Ronnie's Kids

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

Edith Villavicencio reflects on a question that has weighed heavily on her mind for most of her life. It’s after 9 p.m. on a recent evening, and she’s watching her 11-year-old daughter play Guitar Hero and her four-year-old son gobble a snack at the kitchen table.

The family’s evening is winding down, and Villavicencio will soon have to chase the kids to bed. But before then, she talks to the Voice about the possibility of her having to make perhaps the hardest decision of her life: “I’m a mom, now, myself. I don’t know how I could leave my kids.”

It’s something she’s thought about ever since her mother and father left her at age six with relatives in Cuautla, a city in the Mexican state of Morelos known for its role in the War of Independence. They left to work in New York City—her mother as a garment worker, her father in restaurants.

Reagan relit the torch and signed the amnesty bill in ’86
Reagan relit the torch and signed the amnesty bill in ’86

She says that she’s not bitter and that they did try to explain to her and her brother and sister that they had to go to make a better life for the entire family. “But that’s no answer for a kid,” says Villavicencio, now 33. “It’s not something a child can understand.”

Villavicencio thinks she was particularly perplexed at the time because, as she recalls it, her family’s life in Mexico had been OK. Her father had an ironwork business. “I didn’t go without anything I needed,” she says, adding, “Maybe when you don’t have anything, you don’t miss anything?”

Then, in the late ’80s, her parents were granted amnesty, and they returned to Cuautla to visit their children for the first time as legal residents of the U.S. They planned to return to New York alone again, but 12-year-old Edith was having none of it. She recalls telling them, “I’m going with you. You are not leaving me behind this time.” Her mother says there was no convincing Edith, her youngest child, to stay, and so the three of them headed for Tijuana.

Villavicencio’s crossing into the country illustrates a galling point for people who say that amnesty and the various other parts of the Simpson-Mazzoli Act that aimed to halt further illegal immigration didn’t work. Villavicencio’s parents were legalized, but she was not. And though the amnesty law allowed the Villavicencios to eventually sponsor Edith and both of her siblings to become citizens (which they all did), she was not a legal immigrant when she initially came over at the age of 12.

Edith recalls the night crossing from Tijuana to San Diego as “an adventure,” but not particularly harrowing. They saw a couple of helicopters, she says, “[but] it didn’t feel scary to me at the time. The whole thing, honestly, took about 10 minutes. There was a highway, and we waited until some cars had passed—then we ran across.”

They walked to an apartment complex, and a smuggler tried to hustle them into a van, but Edith’s father, having been in the States for a while, decided to call a taxi instead. Good thing, too. As Villavicencio recalls, the van, stuffed with illegal immigrants, had a bad accident.

Though she was back with her parents, life wasn’t especially pleasant in New York. They moved often between different illegal living spaces. Usually they occupied just one room with a hot plate, small fridge, and one bed for the three of them. One of the worst places, she recalls, was in the basement of a building on West 49th Street, in pre-gentrified Hell’s Kitchen. The Villavicencios had one room, and shared a bathroom with several single tenants, including a prostitute. Most nights, she recalls, the prostitute would bring her tricks into the bathroom they all shared.

Villavicencio worked from a young age, as did her brother and sister when they were reunited. But she says she felt she was working toward something, unlike many of her friends—at age 15, her Quinceañera gift was legal-residency papers.

“I had these Mexican friends who were not eligible” for amnesty, she recalls. “Their families weren’t here at the right time, or they had come by themselves.” She would hang out with them, but at a certain time, she recalls, “I would say, ‘I have to go home to study,’ and they were just always saying, ‘I have to work.’ Work, work, work. All they did was work. All they’d ever do was work.” Villavicencio knew that her parents expected her to go to college someday: “We had a future, we had hope,” she says. “And that was because we had papers.”

Her father continued to work in restaurants, but her mother went to school to become a home health aide, a job she is still doing. When Edith’s father died last year, the Villavicencios were living in a two-family home in Bushwick they had been able to purchase. (Edith and her kids live upstairs, and her mom and brother live downstairs.)

The Villavicencios’ journey is not atypical. According to a study on the ’86 amnesty by the pro-immigrant Center for American Progress, “the real wages of newly legalized workers increase by roughly $4,405 per year among those in less-skilled jobs during the first three years of implementation, and $6,185 per year for those in higher-skilled jobs.” The liberal think-tank recently released a report arguing that a new amnesty would lead to “an increase in net personal income of $30 to $36 billion, which would generate $4.5 to $5.4 billion in additional net tax revenue” and “generate consumer spending sufficient to support 750,000 to 900,000 jobs.”

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