An American Dream: Bush's Plan for One of the Most Sweeping Immigration Reforms in Years-Easing Strictures on Millions of Illegals-Is Meeting Harsh Opposition in Congress. Could It Work? Here Is One Mexican's Tale

By Zarembo, Alan | Newsweek, September 10, 2001 | Go to article overview

An American Dream: Bush's Plan for One of the Most Sweeping Immigration Reforms in Years-Easing Strictures on Millions of Illegals-Is Meeting Harsh Opposition in Congress. Could It Work? Here Is One Mexican's Tale


Zarembo, Alan, Newsweek


To reach New York City, Ana crawled into the United States through a moonlit drainpipe, trudged across the Arizona desert, scrunched onto the floor of a car to Los Angeles and landed at La Guardia Airport with almost nothing. She had not planned to stay long--only enough to pay back her sister the $1,000 smuggler's fee, work off some debts in Mexico and give her some space from a soon-to-be ex-husband. She couldn't imagine separating for long from her two children, left in the care of her mother.

That was six years ago, and Ana (not her real name) has yet to return to Mexico. Now 35, she has climbed through the ranks of the service economy from laundrywoman to maid to a successful broker for illegal cleaning women. Last year Ana made $50,000, and because her business is off the books, the money is tax-free. Such success has not come without a price. Ana cannot go home. To her children, she is now just the things she sends home: the latest videogame, the piles of clothing and the wired cash that has turned her relatives into the royal--and resented--family of an impoverished neighborhood.

Ana usually has little interest in politics, but this week she will pay close attention. With his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, visiting the White House, President George W. Bush is expected to sketch out the most sweeping immigration reform in 15 years, a plan that could make Ana and millions of other undocumented workers legal. Negotiating the details, such as exactly who would be able to apply for legal residence--including whether the program would be open to all illegals or only Mexicans--could take another year.

Predictably, the idea that a U.S. president would welcome illegal immigrants during an economic downturn isn't going over well on Capitol Hill. As a result, the key players "went from talking about a bilateral agreement to talking about principles," says one Democratic source. Sen. Phil Gramm, a fellow Republican and Texan, said recently that any Bush amnesty would occur over his "cold, dead political body." Yet such a law would simply formalize what already exists: a growing embrace of immigrants, legal and illegal. The new attitude is partly political. Latinos will soon surpass blacks as the largest minority, and Bush has been under enormous pressure from U.S. Latino groups to issue a broad amnesty. But there is also a recognition that the U.S. economy has been built, in part, on the labor of foreigners who arrived without visas. The new thinking can be seen in the small but growing number of states that grant driver's licenses to illegal aliens. In Texas, they qualify for in-state tuition at state universities. Mexican officials recently persuaded some banks to allow undocumented aliens to open accounts. Even the protectionist-leaning AFL-CIO favors an amnesty.

What about all the armed agents along the border with Mexico? They capture and return thousands of illegal entrants every day. But the story is much different for those who make it into the country. At least 6 million people live illegally in the United States. Last year only 46,750 were deported. Illegals are thought to be staying longer than ever--precisely because the border has become more difficult to cross. And they're sending home record amounts of cash--a projected $9.3 billion to Mexico this year.

An amnesty could ease the pressure on U.S. border police and encourage former illegals to visit home. But it could also result in a flood of others drawn by success stories like Ana's--and not just from Mexico. The scope of any new U.S. immigration policy will be fought out in Congress over the next year. At a minimum, Congress is likely to create an extensive guest-worker program, which would provide temporary visas to Mexicans. Democrats and some moderate Republicans want a broader legalization that would be a first step to U.S. citizenship--if migrants can prove they have been in the United States before a certain date. …

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An American Dream: Bush's Plan for One of the Most Sweeping Immigration Reforms in Years-Easing Strictures on Millions of Illegals-Is Meeting Harsh Opposition in Congress. Could It Work? Here Is One Mexican's Tale
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