Relatives in Mexico hope for U.S. immigration reform


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In Mexico, immigrants’ relatives watch U.S. debate, and hope

Many are skeptical that Congress will pass immigration reform legislation, but if it happens, they say, it will mean the reunion of countless family members, some separated for 20 years.

By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles TimesMay 17, 2013, 5:59 p.m.

TONATICO, Mexico — Armando Guadarrama was navigating his taxi through the narrow streets of this central Mexico pueblo on a recent Saturday morning, some 2,000 miles from the Beltway.

But like many here, Guadarrama was up-to-the-minute with the immigration reform push that is the talk of Washington. When he spoke of its odds, the 40-year-old could sound like a hard-bitten D.C. veteran, grumbling over a scotch at the Old Ebbitt Grill.

He sniffed incredulously at President Obama‘s statement, a day earlier, that he was “absolutely convinced” that reforms would pass this year. Did Obama really think that enough conservative Republicans would fall in line?

“They’re always making promises,” Guadarrama said. “They promised immigration reform” — over and over, he noted — “when I was living up there.”

But if a bill did pass, he emphasized, his family would benefit immeasurably: His older brother, who works in Illinois without a green card, would probably return to Mexico for the first time in 17 years.

The brother was too scared to come back for his father’s funeral in April, because security is so tight at the border. He was afraid he would be caught and deported — forced to give up his American life and paycheck.

Guadarrama’s thoughts summarize the two prevailing sentiments that Washington’s revived immigration reform effort arouses in Tonatico, a small, handsome old pueblo two hours south of the Mexican capital that has sent thousands of its sons and daughters to the U.S. to seek their fortune.

Many here are skeptical of reform’s chances in a polarized Washington. But they also hope they are wrong, because a law with a so-called path to citizenship would allow those who sneaked into the U.S. or overstayed their visas to finally return, without fear, to Mexico and see their loved ones.

“If the law passes, it will change a lot,” said Rafael Aviles, 43, a photographer who lived in Illinois for two decades before a number of run-ins with the law led to his deportation. “People will come back and spend a lot of time with their families. They will relive the life they left. A lot of people haven’t been back in 20 years.”

The details of the Senate’s bill were made public last month by the bipartisan group of eight senators whose proposal would allow those in the country illegally to attain “registered provisional immigrant” status if they pay taxes, fines and fees, pass a criminal check and prove they have lived in the U.S. continuously since Dec. 31, 2011. A small group of House lawmakers reported this week they had reached consensus on a parallel bill. Both bills would be contingent upon various border-security upgrades.

Some immigrants would have to wait as long as 10 years with this “provisional” status before being eligible for a green card. In the meantime, they would be able to work legally in the U.S. and to travel abroad.

That is what matters most in Tonatico, a town of 7,500 that celebrates a “Day of the Absent Migrant” during the annual fiesta that begins in late January. This hilly, long-struggling patch of Mexico has been sending migrants north since the 1940s, when many people here took part in the bracero program launched to help make up for U.S. wartime labor shortages.

When the second great wave of immigration began, in the 1980s, the undocumented were often able to return home without much trouble. They would drive across the border for birthdays, or Mexican Independence Day, or the Tonatico fiesta, then head back to their jobs in the U.S.

Crossing without papers was always a tricky proposition, but it became increasingly difficult after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Washington clamped down on the border. More recently, Mexican organized crime groups have targeted northern-bound migrants for extortion, robbery and kidnapping.

Some of Tonatico’s immigrants still come home to visit, but these days it’s only the ones authorized to live in the U.S. Their big trucks, with U.S. license plates, are a common sight on the major holidays.

On the recent Saturday, a white SUV with California plates was parked in front of Tonatico’s graceful, whitewashed church. The car’s owner never appeared, but the evidence of a growing biculturalism, fueled by years of cross-border exchange, was everywhere.

Aviles, the deported photographer, was hanging out in front of the church with the latest camera gear; he said proudly, and in nearly flawless English, that he had learned to use the Internet to shop for cheap electronics when he was in the States.

A few blocks away, Santos Colin Vazquez, 40, was relaxing with his wife and children in the four-bedroom luxury home he built with the money he made while working without a green card, between 1995 and 2004, in a factory in Waukegan, Ill.

Colin came home to Tonatico of his own volition, he said, “because the famous amnesty” — promised in previous failed congressional reform efforts — “never arrived.”

He was asked about the new bill’s chances of passage. “What I hope is yes,” he said. “What I think is no.”

Juan Romero Mendoza, 25, from the neighboring state of Michoacan, said he had worked without a green card as a house framer in Atlanta. Then the real estate market crashed and the work dried up. He returned to Mexico in 2007.

Romero, who was selling homemade furniture on the sidewalk across from the town market, said he was most intrigued by the Senate bill’s proposal to expand temporary guest-worker programs. He said he would love an easy way to make American money, but not have to commit to a full-time life in the U.S.

“The only reason most of us go up there is for un dinerito,” he said — a little money.

In the afternoon, Luis Sotelo, a Tonatico artist and activist, offered a tour of the city’s residential streets, showing how money from newly returned migrants — and remittances from those living abroad — had changed the lifestyles of many families here. Old, tired adobe buildings stood next to buildings with new facades, new additions and fresh coats of paint.

“This one with pesos, this one with dolares,” he said, over and over, pointing from house to house. “The story of Tonatico is written in the houses.”

What was missing, in so many cases, were the very immigrants who had sent the dollars but could not return to see what their dollars had built.

“It’s like a cage,” Aviles said of the immigrants stuck in the U.S. “The gold cage, I call it.”

The Senate immigration bill has sparked what is likely to be a long, messy debate in Washington, with some Republican members of Congress favoring a piecemeal approach to reform. Amid all this, the “registered provisional immigrant” proposal is bound to be one of the most controversial elements: Conservatives have long decried such a move as granting an undeserved “amnesty” to people who cheated the system.

Infighting on Capitol Hill felt both impossibly distant and tragically close that Saturday afternoon on a dusty mountainside outside of Tonatico, in a community called Salinas.

There, by a rustic adobe farmhouse, dozens of friends and family had gathered for a birthday party. The host, Patricia Gutierrez, had spent 11 years without legal status in the United States. Later, she married a U.S. citizen and earned her residency status. Now the professional tax preparer flies back frequently from her home in Nashville, throwing parties for her family at the adobe house she bought for that one purpose.

Sotelo, still playing guide, introduced guest after guest who had a family member stuck in the States. Teacher Josefina Dominguez, 51, said that two of her brothers have legal U.S. resident status. But two of them don’t. They haven’t been home to Mexico in 18 years.

Facebook and other social networks help keep her family connected across the fortified border.

“But sometimes,” she said, “you need to be with your family physically.”

Times staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

Photo: Patricia Gutierrez of Nashville dances at a birthday party in Salinas, outside Tonatico, Mexico. She spent 11 years in the U.S. before she gained legal status, and she now returns regularly to hold parties for her relatives at a house she bought for that purpose. (Richard Fausset / Los Angeles Times / May 4, 2013)

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