an American changed his life.
“I’m never going to have another opportunity like this in my life. Even if I move to Europe or move someplace else, I think I¹m never going to have this opportunity of growing and working and get what I want when I¹m working. You can get anything you want if you work in this country.”
Tony said that when his folks took that oath of citizenship, it gave them something more than financial security. He said he thinks he understands that feeling. Tony is gay. And just last year, surrounded by his parents and his two siblings, he and his partner got married.
“Once I had that license,” he said, “once my husband and I were legally recognized as a couple, I had a confidence that nothing was going to break us. And I think Mom and Dad, that was their thing, too. Once they had amnesty, they had a confidence that nothing was going to stop them from achieving what they wanted, achieving all their dreams.”
Congress now begins the debate about whether another 11 million undocumented immigrants will be given a path to citizenship - a chance toachieve their own American dreams.