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.
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During a month-long journey in 1980, father and son traveled thousands of miles through Central America and Mexico to reach the banks of the Rio Grande across from El Paso, Texas. But as Marvin crossed the river on the shoulders of another man traveling with them, he could only think of "the land of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck" that he had seen on TV. On the other side, sitting in a pickup bed on his way to Los Angeles, someone gave him a can of Coca-Coca. He had only seen bottles at home, and he clung to this soda can for a long time. It was his first memory of life in the United States.Skip to next paragraph
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Growing up undocumented in Los Angeles, Andrade remembers long hours spent standing on street corners with his father while they waited to be picked up for construction or gardening jobs. School was no easier, he says. He was mocked because of his accent and often called a "wetback."
But Andrade sought education as the way to battle the violence, poverty, and discrimination that rattled his early life.
On a high school field trip to the University of Southern California, he asked one of his counselors what his chances were of getting into such a place. "You're aiming too high," the counselor told him.
Those words stuck in his mind. But instead of discouraging him, they gave him resolve. He filled his days with activities to achieve that goal, volunteering at the nonprofit Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. And since he could not afford tuition or receive financial aid, he took night classes at East Los Angeles Community College in 1987.
A year earlier, when the amnesty passed, Andrade had applied to only one school: The University of Southern California. Andrade was accepted in 1988 and eventually received a degree from USC in international politics.
Today, Andrade helps immigrant children integrate into American society. As the education director for the Central American Resource Center, Andrade oversees more than 70 elementary and middle school students who come to the center for after-school tutoring in English, math, and art.
"The things I was told growing up had an effect on me," says Andrade. "It made me be the guy that wants to spur change, and it's the reason why I'm here."
As he enters a classroom, paper kites with Mexican, Salvadoran, and American flags hang over a group of students who are finishing math and reading assignments for tomorrow's class.
"The same dream I had of going to college," says Andrade, "is now shared by many students who by merit could go to the best schools, but can't do so because they're undocumented."
He calls for urgent immigration reform and disagrees with the negative image that the '86 immigration law gathered.
"The word 'amnesty' gives the connotation of a pardon," he says. "My view is that it's not a crime to look for the betterment of your family. [Illegal immigrants] risk their lives to work here. And through taxes, they contribute more than what they receive."
He's thankful for the law that opened the door to education and citizenship for him. "The amnesty allowed me to meet my wife, graduate from one of the best universities in the world, and own a house, which is part of the American dream."
Today, more than 25 members of his family, including his mom and two sisters, have joined him in Los Angeles. All benefited from the amnesty law.
Some months ago – and 20 years after the violent conflict that drove him from his land – Andrade went back to El Salvador; this time as an international peace observer and US citizen.
The profound impact of 'this gift'
Jose Ortiz turned roadblocks into opportunities. Mr. Ortiz came to Los Angeles in 1981 at age 12 to escape the Salvadoran civil war. He enrolled in school and, with time, rose to the top of his high school class. Set on a career in architecture, he was offered a full scholarship to college. But without his green card, his dream was put on hold.