'My life could've been completely different'
Revisiting impacts of 1986 IRCA amnesty
Margarita Arvizu knew the pain of family separation long before the Trump administration took the practice to an extreme at the U.S./Mexico border.
Her husband self-deported to Ciudad Juarez in 2012 on the orders of immigration officers when it was clear there was no legal path for him to stay with his family in El Paso.
“Our children missed their father’s presence at their high school and college graduations, on their birthdays, and at their weddings,” Arvizu said. “It’s been very, very difficult for me and my children.”
The family came to El Paso from Juarez 24 years ago with temporary border crossing permits after Arvizu’s husband got a job offer in a mechanic's shop. Eventually they bought a mobile home and put it on a square of land outside the city limits.
Arvizu gave birth to the couple’s third child, the only U.S. citizen in the family. Her two older children now have legal status through marriage and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama era policy for immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as kids. Arvizu’s permit expired long ago, and she’s now here undocumented.
Like millions of other undocumented and mixed status families around the country, Arvizu hopes Congress will accomplish what it didn’t under previous administrations: pass comprehensive immigration reform.
President Joe Biden, on his first day in office, announced a proposal that could legalize many of those millions and reunite families like the Arvizus. Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Linda Sanchez, both Democrats, plan to introduce a bill based off Biden’s proposal.
The bill faces its toughest challenge in the Senate where it would need support from all 50 Democrats plus a minimum of 10 Republicans to avoid a filibuster. Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, who supported a 2013 bipartisan immigration overhaul, have both voiced objections to blanket legalization.
Waiting for 'la amnistia'
This fall will be 35 years since President Ronald Reagan signed the last comprehensive legalization bill into law. The Immigration Reform and Control Act, or IRCA, sought to penalize employers for hiring unauthorized workers and increase enforcement at the border.
But the law is best known for providing amnesty to some 2.7 million immigrants nationwide. Mexicans made up 74% of applicants, most of whom refer to IRCA as simply, “la amnistia.”
Carlos Ruvalcaba remembers sleeping on a south El Paso sidewalk with his mother outside a processing center on Alameda Avenue months after IRCA’s enactment. He was in the fourth grade and undocumented.
“We spent the night there waiting for the office to open, so we could get our paperwork done,” he said. “I remember the news being there doing a story. There were a lot of people waiting.”
Ruvalcaba’s mom brought him to El Paso with her border crossing permit when he was a toddler. They came to join his father who had his residency and was working in construction. He and his mother applied for legal status, but their petition was still unresolved when legalization under IRCA became possible.
“I didn't really understand when I was younger my mom told me I shouldn't tell people that I was from Juarez,” Ruvalcaba said. “Once we got our permanent resident status, I felt more comfortable. ... It was a relief.”
With their green cards came the freedom to return to Juarez and reconnect with his mother’s family. He spent countless weekends and summers playing basketball and football with his cousins, buying snacks at the corner tiendita and riding la ruta, the bus, around town. On weekdays he would go back to school in El Paso.
“It was almost like I had two lives,” Ruvalcaba said. “I loved going to Juarez, it was so different from our life here in El Paso.”
Today, Ruvalcaba is a father and a U.S. citizen. He served in the Air Force, went to the University of Texas at El Paso, graduated from law school and became an immigration attorney. His mother got her GED and became a beautician. One of Ruvalcaba’s proudest professional moments was stopping the deportation of a father with two U.S. citizen children.
“Every time I drive by the freeway and I see Juarez I think my life could easily have been completely different,” he said. “If that opportunity (to legalize) hadn’t been available, I probably wouldn’t be an attorney right now, I probably would’ve had a lot more hardships.”
Undocumented population doubles
IRCA’s success is most obvious in individual stories like Ruvalcaba’s. Studies show that those who legalized saw their wages go up by 20%, they were also more likely to get a higher education and they become homeowners.
The law failed, however, when it came to preventing employers from hiring workers without legal status.
In 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted the largest enforcement operation in the agency’s history at seven food processing plants in Mississippi, arresting 680 workers. ICE workplace investigations from that year resulted in 73 convictions.
Among the most high-profile violators of IRCA is the Trump Organization, which employed undocumented workers to staff the former president’s golf clubs and winery.
Critics of IRCA maintained it would create a surge in illegal immigration. Luis Garcia, a retired official with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency that later became part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, remembers working in conjunction with the Mexican government in the mid-1980s to control a tide of immigrants that had gathered below the southern California border.
“On any given night, three to five hundred Mexican nationals would run across the border into San Isidro and keep running up the freeways,” he said. “People would run in the median dragging children up Interstate 5.”
It was around this time that the state highway department began installing the iconic traffic signs showing the silhouette of a family running.
People died trying to cross the congested roadways. The U.S. Border Patrol started riding in “war wagons” — vehicles with mesh guards on the windows to protect against rock throwers. The U.S. also replaced cattle guard fencing at its southern border with solid steel barriers that had served as airplane landing mats in Vietnam.
“Mexico and the Central American countries, all they heard at that time, like they are hearing now, was that the U.S. was going to provide amnesty to those that were in the U.S. unauthorized,” Garcia said. “That became a magnet then, it has become a magnet now."
Garcia was once among the undocumented in this country.
At age 4, his Mexican grandmother cradled him in her arms and waded across the Rio Grande downriver from the port of entry in Fabens, Texas, where his father picked cotton. His family was later rounded up during Operation Wetback, a mass deportation effort that began in 1954, loaded into the back of a perrera, a windowless van known as "the dog kennel," and sent back to Mexico across the same port of entry his grandmother evaded years before.
The family came back to the U.S. legally just 18 months later, sponsored by his father's boss.
The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has more than doubled since IRCA, going from an estimated 5 million in 1986 to roughly 11 million today.
But the highest apprehension rates at the southern U.S. border didn’t happen until a decade after IRCA. Experts attribute those spikes to more restrictive immigration policies passed in the mid-1990s, which made it more difficult to enter and exit the U.S.
They also made it harder to obtain legal status. As a result, those who entered unlawfully tended to stay and those who might have adjusted their status held off or were caught up in lengthy backlogs.
Immigrant advocates and those in favor of greater restrictions both agree that messaging is key. Human smugglers jump at the slightest opportunity to profit off people’s vulnerabilities.
News of an administration more sympathetic toward migrants has already resulted in at least a couple of Central American caravans. Border Patrol officers are seeing spikes in authorized crossings, a potential sign of another humanitarian crisis at the southern border.
Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) wrote on Twitter that “by loosening U.S. policies on asylum and immigration” the Biden administration was encouraging more migrants to undertake a dangerous journey.
Carlos Marentes, director of the Border Farmworkers Center in downtown El Paso, cautions that no matter the message or how effectively it’s communicated, migrants will continue to show up at America’s doorstep, propelled by powerful forces such as extreme violence, poverty and environmental disasters.
“People come because for them it’s a matter of survival,” he said.
On cold mornings in 1987, Marentes was also outside the IRCA application center in El Paso on Alameda Avenue. He parked a donated old bus out front and welcomed hopeful migrants inside where they could warm up with a cup of coffee.
Eventually, overwhelmed immigration officers asked if he would help applicants fill out their forms. IRCA included a legalization provision specifically for farmworkers who Marentes had helped organize since the early ‘70s.
“I remember a woman with three small children, one was a baby,” he recalled. “She was there to apply for farmworker legalization but didn't have the paperwork to prove it. Her bosses won't give it to her for fear they’d be penalized.”
After further investigation, Marentes figured out a work-around. Each of the woman’s children were born in a different city along the typical farmworker route which followed the seasonal harvests in Florida, Texas, and California. She was able to prove her eligibility for IRCA’s legalization using their birth certificates.
Strong ties in the U.S.
Farmworkers still make up an important share of the undocumented population. During the ongoing pandemic, they’ve been recognized as essential workers who are typically underpaid and overexposed to numerous hazards, including COVID-19.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that as many as 5.6 million unauthorized immigrants are also essential workers, including those who help supply Americans with food and health care.
MPI’s data also shows that a majority of immigrants who lack a path to legalization are part of the everyday fabric of their communities. Sixty percent have been in the U.S. for longer than 10 years, more than half speak only English or speak it well, and close to 30% own a home.
“We need to come to grips with reality and have some type of immigration reform, create some kind of pathway,” said Victor Manjarrez, a former Border Patrol chief and now associate director for UTEP’s Center for Law and Human Behavior.
“Opponents will call it amnesty. That is always going to be the struggle. You have to come to the realization that it’s not strictly an enforcement answer, and that’s how we’ve tried to treat it the last four years,” he said.
Manjarrez advocates for a “multi-pronged approach” to immigration that includes border enforcement, aid to countries in regions with heavy out-migration and legal pathways to opportunities in the U.S.
Amnesty could change lives
President Biden’s proposal would allow undocumented immigrants in the U.S. before Jan. 1, 2021, to apply for temporary legal status.
In five years, those same applicants could be eligible for permanent residence if they paid taxes and passed a background check. In three more years they could be eligible for citizenship.
For Margarita Arvizu, the undocumented wife and mother from Juarez, amnesty would be life changing.
When she first arrived in El Paso, she cleaned strangers’ homes for $50 each and cared for the children of teachers and waitresses. Today she works for an immigrant rights organization. She pays taxes but hasn’t gotten a stimulus check to help ride out the pandemic.
In the nine years since his deportation, Arvizu has seen her husband twice at a nonprofit-sponsored event that allows separated families to meet momentarily on the muddy riverbed of the Rio Grande. The couple embraced for a fleeting three minutes.
“We’ve lost out on so much. Our lives are just focused on working to survive. I would like to take a day off, go on vacation,” Arvizu said. “Like anyone else in this country we work, we pay taxes. I think we deserve something in return for all the effort we’ve invested into this country.”
El Paso Times reporter Lauren Villagran contributed to this story.