Ronnie's Kids

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

Ronnie's Kids

On a hot Tuesday night in Jackson Heights, in a storefront next to a Rent-a-Center on Roosevelt Avenue, a meeting room fills rapidly. Over the din of the elevated 7 train, the large hall buzzes with Spanish dialects from various Latin American countries.

The space is the Queens home of Make the Road New York, an advocacy group that fights on behalf of immigrants. It's standing-room-only for a dozen of the 60 people there; the room is humming by the time Segrereo Mendez arrives. Quite a few of the people there know the 61-year-old native Honduran, a longtime worker in the garment industry, as one of its most dedicated activists. But they don't necessarily know her own story.

When President Ronald Reagan re-lit the Statue of Liberty torch in July 1986 and then, later that year, signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act (also known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act), Mendez got lucky. An illegal immigrant herself, she was granted amnesty.

A one-in-a-million outcome for Mendez in '86—more precisely, one in three million. A quarter of a century later, the number of illegal immigrants who would now be eligible for another amnesty has swollen to an estimated 12 million, and, in large part thanks to the flames fanned by fervent nativists of the Tea Party movement, the issue is far more heated.

But what about the three million immigrants who, like Mendez, were granted amnesty and became U.S. citizens? What happened to them? What did they do with their lives? Those questions are mostly forgotten in the newly hot debate this century. These are three of their stories.


The borough of Queens is the most diverse county in the United States. But it's Arizona that is on the minds of the mostly Latin American immigrants gathered in Jackson Heights. Once the meeting at Make the Road begins, most people want to talk about the Draconian state law recently enacted in Arizona, known even back here in New York as S.B.1070. Under the law, local law-enforcement officers would get greater power to investigate immigration status.

People at the Queens meeting fear that their families could be torn apart—even though it is an Arizona law—because it could spur a nationwide wildfire of anti-immigration laws. More than one person expresses a feeling of betrayal by the current administration because they campaigned for Obama in 2008, hoping he would tackle immigration reform early. Instead, raids by ICE (the Orwellian acronym for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) have actually increased since George W. Bush left office.

"Democrats always have to prove they're tough, so raids go up" under them, Make the Road Deputy Director Javier Valdés tells the Voice. The Democrats, he says, see immigrants as "being like the girlfriend you like, but you won't bring home to your parents. It's like, 'Baby, baby, I love you—I just don't want to be seen with you.' "

Segrereo Mendez's immediate personal concern, however, is not Arizona, but Florida. She has just returned from Tampa, where her son had been briefly jailed after a traffic incident. His wife had paid his bail, but because he was an immigrant—even though his work permit was in order—he was held in custody for two more days while authorities checked out his papers. It didn't have to be this way: When she became a citizen through Reagan's amnesty program, she was allowed to sponsor her two Honduran sons for legal status, but one of them chose not to become a full citizen. Now that was causing him trouble—at a particularly touchy and turbulent time for immigrants.

Before amnesty, Mendez survived her own brushes with immigration officials. She came to the United States from Honduras, by way of Tijuana, in 1976, bringing one son with her and leaving one behind.

"It made me very, very sad" to leave him, she says, speaking in Spanish but with a tension that is recognizable in any language. After crossing the border illegally, she came to New York, where she had previously—and legally—spent a year on a visa.

Mendez got a job in the garment industry, stitching towels. She would work for the same company for 27 years as it moved its factory from Manhattan to Hoboken to Brooklyn. Before she started, she paid $50 to get a Social Security card in her own name. It was a legitimate number, and she didn't use it to sponge off the system. Mendez worked and paid taxes, while also sending money back to Honduras. While helping her family there, she built a life here. Working a tough, manual-labor job, she quickly established credit, got a loan for a bedroom set, and even got an American Express card.

Before amnesty, of course, her life here was much more precarious. One day, in 1982, while on the bus to her job in Hoboken at the Abouchar Co. with her co-workers, they arrived to an unpleasant surprise. As she got off, Mendez recalls, "Someone just shouted, 'Immigration!' But it was too late. By the time I heard, they were in my face."

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.

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