Guest Blog by: John Lamb

This week marks 25 years of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed into law by Ronald Reagan. Among other things, the law granted amnesty – and green cards and citizenship – to millions of future Americans.

I thought the anniversary would be bigger news. Immigration is a controversial topic that draws eyes to media and comments to their online forums, in large numbers. There are an estimated 3 million people to interview about what it was like to receive the 1986 amnesty, and what their lives have been like since. But there was only a trickle of coverage in the press.

The stories of Gerardo Avilosand Gerardo Oribiosamnesty was reported by David Montero in Monday’s Salt Lake Tribune. Avilos is a business owner who still gets emotional when Reagan’s name is mentioned. Oribios was interviewed about how amnesty led him to join the military. Now he is a father of three and a staff sergeant for the U.S. Army, stationed in Italy.

Last year, in a series called “Ronnies Kids,” the Village Voice interviewed garment worker advocate Segrereo Mendez, daughter of amnesty recipients Edith Villavicencio, and “worker priest” Noel Bordador. Villavicencio did not receive amnesty herself but got her legal residency papers as a quinceañera present from her parents, who were able to sponsor her only because of their amnesty. She and her siblings all went on to college.

One Nashville resident told his amnesty story on my own web site. “Manuel” (even though he has legal permanent residency, we changed his name to protect his privacy) is like Edith Villavicencio, in that he didn’t receive amnesty himself, but it affected him profoundly. He remembers the emotional reaction that played out at work when the law was signed:

I was at my job…a little restaurant where I worked while in school.  They’d been trying to pass the law for a while.  They had a TV on, and we heard President Reagan had signed the bill.  The Spanish people were very happy.  Some of them were crying.  It was very emotional.  Some were clapping.  Some were screaming very happy screams.

Manuel describes how amnesty liberated the people who qualified for it:

It opened doors of opportunity.  You could buy a house, go back and see your family. It was the best news ever.  Back then I knew people who had been here (in the U.S.) twenty years that hadn’t been able to go home to visit family.  After ‘86 you could get a temporary green card to travel back and forth.  There was this guy who’d been here forever. When he heard the news, he applied to get his card and went to Mexico for a month.

Manuel himself says he would otherwise have returned to Mexico after his graduation from college in 1989, even though he didn’t want to. Because of the new possibilities open to immigrants as a result of the 1986 law, he found the courage to apply for a longer stay in the U.S.

I wish we had many more of these stories available to us. StoryCorps, the non-profit archive of Americans’ personal stories, has a Hispanic page with immigration anecdotes, however, there is no specific story or section focusing on amnesty recipients. g92.org itself started with a movie offering the first-person perspective of a family with mixed immigration status. There is a page on the site showcasing non-fiction books about immigrants. All these personal accounts are important, and even though they’re not specifically about amnesty, they can tell us something about the immigration bureaucracy, through the eyes of a person whose links to society are under its control.

The one time I had the most access to these stories was when my family and I attended the Primera Iglesia Bautista, a Spanish-language church plant of First Baptist Church of downtown Nashville.  We were there for two years, and along the way, I learned the immigration and citizenship status of a significant part of the congregation.  As you get to know people, you get to know their personal stories.  I learned about a church leader’s journey across the U.S.-Mexico border from the hillsides of a Honduran army camp. He stowed away in the back of a cargo truck stuffed with people, with children given the seats on the floor closest to the compartment’s only air hole. He went from there to Middle Tennessee, where he found faith in Jesus Christ, a job, and home ownership.  I saw two of my fellow churchgoers working on the construction of my office’s new building – one welding the atrium rafters, and another painting a reception area.  One of my brothers without papers worked at a high-profile local destination, preparing food for tourists.

We don’t attend that church anymore. As a result, I am disconnected from these stories.  I don’t keep up with our friends at la Primera. I don’t talk to the Spanish-speaking man who mows our yard, Ignacio, except to say “Hi” every few weeks as I leave my driveway on my way to work, and as he arrives at my house for work. Neighborhood conversations are sometimes peppered with speculation about the immigration status of the Spanish-speaking workers who build houses in our neighborhood, and even about the status of Ignacio. And even though I know that some of my neighbors have chatted him up, I don’t think we’ve ever involved Ignacio in those conversations about immigration, or let his experiences inform our opinions. For all we know, he may have been born in the U.S., but I bet that just by speaking Spanish, he is close to immigrants and has something to teach us.

There are millions of people whose official American lives started with the 1986 immigration law, and millions more about whom a national debate rages, in waves of various intensity. Their first-hand testimonies are available to us, and we are called to listen.


John Lamb is the editor of HispanicNashville.com, an English-language blog about Hispanic life in Nashville.  He is a graduate from the University of Chicago Law School and Texas Christian University.  From 2003-2005, John and his family attended Nashville’s Primera Iglesia Bautista, where they learned that many of their dearest friends have no options available to them in the U.S. immigration system.
 

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