When Ronald Reagan pushed the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act, I was a 15-year-old kid, clueless about how that law would impact the life of my parents and millions of other immigrants. I always smile during the opening scene of the move Scarface because of the over the top depiction of people running wild in the streets. In my house, there was no celebration because my parents always lived and carried themselves like they belonged here.
In 1986, there was an estimated 2.7 million illegal immigrants. Today, the number ranges from 11 to 20 million depending upon your source or more/less importantly, your political leanings. Unfortunately, the issue has provided politicians a never-ending game of ping-pong every 2 to 4 years. Healthcare, your job and your safety are always in jeopardy (until the elections are over). As is the case with most issues of national importance, the truth can often be found somewhere in the middle – literally. States like Nebraska have seen a 295% increase between 1990 – 2010 base on a study conducted by the University of Minnesota. Nebraska have some of the lowest crime rates in the country. I guess, the immigration argument can be shaped to fit the need of the person making the argument.
Nadia & Robert Reid – 17 & 19 years old – came to the United States from Belize through Mexico in 1967 or 68 (depending upon which one you ask). They both confirm that my dad came here first – which is no surprise to me – he would jump at the chance to be the first at anything. After a close call that would have changed the course of my life (my mother got caught on a bus in Tijuana, but for reasons she still can’t explain or remember, was released and allowed to continue to the US), they made it to California and promptly moved to New York. Great move for two people who grew up in 82 degree year round weather – hot and humid. Belize is the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen, but it is third world and it is impoverished. Coming to the states is what you do when you come of age – many make it, but many more do not.
Settling in New York in the late 60’s/early 70’s was a piece of cake (and a cross country trek). Securing a social security card back then only had one requirement – stand in line and wait to receive one. How many people can say that their parents’ social security numbers are separated by one digit? (there was a guy in between them in line). My older brother Robert was born in Harlem and I was born in Connecticut after a weekend trip to Danbury convinced them to get away from New York’s hustle and bustle.
The next course of events will sound too far-fetched to be real. During a random conversation with a co-worker, my dad learned that since he had two American born children, he could become a citizen. WRONG. DEAD WRONG. Who is this knucklehead co-worker anyway? Wait – why would my father believe it? Nevermind – he believed it and he decided to become a citizen until the state of Connecticut said – no. Not only did the state say no, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that my parents had to leave the country (A supreme court that included Thurgood Marshall and William H. Rehnquist).
Deportation was scheduled for Friday – back then, you were supposed to surrender. Well, they didn’t. On the advice of their lawyer (my mom kept in contact with him for many years until he passed away) they moved to Los Angeles, remained model citizens and the authorities never came looking for these fugitives of justice. (If you are ever lucky enough to meet my parents, the last term you would use to describe them would be — fugitives).
In 1987 after Ronald Reagan’s controversial Amnesty decision, my parents were able to file for legal residency becoming naturalized citizens in 1989.
The United States offers so many opportunities for millions of people. Many of us ignore, squander or take those opportunities for granted because we were fortunate enough to be born in this great land. The story of my parents is far from unique but closer than I ever realized. All they wanted was an opportunity to make a life And they had the courage to make it happen.
I guess youth isn’t always wasted on the young.
They made the most of their opportunity — they became citizens of the United States.