How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Immigrants prepare for legalization, just in case

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On the square glass coffee table in Gerardo's neatly kept home in Azusa sit four thick file folders, some as tall as phone books, all of them stuffed with paperwork.

For more than two decades, he's been saving just about every document: tax records, DMV records, kids' school records, old credit scores. He still has his first mortgage payment receipt from more than 10 years ago.

Gerardo, who asked us not to use his last name, is in the United States illegally. He's held on to these records as a way to document his existence, and his contributions, in case the need ever arises.

"Because you never know what is going to happen," Gerardo said. "Because I was always living in fear, you know - what is going to happen if I'd be on the street and ICE shows up, and takes me home, I mean, away from home?"

Now, Gerardo is hoping that his meticulous record-keeping will pay off. The Senate recently approved an immigration reform bill that would create a path to legal status, and eventual citizenship, for many of the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally.

Under the bill, one requirement for starting the legalization process would be for hopeful applicants to prove they've been here continuously since before December 31, 2011. That's where documents come in.

Just about any sort of official documents, pay stubs, even bills and postmarked letters could help, said Alma Rosa Nieto, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles.
“Marriage certificates, divorce certificates, if they have gone to their consulate and requested a passport that clearly states it was issued in the U.S.," Nieto said. "And then of course, all documents they receive at home, whether it’s their electricity bill, their water bill, their gas bill, their rent receipts. Income taxes will help as well.”

Children's birth records would also help, along with social services records, said Nora Phillips, a staff attorney at the Central American Resource Center near downtown Los Angeles. The organization gets calls daily from people wanting to know what to do if the legislation moves forward.

"We're getting inquiries from people as to what types of documentation they should be gathering, and any other kinds of documents they might need for the immigration process," Phillips said.

When members of the staff do community presentations, Phillips said, the bulk of the questions from the audience are about immigration reform. They tell people what documents they may need - but they also warn them to be wary, because immigration reform hasn't happened yet. 

"You end up sort of giving them a brief lecture on how a bill becomes a law as well, because you also are familiarizing people sometimes with the legislative process," Phillips said.

Although the Senate bill passed by a wide margin, the chances of it clearing the House are far slimmer, especially with a broad legalization component. There's that thing about counting chickens before they hatch, says Mark Krikorian, of Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for tighter restrictions on immigration.

"You know, while gathering receipts and what have you might be a prudent thing to do just to prepare, people need to understand that this is in no way a done deal," he said.

Gerardo said he's being cautiously optimistic. He has a lot riding on what happens in Congress. He arrived from Mexico as a young man in the late 1980s, and spent years working his way up in restaurant kitchens. But he lost a good job at an upscale eatery last year, he said, after new management became worried about his lack of work authorization.

He found work again, but it was a blow. He has a mortgage and four kids, two of them in college. Gerardo wants – badly – to make his life here official.

"I'm going to believe that the dream is not going to be a dream any more," Gerardo said. "I don't know, I don't know, I just want to have this dream come true."

There's no guarantee that it will. But if it does, at least he'll be prepared.

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