How Immigration Reform Has Changed Us Once Before

PHOTO: Houston-based chef Hugo Ortega crossed into the United States from Mexico without papers as a teenager in the early 1980s and was granted legal status through the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. He is now a U.S. citizen.

Gina Sunseri/ABC News

Hugo Ortega felt sick. Fumes from the exhaust pipe wafted up through the holes in the trunk of the 1950-something Chevy Impala and overwhelmed the teenage goat herder from Puebla, Mexico. He tried to breathe but couldn't and vomited into the dark compartment he shared with three other boys.

It had been one month since he left his family in Mexico City and traveled north to the Rio Grande. It had taken six or seven tries but eventually he'd worked his way across the swollen river in a rickety boat and walked across the border into Laredo, Texas. There he'd boarded a train bound for San Antonio where he squeezed into a closed storage compartment with several others. Now, here he was, in the back of an Impala that creaked as it bumped along the road toward Houston.

The life he was fleeing in Mexico had been tough, miserable even. The economy was stagnant. The government was a mess. His father struggled to find work to support the family and fell into a deep depression when he couldn't. A cousin, David, lived in Houston and told Ortega how much money he could earn in the United States. It seemed like a fortune. He thought about it and then decided. I'm going north, he told his parents. He had no idea what awaited him.

Ortega and the other boys arrived, skinny and covered in dirt after a month in the desert, and fell into the embrace of an old Mexican woman who fed them plate after plate of hot chilaquiles. They were safe. None of them knew her but she was from the same village back home, and she knew someone who knew someone and that was how it worked. You took care of your own.

That was in the early 1980s, although he doesn't remember exactly. It was easier back then for these ghosts, these shadows, as Ortega calls the millions of undocumented men and women who have traveled north in search of a better life. Not easy, but easier. It was pre-9/11 and the twin towers were still standing. People weren't quite so suspicious of foreigners yet. He got an ID card and worked a series of odd jobs at local markets to stay afloat. He opened a bank account and saved a little money.

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Then President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986 and life got better still. Ortega applied and was approved for legal status, and citizenship followed in the mid-1990s. He signed up for culinary school, graduated, and 11 years ago, opened Hugo's Restaurant. He now co-owns another, Backstreet Cafe, where he washed dishes in the mid-1980s and where he met his wife, Tracy, who owned it. The two married in 1994 and welcomed a daughter, Sophia, in 1997. He has been named "Chef of the Year" at Houston's annual Culinary Awards and was a finalist for the coveted James Beard Foundation Awards last year.

"Who knows what could have happened [without IRCA]," he said during a phone interview. "Maybe I would not have been able to accomplish what I have accomplished."

IRCA granted legal permanent status to roughly 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, about 70 percent of them Mexican. A quarter million became citizens a decade later, when the entire cohort became eligible to naturalize. By 2009, about 1.1 million had taken the oath of citizenship.

When Reagan signed IRCA into law, he set in motion a process that allowed undocumented immigrants a chance to "come out of the shadows," as the California Republican put it. Once again, the country finds itself in that position as we consider what to do with some 11 million undocumented immigrants living among us. It's undeniable that this move will have an impact on those who receive legal status, and they in turn will affect the towns and people around them. To know what that might look like, we must look back.

There's evidence 1986 immigration reform helped bolster local economies and filled out the workforce in places. According to the American Immigration Council, immigrants bought homes at much higher rates after IRCA than they did before. They pursued higher education at greater rates, and poverty among the group decreased.

Acceptance into the American community facilitated those changes, according to Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and the director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at New York University School of Law.

"You don't want to buy a home if you can't put down roots, and you don't want to put down roots if you're not sure you can stay," he said, adding that interracial marriage also increased.

After Ortega became a citizen, his parents and seven siblings moved to Houston legally. His brother Ruben now helps him with the restaurants. Another, Rene, is a mechanic. Other siblings work in markets and at Whole Foods.

The economic effects of IRCA were also significant. As the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Council points out, fewer immigrants sent money to their home countries after legalization, and those who did sent back less. They spent more of it in their communities, benefiting local economies. Their wages improved, and workers were more likely to invest in educational opportunities to learn skills that could lead to better jobs. That was particularly true for those who spoke English well, Chishti said. Before IRCA, career advancement had been limited. Afterward, it was a possibility.

IRCA also changed the electorate. According to Chishti, IRCA recipients formed the foundation of what has become today's powerful Latino vote. As they naturalized and became eligible to cast ballots, they registered to vote and became more involved in the political process. Now, several decades later, the political power of Latino voters is clear. Overwhelmingly Democrats, Latinos played a critical role in helping re-elect President Barack Obama and swayed the outcome of some state and local elections.

SEE ALSO: Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986: The Human Faces

Ortega is certain that Houston is more prosperous today than it was in the early 1980s and believes immigrants have played a key role in making it so. His early years in the United States were a bit of a whirlwind. He was young, ignorant, and, even though he was one, didn't realize until much later what it mean to be a ghost, to be undocumented. When he meets ghosts now, Ortega tells them to buy property, contribute to the economy, invest money, learn English, study.

Ana Hernandez Luna hasn't met Ortega, although she's dined at his restaurant. But the two have some things in common: Both were born in Mexico and moved to Houston. Both were undocumented for a time. Both have overcome obstacles beyond their control to excel in an environment where not everyone wanted them around.

Her family's decision to overstay their visitor's visa, she said, changed the course of her life.

Hernandez Luna doesn't remember crossing the border in 1979--she was just an infant, after all. But she does remember not being able to visit family in Reynosa, Mexico as a young girl. Leaving the United States without papers meant they might not be able to re-enter and it was just too risky. She constantly feared that one or both of her parents might be deported. But like Ortega, she thinks undocumented life was a little easier back then.

"There was less anti-immigrant sentiment," she recalled during a recent phone interview from Houston.

Her parents got jobs--her mother during the day at the cafeteria in the elementary school she and her older sister, Maria, attended, and her father at a warehouse at night. They paid taxes and bought a home.

Some of her family's friends were nervous when Reagan signed IRCA into law. Was it really smart to come out to the world as undocumented?

But Hernandez Luna's parents were anxious to apply.

"They were some of the first in line," she said.

Hernandez Luna was nine when her family received permanent residency through IRCA. Suddenly trips to see family in Mexico became a reality. Her parents opened a restaurant at a local flea market and ran it for the next half-decade. The five-year mark, at which point the family was allowed to apply for citizenship, came and went, but they didn't fill out the application. It didn't feel pressing at the time.

Hernandez Luna worked her way from Gardens Elementary School to Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena, a working-class city of around 150,000 about 20 miles southeast of Houston.

She was a quiet kid, focused on her studies. It wasn't her parents that pushed her; it was internal, from somewhere deep. Hernandez Luna, who spoke primarily Spanish at home, did her homework on time, got good grades, took summer classes, skipped her junior year of high school and graduated early, at 16.

Celia Fleischman, who has been principal of Gardens Elementary School for nearly 30 years, remembers Hernandez Luna sitting in the corner of the cafeteria with her nose in a book while her mom worked.

"I could kind of see in her already that she was going to be somebody someday, but I never imagined," she said.

Fleischman didn't know at the time that Hernandez Luna was undocumented, but she made it a point not to know.

"What difference does it make?" she asked. "They're children first. That's the way I thought about it when she was here as a child. She was smart, we made the best learning environment possible, and she took advantage of that."

Years later, when she learned Hernandez Luna and her family didn't have papers, Fleischman could relate. Her own parents and some of her siblings were undocumented. It was not uncommon -- is not uncommon -- for families in the community to be mixed-status.

It was when Hernandez Luna enrolled in political science and psychology classes at the University of Houston in 1995 that her undocumented status became an issue. Anti-immigrant rhetoric was gaining traction, and some organizations started restricting scholarships to citizens only. To get the financial assistance she needed, she had to become a citizen.

She and her family began the process. She recalled being terrified that the immigration official who interviewed her had the power to decide her fate.

She passed, despite her jitters, and naturalized at 18. In the spring of 1998, she interned in Rep. Jessica Farrar's (D-Houston) office. Farrar liked what she saw and kept the ambitious young woman on staff. Hernandez Luna went on to work for Rep. Joe Moreno (D-Houston) and managed his successful reelection campaign in 2000. A stint with the Peace Corps in South Africa followed, and then law school at the University of Texas. She graduated with her JD in 2004, passed the bar, landed her first job and left politics behind.

Then a car accident killed Moreno in May 2005, leaving his district without representation. Moreno's people came calling, and after just eight months at her law firm, Hernandez Luna took an unpaid leave of absence to run for office in a special election. She was 26.

"It's not something I had planned on doing," she said. "I thought maybe I would later in life, but not then."

In late 2005, she became the youngest female legislator in the Texas House of Representatives. She's been in Austin, and in politics, ever since.

"I enjoy it. I enjoy public service," she said.

Although she does not practice law full-time as she envisioned, she helps create the law when the House is in session. She spends her days at a firm in Houston using the legal system to help others when it's not. Life is hectic but happy: She's in Austin during the week and then back to Houston to meet with constituents on the weekends. She makes the trips with her husband, Gregory Luna, also a lawyer and the son of former Texas senator and MALDEF founder Greg Luna, and their 11-month-old son, Gregory Eli.

Her mother no longer works -- an injury several years ago prevents that -- and her father is now a shift worker at a refinery. Her sister has an associate degree in accounting and lives nearby. They, like Ortega's family, have all made lives for themselves in the United States.

Hernandez Luna thinks the political climate is more ripe for immigration reform than it was even a year ago. In 2011, Republican colleagues were proposing anti-immigrant measures and throwing around aggressive rhetoric to please constituents. Hernandez Luna had had enough. She took to the House floor to "put a face on the issue."

"Immigration and all that it encompasses is very personal for me because I was an undocumented immigrant," Hernandez Luna said at the time. "You may prefer to use the word illegal alien, but I'm not an alien."

"I wanted them to know that when they were talking about immigrants, they were talking about me," she said.

The ramifications of any immigration reform today are likely to be more widespread than those of IRCA in the '80s, but they are difficult to predict exactly.

"I don't think any of us know, frankly," Chishti said. "Imagine the enormity of the population this time. It's so different. It's 11.2 million potential new voters, eventually."

According to the Immigration Policy Center report, nearly 87 percent of IRCA recipients lived in only four states: California, Texas, Illinois and New York. Those states still have sizeable immigrant populations that could gain legal status if immigration reform passes, but now so do places like Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Some critics argue the growth of the undocumented population is a direct result of IRCA. The Migration Policy Institute noted in a report, for instance, that some analysts believe it spurred further illegal immigration.

"The five-year gap between the qualifying date and the date of the law's enactment left many settled immigrants in the country without status, and critics charged that the law increased the incentive for people to migrate in hopes of future amnesties."

Critics of immigration reform today have a valid concern in wondering whether a new plan will truly curb illegal immigration. That's why some Republican members of the Senate "Gang of Eight," which has introduced a comprehensive immigration proposal, have said they will not consider any plan that does not prioritize efforts to secure the border.

There are also other criticisms of IRCA that make lawmakers today wary of a sweeping reform bill. MPI pointed out allegations of fraud in the seasonal agricultural workers program that helped more than one million IRCA recipients gain legal status. Lawmakers also worry that immigrants could take public assistance funding away from citizens, a concern that also existed in the 1980s. Many states now have rules in place that bar newly legalized permanent residents from receiving benefits. IRCA also gave funding to states to help offset some of the cost of providing care for newly authorized residents. The gang's bill would prevent newly legalized immigrants from receiving most federal benefits for years.

While there are bound to be some similarities between any new immigration reform and IRCA, as MPI points out, there will be differences too. The immigrant population is better documented, so the impacts will be better chronicled. The population is larger, but more spread out, so while immigration reform might be more widely felt, the impact might be more muted. Agriculture is no longer the major employer of undocumented workers, so other industries will be affected as well. And MPI argues that international cooperation with Mexico is more realistic today, so their collaboration on the issue is more likely.

Chishti thinks this last point is key. Immigration from Mexico is close to net zero at the moment.

"Something's happening," he said, "and it's not just the recession."

According to Chishti, education has become more accessible in Mexico. Engineering has become popular, and the country is now a huge software exporter. There are more incentives to stay and fewer reasons to risk crossing the border.

But that doesn't change much for the roughly 11 million who already call the United States home. Ortega and Hernandez Luna are looking at President Obama to change the lives of this group.

"I know there are many families out there similar to mine," she said, "waiting for the opportunity given to my family to be able to reach their dreams and give back to their communities."

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Immigration Reform is a heated political issue that we view from all angles in the hope of getting politicians to address those impacted by the decisions they make.