(MCT) — CHICAGO — It was 1986, and Maria Mercedes Reyes remembers the rush of joy she felt as she sat in her Chicago church and learned that President Ronald Reagan had signed into law a historic overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.
The law offered a path to U.S. citizenship for the nearly 3 million people who, like her, were in the country illegally. The window of time to apply was short, and it would begin not long after Reyes heard about it that day in church.
“I turned to my husband and said, ‘We have to go!’ ” she said.
Reyes, now 75, is a U.S. citizen thanks to the 1986 law. Her legal status allowed her to pursue a career traveling across the country as a consultant for an international cosmetics company, which helped her put three children through college, she said.
Reyes’ success story is the kind politicians and immigration officials hope will be repeated for many more as a result of the current push to offer a path to U.S. citizenship to the estimated 11.1 million people now living illegally in the U.S.
Having long agitated for laws that would allow those people to step out of the shadows, immigrant communities in Chicago found new hope after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators last Monday introduced a framework for immigration reform legislation. President Barack Obama said he thinks a law can be passed within six months, although Senate Democrats have pledged to air out the issue in a process that could take considerably longer.
Under the Senate proposal, most people in the country illegally could obtain legal status after paying a fine and back taxes and passing a background check. They would then be eligible to work and live in the U.S. and start the process toward citizenship.
The challenge this time will be how to deal with a population of illegal immigrants that is nearly four times as large as it was in 1986, as well as what is expected to be a continued flow of foreigners wanting to work in a country that offers much broader job possibilities to newcomers than it did 27 years ago.
Despite those issues, activists backing an immigration overhaul say the Immigration Reform and Control Act, familiarly known as the “1986 amnesty,” shows how those affected by such action can become productive, contributing members of American society.
Figures are difficult to come by, but it’s estimated that several hundred thousand people in the Chicago area gained legal status under the 1986 law. Many went on to achieve success in their new country, becoming teachers, accountants and lawyers.
“It was a terrific program; it worked great,” said Royal Berg, an immigration attorney who helped process amnesty applications back then. “If we could have the same thing now, it would be terrific.”
But the 1986 law also left behind a sour legacy that sowed the seeds of the problem with illegal immigration the nation faces today, immigration experts say. Some aspects of how that law failed have caused concerns over the current legalization effort.
Chief among flaws from 1986 was a lack of enforcement, both on the border and against employers who continued to hire illegal workers, said Doris Meissner, who served as commissioner of the federal immigration agency under President Bill Clinton.
Another major flaw, she said, was that the architects considered the 1986 law a one-time solution, not accounting properly for the future flow of immigrants into the country that has transformed many parts of the nation.
The amnesty law “was important, in that it was the first time that Congress tried to do something to address illegal immigration, but they thought of it as a one-time thing and then they could move on,” said Meissner, who has performed an exhaustive study of the 1986 law and is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.
“That wasn’t the case,” she said.
In Chicago’s immigrant communities, the 1986 law created a buzz of excitement.
Grazyna Zajaczkowska, 58, was a student with a master’s degree in fine arts from communist Poland when she learned about the chance to fix her immigration status.
Her student visa had expired, and Zajaczkowska and her husband, Pawel, faced being deported to their homeland. Back then, returning to Poland meant being cut off from family members who remained in Chicago, she said.
“We were really desperate,” Zajaczkowska said. “We had our little suitcases packed up just in case.”
Along with thousands of other people that winter, the Polish couple waited in long lines in the Chicago cold to hand in their applications and proof of residency. At first, they were denied. But they tried again and became U.S. citizens in the mid-1990s.
They still remember how hard it was to be without documentation.
“Living like that is horrifying,” said Zajaczkowska, who now oversees the immigrant services program for the Polish American Association in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood. “I really understand how the people who are facing that today feel.”
There are no hard details yet on what a new legalization program would look like, but Meissner said a key question will be whether the application process will be limited to a specific time frame.
The 1986 law allowed eligible applicants a year to apply, which led to confusion and a sense of urgency toward the end of that period inside the four intake centers set up in Chicago to help process applications.
The United Neighborhood Organization, at the time run by Alderman Danny Solis, 25th, orchestrated a citywide effort to get Latino immigrants in the city to apply.
Phil Mullins, a co-founder of UNO, recalled walking into federal immigration offices in Chicago and seeing stacks of unprocessed applications that towered over his head.
“They weren’t equipped to handle it. It was literally paper going up to the ceilings,” Mullins said. “And, if they couldn’t find a file, it was ridiculous. So, we ended up volunteering” to help process applications.
The confusion inside the “horrifically crowded” centers — run by federal contractors inside malls, warehouses and other large buildings — led to many cases of people being turned away, only to later find they were eligible, said Carlina Tapia-Ruano, another immigration attorney in Chicago.
Many of those people later became plaintiffs in federal class-action lawsuits filed against the U.S. government that became expensive and dragged on through the late 1990s.
Staff members at the centers “were as misinformed and confused and outright wrong about the law as anyone else, and they would turn people away,” Tapia-Ruano said.
The anxiety behind the process, she added, led to cases of document fraud by applicants and scams by predatory notaries public.
“We need to avoid the fraud” this time around, Tapia-Ruano said. “The (federal) government has to be a party to this objective.”
If and when a new legalization program is launched, the application process is likely to be more seamless, in part because technology is so much better, Tapia-Ruano and others said.
Federal immigration officials now use an electronic filing system to process applications for visas and other immigration applications. That system is being used for the 150,000 applications filed so far by so-called DREAM Act students who have been granted two years of temporary protected status under an Obama administration order last summer.
Also, Obama and others have embraced the idea of having employers use an electronic verification system connected to a federal database that would guard against illegal hires, with stiffer penalties against companies that hire illegal immigrants.
But a new law will not be effective without also providing immigrants with work visas that can be transferred from job to job, said Pia Orrenius, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, who has co-authored several studies about the lasting economic impact of the 1986 law.
The work visa categories used by the government no longer cover the number of jobs available to immigrants, Orrenius said. The government also needs to issue a greater number of work visas, she said.
Republicans want to hinge any immigration reform plan on assurances that the country’s borders are secure. But others argue the large number of illegal immigrants now in the country is partly the result of tight border control — those here illegally don’t go back because they know it will be harder to return.
“Border enforcement cannot do everything; it is not feasible,” Orrenius said. “We know a great majority of that unauthorized flow is for work. So, if we can accommodate a legal pathway to come and work here temporarily, I think that would take a lot of pressure off border enforcement — also the employers.”
Reyes said a legalization program would take a lot of pressure off the people she sees in her Little Village neighborhood who, as she once did, live in fear of being deported.
She crossed illegally into Texas in 1974. In Chicago, Reyes said she dreaded any interaction with police and other government officials as she traveled to work at St. Anthony Hospital in Little Village, where she did laundry and stocked surgical supplies.
One day, Reyes was driving home without a license and accidentally ran a stop sign, prompting a Chicago police officer to pull her over.
“How scared I felt,” she remembered. “I think of all the people now who are out there scared and driving without a license, and it makes me so sad.”
But the officer let her go. She went on to become a U.S. citizen during a massive naturalization ceremony at Soldier Field. Today, she proudly notes that one of her sons works at St. Anthony as an administrator in the radiology department.
Hugo Campuzano, 37, sees the same possibilities for the students at Mirta Ramirez Computer Science High School on the North Side, where he is the principal.
Campuzano grew up fearing deportation, but becoming a legal resident through the 1986 amnesty changed his idea of life’s possibilities. As a child, he thought he’d be relegated to factory work. Instead, he went to college and became an educator.
He wants his students, some of whom are undocumented, to have the same opportunities the amnesty brought to him.
“We have a young woman who could potentially be the valedictorian, and if after high school she doesn’t have the chance to go to college, she could work in a restaurant,” he said. “That’s not a good thing for this country; that’s not a good thing for this community. We need students like that to get an education and come back to make this community a better place.”