Ronald Reagan immigration amnesty 25 years later

Today, amnesty is a dirty word. So what happened to the immigrants given a fresh start by Reagan in 1986?

Mendez turned and ran as fast as she could. “I was terrified they were going to handcuff me,” she said. They didn’t, but they did catch up with her a few blocks later. She was taken to detention in Newark with three others.

Over the next eight hours, she recalls, she was terrified that she’d be kept overnight and that no one would be able to take care of her son. Meanwhile, her factory called her union, which sent over a lawyer and told the four women not to sign anything.

The agents didn’t know what to make of Mendez, who produced a sheaf of documents, but none with a picture. How could someone who was illegal have so much paperwork? She also appeared to have something that eludes many citizens: sterling credit.

Mendez recalls that the last agent to interrogate her kept waving the documents at her and asking, “Just tell us who you are. This isn’t you!”

“I kept saying, ‘It’s me!’ ” Mendez says. “They wouldn’t believe me without picture ID.” She’d been so shaken that she’d forgotten she had her Honduran passport. The agents, she says, were stunned to see she’d been telling the truth. Because she had a clean financial history, a job, a child, and—like a lot of undocumented workers—a history of paying taxes, they let her go. They did warn her, Mendez recalls, that she would receive a letter telling her when she’d have to appear in court for possible deportation hearings.

“When I returned to the factory the next day,” she says, smiling broadly, “everyone clapped for me!” A few months later, however, two of the agents returned to the factory.

“I had gone to another building to pick up paychecks for people,” Mendez says, and when she returned, she recognized the duo. “I stayed very calm and stiff,” she recalls, “and when one said, ‘Where is your green card?’ I just said, ‘Green card? What is that? I am from Puerto Rico!’ and kept walking!”

That was in 1983, and for the next three years, Mendez kept waiting for the letter to come that would order her to appear in court for a deportation hearing. But it never did. She doesn’t know why. She stayed on her job, became a shop steward, and had another son.

In 1986, she applied for amnesty “the very day” she could file papers for it, she says. The union handled it for her and paid the fees, and she got a work permit, before eventually getting a green card and, finally, citizenship in the ’90s.

Free to come and go—and return to the U.S.—she visited Honduras to see the son she hadn’t seen for 11 years. By all accounts, the travel industry got a boost from the ’86 amnesty, and activists use that as an economic argument for another amnesty. “The number one reason people come to me to get their status sorted is they’ll say, ‘I miss my family. I want to go home and visit them,’ ” says Philip Kleiner, an attorney at the immigration-focused law firm Barst, Mukamal & Kleiner. “Can you imagine what it will do for the travel industry if 12 million people can suddenly fly for the first time in years?” In fact, he adds, “The idea that Republicans aren’t for amnesty is a myth. Amnesty is good for business.”

Immediately after she initiated her own amnesty process, Mendez says, she “spent the next three months volunteering, helping others to fill out their paperwork to get their documents.” After she became a full citizen, she recalls, she was elated to vote for the first time, and ever since, she has organized other newly minted citizens to vote. She appreciates citizenship, she says, because “there is so much more you can give to your country.”

After 27 years on the job, asthma and carpal tunnel syndrome forced Mendez into early retirement. At 61, she gets by with disability insurance, the pension from her union, and Social Security.

Mendez says that part of becoming an American citizen for her was being able to claim what she’d been paying into without fear. Even after being granted amnesty, she was initially told that she couldn’t claim her Social Security benefits, but that fear dissolved: “I know they had to give it to me,” she says. “I paid into it for 27 years. They can’t take that away from you.”

She now spends her days volunteering and taking classes, one of them an English class at Make the Road.

“You might think it’s strange that, after being here so many years, I don’t speak English,” she says. “But you have to know that for all those years in the factory, I worked with 300 people, and everyone spoke Spanish. Only the supervisor was Jewish.”

A quarter of a century after her own successful struggle to become a legal American, Mendez hasn’t lost her zeal. She recently participated in a 72-hour hunger strike at Judson Church to push for immigration reform. Meanwhile, she’s hoping her one holdout son will become a full citizen before he has any other troubles, and before anything from Arizona works its way toward Florida.

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