Culture Shift: Permission to Stay

Mar 19, 2013

This week, we're taking a closer look at how immigration policies shape our Northwest region, culture and people. Momentum continues to build in Congress toward an immigration reform bill this year. The centerpiece will likely focus on the millions of immigrants in the US illegally…and whether to give them a path to citizenship. It’s a proposal that echoes back to the 1980s.

In the first part of our series “Culture Shift”, KUOW’s Liz Jones takes a look at that last immigration overhaul …and some lessons it offers for our current debate.

Seattle schoolteacher Sandra Aguila became a citizen during the last big round of immigration reform. Sandra came to the US in 1985. She was 25 years old. Her English at the time?

Aguila: “Zero. I only say ‘good morning!’”

Now, nearly three decades later, she teaches English to kindergarteners. Most are from immigrant families where English is a second language.

Aguila to student: “What shape is that? Square. Square.”

Sandra buzzes around the room as students ask for help or want to show off their work.

Student: "Ms. Aguila. I did it! I didn’t give up!"

Aguila: “I knew you could do it. We never give up.”

Sandra fled here from a civil war in El Salvador, along with her husband Sergio and their 3-year-old daughter. They landed in Seattle and found odd jobs – they babysat, cleaned offices and painted houses. In the summer, they’d travel to Oregon to work in the cherry orchards.

Aguila: “The hours were long. Sometimes you had to carry big, heavy crates. That was hard for me, especially if you had to climb the ladders. But in general, you know, that was not what I wanted to be doing.”

At the time, Sandra had no idea that backbreaking work would lead to huge reward. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed an unprecedented immigration bill. It offered citizenship to millions of immigrants who were in the country illegally. Reagan called it amnesty.

Part of the bill targeted people who worked on farms in the mid-80s. Sandra and Sergio lucked out. They met the narrow criteria.

With the legal right to work, Sandra says a new world opened up. They landed better jobs. Their family got health insurance for the first time. Sandra went back to school and later earned a Master’s Degree.

Aguila: “But I was lucky. I really feel very grateful.”

Federal studies show people who benefitted from Reagan’s amnesty were soon earning higher wages. People bought houses and started businesses.

But the immigration reform of the mid-80s is widely viewed as flawed. Unauthorized immigrants continue to flock to jobs in the US. And employers continued to hire them. Even immigrant advocates criticize how the program was implemented.

Bocanegra: “It was quite a mess.”

Juan Jose Bocanegra is a longtime activist in Seattle. After the amnesty passed, he and others scrambled to set up services to help people with the application process.

Bocanegra: “We had thousands upon thousands of people. In Los Angeles they used to rent stadiums to let people know.”

Bocanegra says the federal rules were confusing and inconsistently applied. Applications were denied with no chance of appeal. He says it took several class-action lawsuits to get some policies changed.

This time around, if Congress passes another reform bill, Bocanegra hopes the rollout will be smoother. And he’s optimistic reform will happen. Compared to the 80s, he sees a new social attitude.

Bocanegra: “What stands out of course is that we have a broader group of people that are out there defending the immigration issue.”

He mentions past adversaries, like labor unions, are now key supporters. On the flip side, he says group that want less immigration are also better organized now, too. Reagan signed the last immigration overhaul. But the groundwork for it started during the previous administration, under President Jimmy Carter.

Ray Marshall was Labor Secretary during the Carter Administration. He ended up with a key role in immigration policy… sort of by chance.

Marshall: “Well, the president put his program together and when he got it all together, he says ‘anybody see anything we’ve left out?’ I said ‘immigration’.”

That’s how Marshall became responsible for economic immigration, as an afterthought. The way he got that job, Marshall says, illustrates an ongoing problem with the government’s approach. Nobody’s in charge of aligning our immigration policies with our social and economic policies.

Marshall: “If somebody is not in charge in our system, it will always be an afterthought. And if it’s always an afterthought, then it gets neglected. If it gets neglected, then it means you can have happen what we let happen – it can get out of control almost.”

Marshall sees better results in countries where there’s a cabinet-level position to oversee economic immigration. He points to Canada and Australia as good examples.

As for another amnesty, Marshall considers it necessary. He says as long as there’s a large unauthorized workforce, employers will turn there, rather than to any legal programs for foreign workers.

Back in Sandra Aguila's classroom, her kindergarteners have no clue about immigration reform. Or how much it might matter to them or their families. But they’re bursting with ideas about the future:

Aguila: "Dulce, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

Students: "I want to be a doctor." "I want to be a firefighter." "I want to be an astronaut." “I want to be a Spiderman."

As for Sandra, she always wanted to be a teacher. But if she were still undocumented, she doubts this would’ve happened.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio