|November 6, 1986: President Ronald Reagan signs the Immigration Reform and Control Act|
Interview by Cindy McCain
I was at my job…a little restaurant where I worked while in school. They’d been trying to pass the law for awhile. They had a tv on and we heard President Reagan had signed the bill. The Spanish people were very happy. Some of them were crying. It was very emotional. Some were clapping. Some were screaming very happy screams.Manuel (name changed for privacy) recalls the reaction he witnessed on November 6, 1986 to the passing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).
It opened doors of opportunity. You could buy a house, go back and see your family. It was the best news ever. Back then I knew people who had been here (in the U.S.) twenty years that hadn’t been able to go home to visit family. After ‘86 you could get a temporary green card to travel back and forth. There was this guy who’d been here forever. When he heard the news, he applied to get his card and went to Mexico for a month.IRCA gave amnesty/legalization to undocumented people in the U.S. who had entered the country before 1982 and had lived here continuously. Manuel was here legally on a student visa, but when he graduated from college in 1989, he would be required to leave. He believes had it not been for the amnesty he would have returned to Mexico, something he didn’t want to do, and lived another life. But that night -- almost 25 years ago -- gave him confidence to hire an attorney and seek permanent residency.
Manuel moved from Mexico City to Los Angeles to attend high school. He explains:
Dad worked for Proctor and Gamble in Mexico City which sponsored a scholarship for me to study in the states based on good grades. When I was 15 my father asked, 'Do you have the courage to leave home?' I said yes. I wanted to explore something different.Manuel is grateful for his uncle who sponsored him. He said moving here meant leaving eight brothers, a sister, and his parents behind. That was hard. So was the language. He said though he missed his family, especially his mother, and the food from home, LA’s high Hispanic population made it easier: “Unlike Nashville, so many people spoke Spanish there. But I decided I was going to do it, so I did.”
After high school he returned home, them came back to attend Ranalto Santiago College in Santa Ana, California. From there he graduated with a degree in Culinary Arts. He paid for college working in his uncle’s restaurant and for a time sold Oakley sunglasses.
When he had a family of his own he moved them to Nashville so his son’s mother could be near her family. That was fourteen years ago. Today Manuel is Assistant Food Manager in charge of catering for the President at a Middle Tennessee university. Monday-Friday he works 7-2:30, then heads to his second shift from 4:30 until closing where he’s on a sales marketing team for an award-winning restaurant in downtown Nashville. When asked about working until midnight, he smiles and says he feels thankful: “They are a great company to work for. I have two jobs, but some people don’t have that.” He’d love to open his own catering business one day.
We traded stories about our families. He started: “In Mexico everyone pitches in to take care of older relatives till they pass.” His aunts cared for his grandparents and his brothers currently give dialysis to his diabetic father. Likewise, my mom cared for my grandmother by moving in with her for six years before she died. Manuel sighed: “We just have to take it as it comes. Every single day there are challenges. We have to take it as it comes.”
We also discussed raising children in American culture and how we remind our teen-aged sons, both who have friends with affluent parents, that they are blessed to have their needs and even wants met. Manuel said he tells his fourteen year old (who is just a year younger than Manuel was when he came to the US alone): "As you work for it, you appreciate it You have a mom. You have a dad. You have a (family) car. You have a tv, cell phone, and internet. What do you need that you don’t already have?" We also discovered his fourteen-year-old and my eighteen-year-old would love nothing better than to design video games. His son is also considering studying culinary arts. Manuel said: “I try to teach him as much as I can. I tell him that when he’s older and his wife comes home tired from working all day, he can make her dinner and make her happy.”
Of the possibility of a new amnesty, and the deportations in Alabama, Manuel said:
In my opinion, criminals and people who are trouble—send them back. Let good people working already continue working. Alabama farmers are complaining that they don’t have enough people to work their fields which hurts the economy. A law that profiles people suspected of being illegal because of the color of their skin would be very sad.
I barely made it. I was pretty lucky. I came into the country in 1982, but because I did it legally, and because of the 1986 Act, it was easier for me to get permanent residency. Since then, my hero has been President Reagan. It’s [IRCA's] one of the remarkable things he did for Spanish people.
If I’d stayed in Mexico I’d probably be working for my brother’s business and have a whole bunch of kids. When I moved away I became so independent. It helped me a lot. I can make my own decisions. Opportunities are here. I’m not under my parents’ wing. It makes me more mature and independent. I love America. It’s my son’s country. Now I plan to apply for my American citizenship…so I can vote.