This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee continues to work on an immigration reform bill, as the House prepares to release its own version.
The last time Congress passed a comprehensive immigration bill, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, "Top Gun" was the box office king, and a Bill Buckner error in the World Series became the stuff of legend. The 1986 immigration reform bill put two million undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship.
The story of two of those immigrants was documented a quarter century ago, as a young couple made their way through the process that led to their American dream.
The story of Oscar and Martha Mendoza began with a stack of paper three inches high — rent receipts, paystubs, tax returns, even refund checks for coins lost in that ancient technology known as a payphone. Oscar said he got a big box, "and every time when I receive papers, I put them in."
Oscar Mendoza came to the U.S. in 1979 in the trunk of a car. He was 19 when he fled El Salvador after his uncle was killed in the civil war. Oscar met Martha on a bus near L.A. She was also undocumented, an immigrant from Mexico. They married and got jobs — he at an auto detail shop, she at a balloon factory. By the time our interview took place in 1987, they had two American-born children: five-year-old Tony and two-year-old Kelly.
Oscar had heard rumors of a new law that promised legal status. It was the Immigration Reform and Control Act — signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Oscar knew he'd need proof that he'd lived and worked in the U.S. for a number of years. That box of papers became the Mendozas’ proof they could qualify for citizenship.
Sitting down with volunteer attorney Marina Manessy, Oscar began to cry: "This is my life you know." Manessy said the papers were the only way he had of remaining in this country. "He has a great deal at stake here," she said. "He has children who were born here. The country means a lot to him."
The process of legalization wasn't fast and it wasn't easy. Martha Mendoza said it was also expensive: "$1,087. Exactly."
And there were more expenses to come for pictures and fingerprints. "It's too much money," Martha said. "I think other people— poor people — they don't have that much money."
There were medical examinations, interviews with immigration officials, a civics exam and the dreaded English test. The couple's son, Tony, vividly remembers the Spanish-to-English dictionary that they used to bring everywhere with them and the late-night ESL classes. Tony is 31 now, living outside Washington, D.C., supervising construction projects for the U.S. Navy.
"I remember when my mom failed the exam," he says. "I remember her crying." He also recalls a constant, nagging worry about what was going to happen to the family.
What did happen was a surprise. The Mendozas had paid taxes over the years, but with phony Social Security numbers. The refunds they deserved were never sent. With legitimate documents, they began receiving refunds — enough money for a down payment that allowed the family to move from a one bedroom apartment in Pomona to a tract home in Corona. Martha fairly sparkled as she led a tour of the tiny house. "Everything is new!" she said. "For me, my house and my kitchen looks like it's for rich people."
Oscar described it as his version of the American dream: "Your house, your job, your car, your family, your dog, your bird. So, yeah, I made it!"
The couple started their own business, making dentures and dental implants. In the late 1990s, Oscar and Martha finally qualified to become American citizens and vote in elections. Tony says his folks wouldn't say how they registered, but he thinks his mom's a Republican, "and my dad switches. I think most recently, he voted Democrat."
Without the 1986 immigration law, Tony says his mom and dad — who now live in Phoenix — would still be working for "next to nothing" in jobs with crazy hours and unsafe conditions. Citizenship also gave his folks a sense of security — the same feeling Tony says he had the day he and his partner got married.
"Once my husband and I were legally recognized as a couple, I had a confidence that nothing was going to break us," he says. "And I think Mom and Dad, that was their thing, too. Once they had amnesty, they had a confidence that nothing was going to stop them from achieving what they wanted, achieving all their dreams."
Congress now begins the debate about whether an estimated 11 million new undocumented immigrants will be given a path to citizenship — a chance for them to achieve their own American dreams.