After the Amnesty: 20 years later
In 1986, the US government offered amnesty – legal status – to 3 million illegal immigrants. Here are seven of their stories.
(Page 3 of 5)
The joy of security and workSkip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
When they crossed the US border with Mexico in the early 1970s, Alfonso Castañeda was a house painter; his wife, Marta, was a nurse. Almost three decades later, they still work in the same professions.
"I thought I could do something more," says Mrs. Castañeda who never managed to validate her degree and works as a nurse assistant at a private hospital. Mr. Castañeda, a stocky man with long sideburns, says he dreamed of saving enough to go back to Mexico, but never did.
The '86 amnesty did not give the Castañedas wealth or more education. But the passing of the bill brought them protection in the form of a disability check, workers' compensation, and the means to build toward a secure retirement. Their citizenship, and subsequent financial stability, helped them support their children Gerardo, a research assistant at a law firm, and Elsa, a computer science graduate from the University of Arizona who now works for her alma mater.
The couple also find small rewards in their own work routines.
"The youngest ones are 75," Marta says with a laugh, describing the elderly patients she helps. "It's beautiful when they recover and they get to go back to their families."
Alfonso started his own small painting business, but still climbs a ladder and takes out his brush every day. Despite the smell of paint, the rain and sun, he feels satisfied because at the end "you see the results."
On that day, 'My soul came back to my body'
From breaking news to weather updates, Mary Vega listens closely and retells the story to thousands of Spanish-speakers in Rhode Island. She provides instantaneous English-Spanish dubbing for the nightly news at local ABC television affiliate WLNE.
But during her first years in the United States, only a few could hear her voice. Ms. Vega came to Providence from Colombia in 1980 and overstayed a tourist visa. Her legal status wouldn't allow her to drive a car, get medical care, or work at any job outside the service industry. Fearing deportation, she kept a low profile by caring for an elderly couple at a private residence in Providence.
"The American dream stays in dreams," Vega says of the time before the passing of the 1986 amnesty. "I think this is part of the problem.... What else can Latinos do if we're only allowed to clean bathrooms?"
Today, Vega still looks after the same couple. But through the amnesty, she also became a citizen, brought her three daughters to this country, and found a career in journalism, a field that she feels passionate about. "The day I was granted the amnesty, my soul came back to my body.... I was going to fight for what I wanted, and that's how it was."
Her daughters – also US citizens – study law and medicine, and the oldest works as a talent manager for a Miami hotel.
"I'm not a millionaire, but I have a Social Security number and ... I was able to get a federal loan for my daughter's college when I needed to," Vega says. As a result of her efforts, Vega pays taxes and hopes the skills her daughters learn in college will help them contribute to American society as well.
Vega's aspirations go beyond translating. On the weekends, she practices using editing software at the channel and watches every camera move closely. One day, she says, she will be on the other side of the camera as a television news producer.
Out of civil war, into the University of Southern California
Marvin Andrade was 10 when he waved goodbye to his mother and young sisters through the rear window of a taxicab. At the time, "life wasn't worth much," he says.
Mr. Andrade's father – a grocery store owner – had received death threats from both sides in the Salvadoran civil war. While the armed forces suspected him of helping the guerrilla movement, the guerrilla fighters wanted him dead for refusing to provide them with supplies. In the middle of the night, and with only the clothes on their backs, father and son fled the conflict that killed more than 70,000 Salvadorans in the 1980s.