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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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Twenty-six years later, Ortiz – now a citizen – continues to redefine himself: as a dental assistant, massage therapist, and entrepreneur. "When the amnesty came ... it opened my horizons. I was legal, and I had more options," he says in his native Spanish.

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His determination carried him through difficult times. Disappointed that he was denied access to college, he immediately enrolled in X-ray technician courses that didn't require him to produce any citizenship documents. When his green card came through as a result of the '86 amnesty, he enrolled in courses sponsored by University of California, Los Angeles, and became a registered dental assistant. And because of the physical therapy that he received after an injury at work, he began a new career as a massage therapist.

Recently, he set up a financial firm that teaches Latinos how to manage their finances, from balancing a checkbook to investing in stocks. "My dream is to start a company that shows Salvadorans how to save and manage their remittances," he says, referring to the more than $2 billion sent each year by Salvadorans living abroad to family members at home. Foreign remittances are El Salvador's No. 1 source of income.

Ortiz also hopes to bring his parents here to live with him. "The amnesty," he says, "has had a profound impact not only on me but on many people who received this gift." But ultimately, "it comes down to you to make [this dream] a reality."

Laureana Santana / Providence, R.I.

Reunited with her family, but struggling

Five giggling children, ages 1 through 10, run circles around Laureana Santana. They bump into one another while using every inch in the living room of Ms. Santana's small brick home in Providence's oldest housing project. There's a playground across the street, but they are not allowed to go outside – not since a 12-year-old boy was shot and killed two years ago while playing with friends nearby. "I don't want to take risks," she says.

Santana looks after as many as nine immigrant children throughout the day while their mothers work in factories around town. She obtained a family day-care certificate from the state six years ago.

In 1985, without a job and no prospects for one, she became desperate. So Santana floated on a raft from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, leaving behind her three young children and hoping to find a better life for herself and her family.

"The first years were difficult," she says. To help support her children, she plowed fields and grew yucca and peanuts. "I was away from my children and every penny I made working in the fields I would send back to them."

In 1986, she benefited from a section in the bill that supported agricultural workers who had resided in any United States territory for more than 90 days prior to May 1986. Three years later, she left Puerto Rico for Providence, R.I. When she became a US citizen in 1989, the doors opened for other family members.

In 1995, she was able to bring her children to this country. Two years ago, her mother was able to come and live with her as well.

"The amnesty let me reunite with my children, and today, we're all together," she says.

Even when she is struggling to make ends meet, she believes that today's immigrants should be given the same opportunities that she received 20 years ago.

"If they close doors on them," she says, "if they refuse to rent them an apartment or allow them to work, they're just putting immigrants on the spot, rounding them up and pushing them to do bad things in order to survive and provide for their families."

Now in her late 50s, Santana says that taking care of so many children can be exhausting, but it is also rewarding.

"It's such an experience to have left my kids at such a young age and now to take care of so many," she says. "There are times when I say: 'Lord, give me wings so I can fly away.' But when they leave, I miss them, and this house feels empty."