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Following the dream: a look at immigration

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two part series examining the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 and the Sonoma immigrant experience. Part one is a brief history of a Sonoma immigrant family drawn to the U.S. by the dream of a better life. Part two will tell the story of a family who emigrated from Mexico after being pushed out by working conditions there.

   “I want the president to know that, when he raises a glass of wine, the immigrants are making it … so that he can drink his glass of wine – every day,” said Noe, a grape-picker living in Sonoma after emigrating from Jalisco, Mexico.

This year marks yet another attempt in the ongoing effort to chart a course for immigrants, those who are undocumented as well as lawful permanent residents, or those with green cards. The U.S. Senate has passed its comprehensive immigration reform bill, S.744, known as the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013,” which promises eventual citizenship for all immigrants in the United States. And soon, the House will begin plans to present its own version.

But citizenship won’t come easily, or without a price. Under the bill, certain “triggers” have to be reached that will delay the pathway to citizenship by at least 13 years.

Congress has been challenged by the complex issue of immigration for decades. Until 1964, U.S. immigration and economic policies were copacetic with the aspirations of many Mexicans. The “bracero” program, established in 1942, legally pulled immigrants in through temporary visas for seasonal agriculture work. But in 1964, the program was abolished, in part because it was thought to be unjustly similar to indentured servitude.

Because they had been encouraged to come legally under the “bracero” program, Hispanic immigrants kept coming even when the program ended. Except this time, they came illegally. There were few repercussions; the steady stream of undocumented labor wasn’t cut off because it kept the cost of agricultural products low. Now, more than half of the undocumented immigrants living in the United States today are from Mexico, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

In 1986, Congress tried to take aggressive action to deter illegal immigration with the Immigration Control and Reform Act. In addition to granting amnesty to the undocumented residents already in the U.S., the law imposed fines against employers who hired undocumented workers. However, the law proved difficult to enforce, and instead bolstered an underground industry of fraudulent documents as demand for identification grew to enable immigrants to continue to work in the US. For employers, the cost-savings of immigrant labor was too appealing, and growers and factory owners continued to use undocumented immigrants.

With the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1993, illegal immigration, once a steady stream, became uncontrolled. The new law brought a slew of American products, including American corn, into Mexico, at a price small-scale Mexican farmers couldn’t compete with. Consequently, the Mexican farming industry began to collapse, destroying jobs and forcing more immigrants to look for work in the U.S..

“A lot of the folks that I work with are from Oaxaca, and that was a district in Mexico that was devastated by NAFTA,” said 24-year-old Jesús Guzman, the lead organizer for the Graton Day Labor Center and a DREAMer (a term used for those seeking residency under the Dream Act, which applies to immigrants who came to the U.S. undocumented as children with their parents, but who have grown up in America). Guzman came to Sonoma when he was 1-year-old from Jalisco, Mexico. He is studying history at Sonoma State University.

“(NAFTA) is putting those folks on those ranches and farms out of work,” he said. “It’s been disruptive to families in Mexico and to American families whose jobs were outsourced away from them. What’s more convenient than having cheap labor from Mexico?”

To understand S.744 and what it will mean for both the immigrant population and for current citizens, some fundamental questions need to be addressed. They include: Who, exactly, are the immigrants? Why do they come? Do we need them? Are they a benefit or a liability for the U.S. economy.?

  Dreams Deferred:

“The economy of the U.S. has (historically) pulled (immigrants) in and then pushed (them) out,” said Davin Cardenás, the lead organizer for the North Bay Organizing Project, which works to find a basis for unity between the Latino and Anglo populations.

Maricela and her two children, 20-year-old Emilia and 28-year-old Josüe, are one Mexican family living in Sonoma that was pulled in, immigrating to the U.S. in 1995 by way of Mexico City, lured by the possibility of better opportunities.

“My husband, Juan Carlos, was an industrial electrician,” Maricela said. “He invested in an oil business, but he lost all his money and he was depressed. So he tells me, ‘I will go to America.’ And the plan was for him to stay for one year and he would send money to us and then he would come back. I stayed in Mexico City, working as a secretary for a title company. My son Josüe had nine years. Emilia had just two years. After a year of him in America, Juan Carlos decided we should join him.”

So far her story sounds like that of any couple starting again after a setback. Except for one thing: they had to start over in secret. Maricela and her children came to the U.S., or as she says it is known in Mexico, “the country of the dream,” as undocumented immigrants.

In 1995, a year after Juan Carlos illegally made his border crossing, Maricela and her children crossed at night, investing all their faith, trust and $1,200 each in the expertise of a professional coyote.

“You have to trust them completely; do exactly what they say,” Maricela explained.

In Tijuana, the Mexican border megalopolis just south of San Diego, Maricela left her children in a hotel in the care of her sister-in-law and went out to buy food. She was gone barely 30 minutes. When she returned, Josüe was gone. The coyote had taken him. Panicked, she ran into the street to try to find him and get him back. But all she could learn from the sister-in-law was that the coyote said it was necessary.

Maricela had no way of knowing what had happened, and for 24 hours she faced the worst parental nightmare: the possibility that her son had been kidnapped. But this coyote was honest. The next day she crossed the border with her daughter, Emilia, and was reunited with Josüe who had crossed with another family, disguised as their sixth child.

In looking back, Maricela reflects that this was the last terrifying moment before a time of happiness. Within a few days, the whole family was together again in a new land in Sonoma.

They moved into a rental house and started their new life. Maricela started a housekeeping business, and Juan Carlos started a new job using his skills as an electrician at a local winery. The kids started school, Emilia as a kindergartener and Josüe as a middle-school American teenager. They had their eye on a starter house in Santa Rosa.

They were on their way to finding success, although, “Maybe dad was too successful,” Josüe recently said.

Then came a day in 1997 when Juan Carlos went to work at the winery and didn’t come back. There had been a raid. INS agents took him into custody. He was deported.

“I can’t believe I lived through it,” Maricela said. “I begged and borrowed money from everyone I knew. I had to get more than $1,000 to get the coyote to bring him back. It took three months, but I finally got it and he came back.”

The celebration didn’t last long. Although Juan Carlos returned, he didn’t get another job. What he did get was cancer. He didn’t suffer very long. With no money and no medical insurance, he died.

The starter house disappeared as surely as if swept away by a tornado, and all of their dreams for the future were suddenly put on hold. Even now, 13 years later, they still haven’t advanced as far as Maricela and her children originally thought they would.

“I was just three years old when I came here,” Emilia said. “I grew up believing in the American dream. My dream is to get a Ph.D. in child psychology.”

Emilia currently attends Santa Rosa Junior College.

“I want to be an engineer,” Josüe said. “I have been accepted to UC Berkeley, but I got married two years ago. It is easier to become a citizen if you are married to a citizen. I now have my green card. But I am still not at UCB. I have real responsibilities now. I’m still at (Santa Rosa Junior College) and working to support my wife. I’m 28 years old, but I feel that I haven’t accomplished anything.”

While Josüe’s future is uncertain, Emilia’s is stagnant. Although under the California Dream Act, passed in 2011, undocumented students who are working to become legal immigrants can receive a nonresident tuition exemption, Emilia is one of the many who has reached a dead end in the process, with no word on when, if ever, she might qualify for the benefits of the Dream Act. In order to fulfill her dream of getting a graduate degree in psychology at a state university, she estimates that she would have to borrow roughly $150,000 at least, paying nonresident tuition.

“I get so depressed sometimes,” Emilia said. “Even though I’ve lived in California virtually all my life, I would have to pay non-resident tuition if I went to college because I am undocumented. And then, how could I pay it back? I will never get a good job if I’m not here legally.”

Asked if they would make the same decision to come here illegally, if they had to do it all over again, they unhesitatingly say in unison, “Yes!”

“We came here for the opportunity for education,” Maricela said. “And we meet many good people. God is with me at home and in other places.”