Twenty years ago Monday, Congress passed the largest effort to date to curb undocumented immigration to this country. Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), employers were sanctioned for the first time for hiring undocumented workers. The bill also called for tighter controls along the Mexican border. But the bill was a compromise: Enforcement was balanced by an amnesty provision.
Under IRCA, undocumented immigrants who had lived in the United States prior to 1982 and those who had worked as seasonal agricultural workers before May 1986 could seek legal status and eventually US citizenship.
Nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants were granted legal residence under the amnesty. Most of them were Mexican (more than 80 percent) and lived in the Los Angeles area. Salvadorans, Filipinos, Haitians, Poles, and Vietnamese also benefited from the program.
But two decades later, illegal immigration is still a hot-button issue and amnesty is a dirty word to some. Private-citizen minutemen and National Guardsmen have rushed to the Mexican border. This spring, millions of undocumented immigrants and others marched in the streets of US cities to protest federal legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants.
It's an issue that may reignite if a new Congress picks up the debate this coming January.
Amid the shouts of today are decades-old echoes from the IRCA.
Critics say the bill set a damaging precedent for future amnesties. IRCA supporters say the word "amnesty" mischaracterizes the bill's intent.
"An amnesty cleans people who have broken the law," says former US Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky. He and former US Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming were the primary architects and cosponsors of IRCA. "But in our bill, you had to prove that you were a law-abiding person who honored the institutions of our country.... So you can take your pick of euphemisms, but if you use the word 'amnesty,' people will get angry, throw their hands up in the air, and scream: 'They're rewarding people for misbehaving!' "
Today Mr. Mazzoli defends the bill as the best way to combat illegal immigration at the time. The six administrations that followed, he says, are to blame for not enforcing tighter restrictions. And now, "It's déjà vu all over again," Mazzoli says. "These are the same issues that we had 20 years ago."
William King Jr., was the Western regional director of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and responsible for carrying out the amnesty program. He says that he had hope that the legislation would work at first. But IRCA was a three-legged stool, he says. One leg was employer sanctions, another was increased border security, and the third was the amnesty program. "In truth, only the amnesty program became a fact," he says, and the effort failed.
To John Keeley, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit group that wants tighter immigration controls, IRCA was well intentioned – but implementation was lacking. "There was a half-hearted attempt at immigration control by the late '80s and early '90s by the old INS," he says, but political pressure brought that to a "screeching halt" by the middle of the decade.
One of the big problems with the IRCA amnesty was all the counterfeit applications, especially from seasonal agricultural workers. Economists Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny studied the effects of amnesty programs on undocumented immigration and presented their findings in the August 2003 issue of Demography magazine. They say that the number of seasonal workers qualifying for amnesty was about 300,000. But in the end, more than 1 million applications were granted. "Most people agree that there was substantial fraud because the document requirement and the residency requirement were quite low for that part of the program," Ms. Zavodny says.
"I don't think anyone says that it deterred illegal immigration," says Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of The National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy group. "But it succeeded in legalizing 3 million people. Their wages went up, and they're fully integrated into American society."
'At first, I thought it might be a trap'
Rohan Baichu says that he has "a lot of jewelry." Mr. Baichu came to the United States from Guyana in 1981, wanting to become a boxer. Instead, he earned three World Series rings as a massage therapist and assistant training coach for the New York Yankees as well as a league championship with the Houston Astros. He is a certified pilot and masseur.
But during his first undocumented years in America, "just the day to day was a battle," he recalls.
Constantly worried about getting picked up by immigration officers, he had to give up his boxing dreams to work night shifts as a security guard.
Baichu was even offered a job with the city of New York by a police chief, who never suspected he was undocumented.
Disappointed with his prospects, he gave up on New York, packed two suitcases, and left for Canada in February 1986. His mother, a Canadian citizen, had offered him a new start through a residency card. But a few days later, he received a call from his girlfriend in New York. She was pregnant. Baichu came back immediately and took up his old job.
By this time, he had lost hope of obtaining a better career. Then came the amnesty. "At first," Baichu says. "I thought it might be a trap." He was so hesitant that he waited a year and applied right before the deadline.
With legal documents in hand, Baichu applied for a supervisor position at the security company. He even did a short stint working for a Wall Street technology company.
But Baichu regretted that he had never gotten an education. So he took out several loans and and moved to Colorado where he went to a community college and where he also earned a pilot's license at the age of 33.
By the time he got his pilot's license, though, flying jobs were scarce, and Baichu was soon looking for another career. So he turned to what he knew best. After years of running track and reading books on nutrition, he aced a professional-trainer exam and got a license in massage therapy.
One day while working at a New York gym, a friend told him the Yankees were looking for a staff trainer. Some weeks later, the team flew him to training camp in Florida for an interview. "When they saw me, they said: 'You're the man.... Can you start tomorrow?' "
Baichu has been in professional baseball ever since. During his time with the Yankees, he crisscrossed the country, shook the hands of two presidents, and earned three World Series championship rings.
He became so well regarded as a trainer that when Roger Clemens was traded from the Yankees to the Houston Astros, the pitcher asked his new team to hire Baichu from New York. He is grateful to "his good friend" Clemens and is proud of his friend's work ethic, describing it as one of the best in the game because, at the age 44, Clemens "works like an immigrant."
Baichu attributes his success to his determination and the possibilities that opened up to him after the amnesty. But he also points out that even those immigrants who haven't been as successful as he has still benefited a lot from the law. "They got their own success," he says. "Even if they ended up living in a rented apartment, they got peace, tranquillity, and values that carry them through."
This year, Baichu became a United States citizen and started a group that raises civic awareness through voter registration. Now that he's able to vote, he says he would support the passage of any legislation that benefits immigrants.
As an immigrant, Baichu says he's proud that one of his daughters – now a student at the University of Southern California – encouraged him to tell his story. "She understands the odds that we had to overcome and feels satisfied about where I'm at."
Baichu sees his future split between coaching and taking care of his two daughters and his adopted son, a 22-year-old Haitian athlete whom he met practicing track one day. Baichu is sponsoring him to attend college.
The joy of security and work
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."