How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

For some childhood arrivals, a long wait for legal status

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Jesus Cortez has been mowing lawns for a living in Orange County since he was a teenager.

"You know, we mow the lawn, we make sure it's cleaned up, you know, whatever people want," he said. "We trim trees, we blow the leaves."

It's a job that he is vastly overqualified for. 

“I have a degree in Chicano studies, another one in English, and I have a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on social and cultural analysis," said Cortez, 35. "I could teach at a private school, or I could teach in community college. 

He doesn't -- in fact he can't -- because he doesn't have legal status.

He's been in the United States since his family brought him here at the age of 9.

A succession of legalization efforts have washed through. But so far, legislation that would legalize his status has failed or he's been too old to qualify for policies that help younger immigrants who came as minors. So he’s kept doing what he’s always done, working under the table.

As a highly-educated man mowing gets to him sometimes.
“There are some customers that expect things to be done and they expect them to be done for free," he said. "I guess in their minds we’re just the humble workers that are just supposed to do it, and be grateful. It’s gotten to the point where it’s just funny to me when they try to offer me half a soda or half a sandwich, and I’m, like, uh, no thanks.”

Cortez will be among an estimated 300,000 immigrants that came to the U.S. as minors who will be newly eligible for temporary legal status – regardless of how old they are now.

As part of President Obama's executive immigration order, the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has been expanded, and its age cap eliminated. Applications for these immigrants will become available next week. A broader program that will benefit parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents will kick off in the spring.
Cortez would have been eligible years ago for permanent legal status under the legislation known as the Dream Act, which sought to benefit young people who arrived as minors, particularly college students like Cortez and youths who sought to join the military.

The first version of the Dream Act was introduced in the summer of 2001. But after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the political climate surrounding immigration changed.
“The impact of 911 was widespread," said Kent Wong, who directs the UCLA Labor Center. "Of course it was a traumatic event for our country. But for those involved in issues of immigration reform, now issues of immigration were linked to the issue of terrorism."

The 2001 bill went nowhere, nor did other versions that followed.

By 2010, a version of the Dream Act passed in the House, but died in the Senate.

Then in 2012 came Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It was the end result of years of activism by students who lobbied for a path to legal status.

But by then, Cortez had aged out. The cutoff was 30. He was 32 at the time.

"I think I stopped getting my hopes up, honestly," he said.

He kept pursuing his master's degree at Cal State Long Beach, which he completed the following year. But he stuck with his day job as a gardener, work he says has left him with respiratory and other health problems over the years.

UCLA's Wong says the underground economy is peppered with people like Cortez.
“The challenge for undocumented students who have gone on and entered the workforce has been very difficult," he said. "Some have been able to open small businesses...others are able to work for others, under the table.”
Some have skirted labor laws by working as independent contractors, he said, while others have given up and returned to the countries they were born in, hoping to work there as professionals. Others who have stayed have found different ways to legalize.
Betzabel Estudillo thought of moving back to Mexico when the 2010 Dream Act was voted down. She had a political science degree and was earning a small stipend at a non-profit. It was better than the restaurant jobs she'd held - but she was crushed.
“I thought about how much longer can I do this?" Estudillo said. "I’m getting lot older. I want to be able to build something for myself. I was wondering, where does my future lie? Should I even plan for a future?”
Estudillo was dating a U.S. citizen then, but had so far been reluctant to talk marriage. Two years later, though, they took the plunge.
"I think we were both really nervous about it, our decision," she said, "but we know we both wanted to do this and felt right."
After four years of marriage, she's now working on getting her U.S. citizenship. She still works for a nonprofit as a health policy coordinator, but it's a staff job with benefits.

This is the kind of permanence that those who may now qualify for a three-year work permit under Obama's plan would love to have.

Jesus Cortez is allowing himself to get his hopes up again – this time, about a teaching job, even if it's temporary.

But he has mixed emotions about the future. He's feeling the years of backbreaking work, and the humiliation that's often come with it.

"Even if I get a job at the local community college, when I leave the school, if I get that job, it is still going to be the same thing," he said. "I'm still going to have the same dark skin…so when people see me, they are still going to see that – whatever their fear is, whatever their preconceptions are. I see that persisting regardless."

He says he wishes there were policies that could benefit his elderly mother, who can't qualify for relief because she has no U.S.-born children. Or his older brother, who arrived after he turned 16, making him ineligible for the new plan.

But at least, Cortez hopes, he won't have to keep earning his living mowing lawns.

"I'll take it as it comes," he said. "Whatever good comes of it, I'll take it."

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