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The Fatal Funnel: 'I came to show my skills and give back to America'

By Gabe Semenza
Aug. 26, 2009 at 3:26 a.m.
Updated Aug. 30, 2009 at 3:30 a.m.

Flores, who bows his head before speaking to fellow church members, is a prominent member of Victoria's Santísima Trinidad.

Timeline

Highlights of U.S. immigration reform:

1819: Congress enacts first significant legislation. Establishes reporting of immigration and sets sustenance rules for ship passengers leaving U.S. ports for Europe.

1864: The importation of contract laborers is legalized.

1875: Prostitutes and convicts barred from U.S. immigration.

1885: Admission of contract laborers banned.

1906: Knowledge of English made a basic requirement of admission.

1921: First quantitative law adopted. Annual quotas set according to nationality.

1943: Bracero Program admits agricultural workers from North, South and Central America.

1952: Most comprehensive reform at the time. Law reaffirms national origins quota system, limits immigration from Eastern Hemisphere and leaves Western Hemisphere unrestricted, establishes preferences for skilled workers and tightens screening standards.

1978: Separate ceilings for Eastern, Western hemispheric immigrants combined into one worldwide limit of 290,000.

1986: Immigration Reform and Control Act signed.

Pedro Flores emerged from poverty and then the shadows to attain a dream his family in Mexico never did.

Starving for work and a bright future, he left home, worked hard and saved his money. Using worn hands and skills from all the trades, he built an impressive Victoria County home for his wife and children.

By all measures, the 59-year-old, who came here illegally, is a shining example of amnesty when it works. Flores became legal in the mid-1980s via law signed by the late President Ronald Reagan.

Amnesty critics can just as easily point to other, less storybook legalized immigrants. Earlier this year, a Victoria jury found a Central American immigrant guilty of murdering a 52-year-old man.

Debate aside, everyone agrees something must be done to account for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country now.

As immigration reform takes a back seat to other urgent issues, pressing questions remain.

What forces led to the last major immigration reform, what were the consequences and what spurs reform talks now?

Flores said he doesn't have the answers. His journey, though, illustrates why the debate exists in the first place.

Flores shuffled his feet in the driveway, discussed the fruit trees he planted in the backyard and pointed with pride to the wrought-iron fence. His son-in-law welded the steel pickets. Flores laid the bricks that form the sturdy base and columns.

By many standards, Flores lives the American dream. His 3,000-square-foot home, located on a small chunk of land on Old Highway 59, is a testament to hard work and sacrifice. His business card, a symbol of pride. The glue that binds it all: a large, loving family. His two youngest sons study to become doctors.

Life now for Flores varies greatly from his early years in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

One of 11 children, Flores grew up lacking electricity and running water. At night, he lit kerosene lamps. By day, the family grew beans and corn, and ate little during dry seasons.

He remembers farm animals gathered on the village's dirt roads, old men plowing fields with mules and adobe homes draped with curtains as doors.

His father died when he was 9. School in his mountainside village stopped after the third grade. Work began thereafter. As a child, he cared for his family's bean fields and played accordion at dusk.

Jobs were so scarce villagers lived off the land or not at all.

As a young man, Flores daydreamed of starting his own family. He yearned for more than meager pay and dirt-floor bedrooms. He looked north. In 1978, at age 29, he left Mexico for Texas.

"It's hard leaving a big family," Flores said. "My mother was a good woman. She established good morals: honesty, hard work, drive for your dreams, help others. I told her I'm going to another place to find something better for my future family. She told me not to, but I had to."

Flores waded the Rio Grande, rode to Laredo and walked for seven days toward San Antonio. He stopped at each town in search of work.

After working farm jobs outside Houston, he settled in Victoria. Here, on Jan. 1, 1980, he met Bertina Flores. She, too, was an illegal immigrant. They married a year later.

Even as inflation and a rise in oil prices dampened national spirits, the region's economy boomed. Oil and gas profits spilled into job growth. Flores, who worked at one of many robust industrial plants, rode the wave.

Away from work, he spent Sundays at church and quietly mingled with friends who escaped similar plights.

By 1986, Flores had a steady job, four children and most of that which he'd dreamed about - everything but a green card. Soon, he and his wife would receive their shot to gain legalization.

By the mid-1980s, the United States was a hotbed for immigration debate. Mexicans had steadily crossed for work for 20 years. The undocumented immigrant population bulged, though, with tens of thousands of Central Americans. Military coups in El Salvador, ethnic genocide in Guatemala and civil war in Nicaragua prompted an exodus north.

Central Americans sought refugee status, but U.S. federal law denied amnesty to citizens from countries called allies. Those who escaped federal capture sought sanctuary in churches and safe houses.

Opponents of this flux of illegal immigrants demanded stricter laws. Flores stood to gain a domestic foothold, though, when immigrant sympathizers called for sweeping amnesty.

Pulled both ways, lawmakers sculpted the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the most comprehensive U.S. immigration reform since 1952. Reagan signed the bill into law in 1986.

A controversial provision within the bill gave those like Flores, who entered the United States before Jan. 1, 1982, and who had lived here continuously, a path toward legalization.

Flores and his wife were among the 2.7 million illegal immigrants granted amnesty. The couple received their green cards in 1987.

To do so, they learned English and proved to federal authorities they lived in the U.S. for eight years. They paid back taxes, supplied documents from former employers and letters from police departments showing they avoided crime along the way.

"It was a great thing," Flores said. "A lot of people come here like me. I didn't come to take from America. I came to show my skills and give back to America."

Flores mixed thinset in a bucket outside a north Victoria apartment complex early this month. Dust caked to his blue Wranglers, work boots and kneepads. He heaved the bucket into a ground-floor apartment, knelt and spread the mix on the floor with a grooved trowel.

During the past 30 years, he learned all the trades: plumbing, framing and more. Ten years ago, he launched Sunshine Tile Work, a tile installation and remodeling business.

With help from his family, Flores built his Telferner home from the foundation up. The two-story, four-bedroom, stucco-sided home is a landmark to those who say the 1986 immigration reform worked. Flores works hard, pays taxes and raised children who contribute to the greater good.

"Almost 3 million people were legalized. From that perspective, the legislation was a success," said Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, a group that studies the effects of U.S. immigration. "It moved people from illegal status to legal. Several studies show this had positive effects on communities."

Workers legalized under the 1986 reform earned between 15 and 39 percent more money four years after the law passed. Thus, they paid more federal and state income taxes, according to a U.S. Department of Labor study. Those with more income bought more goods and services, which created more jobs and revenue from sales and business taxes.

A UCLA study notes the 1986 law led to a boom in family investments in education, as well as a rush to join the mainstream banking system. Home ownership and small business investments soared, and so, too, did the U.S. economy.

"For right now, I like this job, especially when I do designs, different colors," Flores said. "I feel good here because my children live their own lives. Maybe when my two youngest sons finish medical school I could stop the work, but I'd like to build their clinic."

Not all consequences of the 1986 law were as bright as Flores' story.

Lawmakers largely aimed to deal with the then-current illegal immigration population, and to stop future problems by cutting the magnet that drew great exoduses north: access to jobs.

For starters, most Central American refugees didn't qualify for amnesty because they hadn't worked in the U.S. for the required time. Instead of leaving, they sought work, as well as refuge in welcoming cathedrals, which spurred tension between church and state.

Millions of other qualified immigrants didn't trust the law, and thus remained in the shadows and in the country.

"You had this dynamic," Giovagnoli said. "You had economic growth and lots of jobs with no one to fill them. You had a lack of enforcement and a porous border. A steady stream of people, then, continued. It didn't stop illegal immigration."

To strangle access to jobs, the act made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit illegal immigrants. Employers were required to attest to employees' immigration status, or risk paying fines and facing penalties. Lawmakers said low job prospects, spurred by tougher law, would reduce illegal immigration.

Ira Mehlman is a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to stop illegal immigration and reduce immigration overall.

"Prior to 1986, it was illegal for an illegal alien to be in the United States, but it was not illegal for an employer to hire him," Mehlman said. "The primary intent of the bill was to correct this anomaly and enact employer sanctions. The amnesty was fully implemented, but employer sanctions were not."

Because the government didn't devise a thorough procedure for employers to verify employees' immigration status, an underground industry boomed.

Congressional investigators found immigration fraud is so extensive it threatens the integrity of the legal immigration system, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.

"All an employer had to do was examine a worker's documents and attest that they seemed in order," Mehlman said. "There was really no way employers could tell a valid ID from a counterfeit one. As a result, large-scale illegal immigration continued."

The illegal immigrant population grew by 800,000 a year during the years after the amnesty bill, according to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement report. A decade after the law passed, the illegal immigrant population grew to 5 million, the same number as before the amnesty.

With a massive illegal immigrant population, Mehlman said the country became home to greater societal ills. Illegal immigrants used social services such as schools, hospitals and federal programs, yet often failed to chip in by paying taxes, he said.

Illegal immigrants cost the U.S. federal government more than $10 billion a year, according to a report by the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that calls for strict immigration policies.

Illegal immigrants use $26 billion in federal services but only pay $16 billion in taxes, the report suggests. Granting legal status would increase federal costs to $29 billion because unskilled immigrants would use more services but contribute modest tax payments, the report concludes.

Many illegal immigrants also leave war-torn lands and abuses only to lash out on U.S. soil, critics of amnesty note. Jorge Reyes Rowe, who came here illegally and later gained legalization, is a prime example.

A Victoria jury recently found the 43-year-old Central American immigrant guilty of murder. After work one night earlier this year, he beat a 52-year-old man to death. Rowe used chairs, drawers and his fists to pummel Nelson Rodriguez Ibarra. Ibarra's blood sprayed the inside of an apartment. Detective Jeff Lehnert said the crime scene Rowe created was the worst he'd investigated in more than nine years.

Flores stood in front of a few hundred churchgoers on a recent Sunday morning. He proclaimed the second reading and led the prayers of intercession from the New Testament. The cathedral ceilings at Victoria's Santísima Trinidad joined at a point high above his head.

After speaking, he walked to a front pew, across a small portion of the 9,000-square-foot floor he tiled, and sat. A church group perched on a second-story balcony quietly tuned guitars, which later breathed Spanish melodies.

Church holds a special place for Flores, especially now. Two of his 11 siblings, his 16-year-old son and his mother died in recent years.

Sitting again in his home, he rocked, clapped one time, stretched his jaw and cried.

"I'm sorry," he said, smiling. "My mother taught us to have faith in God. We still pray today."

Flores said he prays for future immigration reform that includes amnesty. Other people deserve the same chance he received, he said.

The forces that drive calls for immigration reform today are similar to the calls from 25 years ago.

The economic and social instability of Central America and Mexico prompts mass migration north. An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants live in the United States.

But with a war in the Middle East, high unemployment rates at home, and health care and energy policy on the table, President Barack Obama said immigration reform waits until next year. During a mid-August trip to Mexico, he said his plate is too full.

Everyone agrees the political battle for reform hinges on what to do with the illegal immigrants here now, and the fight will be ugly. Not since Reagan has a president signed sweeping immigration reform.

Former President George W. Bush came close. He proposed a guest-worker program that would give legal status to seasonal Mexican workers who routinely cross the border to harvest U.S. crops. The proposal failed amid post-9-11 politics.

Politics of today pit those who call for better access to legalization with those who say amnesty rewards lawbreaking and entices others to stream across the border.

Giovagnoli said reform must create a system that requires immigrants to step forward and register with the government. Twenty-five years after the last round of reform, lessons and technology exist that could ensure smooth and effective amnesty, she said.

"Force them to contribute to society, learn English, pay taxes and pass background checks," Giovagnoli said.

Mehlman said reform must convince illegal immigrants they will not benefit by remaining here. He wants them stripped of access to public services, as well as a permanent electronic system so employers can verify workers' status, he said.

"We need to fully implement employer sanctions. Over time, people who arrived here will discover they are not benefiting by remaining, and most will leave on their own," Mehlman said.

Others feel only one option remains.

"The 1986 bill didn't work because the idea of the United States as a place paved with gold didn't end. The bill didn't end that," said Vic Padelford, director of international programs for the University of Houston-Victoria. "The demand for workers hasn't ceased and will never cease. If they had the political will, they'd eliminate the border as we know it. We don't really stop anything by drawing a line in the sand."

It's that controversial line and a near-impenetrable legal immigration system that forces the continuous rush of low-skilled immigrants to risk all to work here.

Flores was one of the lucky ones.

"I'm very thankful to God to have the chance to have a nice place and to help my family and my wife's family," he said, nestled on his sofa with a son on either side. "I enjoy living here. I feel like an American. I have my kids, my family. Thanks to God. Thanks to Texas. Thanks to America."

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