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Just before they started kindergarten, their parents moved from Mexico to the United States – illegally.
Marquez started his path to citizenship in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan offered amnesty to nearly 3 million immigrants who had moved to the United States before 1982. His parents qualified. Marquez became a legal resident in 1990 and gained his citizenship in 1997.
Salas’ journey started Wednesday, when he called the Mexican consulate and spoke to a lawyer about qualifying for President Barack Obama’s new “deferred action” program, which grants a temporary legal resident status to young people brought to the United States as children.
“I’m trying to get this done right away,” said Salas who moved here with his parents when he was 5 and hopes to soon start his junior year at UCLA. “I always knew I was going to be American eventually. This is the only world I know. I speak better English than I speak Spanish.”
Salas’ father is a trained accountant, but he works at a candle factory. His mother cleans bathrooms at McDonald’s restaurants. Salas grew up an All-American kid. He played football and wrestled at Warren High School. He studies philosophy and he wants to be an attorney.
Salas is tired of sneaking around to find work, he said. He can’t legally drive, and, when he does drive, his cars get impounded due to the most minor infractions because he doesn’t have a license.
“If I have a broken tail light, my car is gone,” he said.
He recently got a job cleaning buildings at USC. The work is miserable, he said. There are times he wants to quit, but he knows a dozen other illegal immigrants would take the job in a heartbeat, so he just keeps working.
“I swear I lose 5 pounds every day I go to work,” he said.
He doesn’t qualify for any student aid, so he’s trying to save up $5,000 to start his junior year at UCLA. Two semesters ago, his grandmother used her credit card to pay for school. He took this semester off to work and save money. He didn’t save enough.
“Grandma’s card is maxed out now, so that’s not going to happen,” he said.
He has a month before the semester starts, and, barring a miracle, he won’t raise enough to cover tuition.
“I’m going to sell tacos to get some cash, but there’s no way I’m going to sell enough tacos to pay for school,” he said.
Like many illegal immigrants, Salas said he entered a post-high school purgatory.
When illegal immigrants are in public school, they get the impression that they are American and that Americans want them here, he said.
After that, everything becomes a struggle, he said.
“I call it the unknown zone,” he said.
Barbara Coe, founder of the Huntington Beach-based Coalition For Immigration Reform said the United States should never have offered free school, free school lunches and other services to Salas in the first place.
“The whole family should go home to their country of origin and reapply to come here legally,” she said. “What’s so bad about asking people to follow the law? It is not our responsibility to sacrifice the benefits of our own children to take care of people who came here illegally.”
Her group co-wrote Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that basically outlawed giving most public services to illegal immigrants. The law was eventually ruled unconstitutional.
Obama’s plan is an incentive for people to break the rules, she said.
“It’s a total show of contempt for our Constitution,” she said. “And it’s a total kick in the face for the thousands of immigrants who come here legally.”
In Downey, about a third of residents were born in a foreign country, according to the 201o U.S. Census. It’s hard to say how many of them came here illegally.
Using U.S. Census data and estimates from think tanks, it’s safe to say about 20 percent of the 50 million Latinos living in the U.S. are here illegally.
Using that same ratio, up to 16,000 of Downey’s 112,000 residents are illegal aliens.
Salas can name several illegal immigrants who graduated from his high school.
“There are a bunch of us,” he said.
Many illegal immigrants in Downey are attracted to the community because of its All-American reputation, and they do not exactly advertise their illegal status. Salas’ family said they respect the United States and would rather tough it out here than go back to Mexico.
“In Downey, a lot of us are incognito,” Salas said.
He remembered learning at a quinceanera that one girl at his school was an illegal immigrant.
He mentioned the girl’s status at school in front of other students, and the girl started crying.
“I put her on the spot, and she wasn’t really making it a public thing,” Salas said.
There have been cases of illegal immigrants graduating from the area’s public high schools as valedictorians, Marquez said.
The students’ parents never let on that the family had come to the U.S. illegally.
Illegal immigrants cannot start the student-aid application process because they don’t have social security numbers.
Marquez’s sister used a fake social security number to enroll in college.
“It was back when the government wasn’t able to check that kind of stuff as easily,” he said.
Because he is so familiar with the process of what it takes to legally come to the U.S. from Mexico, Marquez knows that most of those wishing to come to the U.S. will never get the chance.
Even for Mexicans eligible for family-preference exceptions, such as being the adult son or daughter of a U.S. citizen, the wait is usually 17 years before they get their turn to immigrate legally.
For the children of illegal immigrants here in the United States, the process has another twist. Along with what is usually about a 10-year wait for an application to come up for approval, the child of an immigrant has to pay immigration fees, move to Mexico, wait about a year for an application to be processed, and then re-enter through Juarez near El Paso, Texas.
About 1.4 million Mexicans are on waiting lists to come to the United States, but only 26,000 visas were granted last year to those outside the immediate family, according to federal statistics. Another 40,000 were allowed to come here due to family connections.
“People don’t realize that it’s next to impossible to immigrate here legally,” Marquez said.
According to Marquez, the public sometimes fails to realize that Mexicans from time to time in the past have had a much easier path to legal residency.
Marquez’s grandfather lived here from 1919-1924 to work on the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. He returned to Mexico after work ran out.
From 1942 to 1964, the United States operated the guest-worker “Bracero” program. That program was initially started to supply manpower to fill jobs vacated by U.S. soldiers who went to fight in World War II.
It was during the Bracero days that many Mexican immigrants set down roots in the United States, where pay was decent and families had a chance to buy a few things, such as a truck and some furniture, according to historians.
Marquez is in favor of the deferred action plan, which is no surprise from the former aid to Democratic State Sen. Alan Lowenthal.
But it may be more of a surprise that many conservative Latino politicians also want the Republican Party to re-examine its take on immigration.
Downey Councilman Mario Guerra, who was born in Cuba and is a Republican, made waves at the statewide Republican convention in September when he said he understood why people came here illegally and that, if he lived in Mexico, he would consider crossing the border and coming to the United States illegally.
Many area Republicans point to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll that found Latino voters were more worried about jobs and healthcare than immigration.
Even so, the issue tends to be a polarizing factor for members of both parties. Area politicians say that, despite what the polls say, immigration is a hot topic among callers to their offices.
As for Coe, the whole “deferred action” plan smacks of pandering.
“Not only are we not enforcing our laws, conversely we are rewarding people who break them,” she said.
On both sides of the political spectrum, there are forces at play to keep the flow of illegal immigrants coming, she said.
“Money grubbing politicians have welcomed these law breakers into our country, and then they make laws that force us to subsidize them,” she said.
If politicians want to reform immigration laws, that’s fine by her, she said. But first they should first make people follow the United States’ immigration laws.
“Just enforce the law as it is written, period,” she said.
She pointed out government statistics that show only about 2 percent of illegal immigrants work on the farm jobs that are often described as work “Americans won’t do.”
The government could easily take care of the agricultural industry with a guest-worker pass that lasted just a few months, she said.
She also noted that thousands of murders in the United States are linked to illegal immigrants.
Mexicans should work on making Mexico a better place to live, Coe said.
“How about they get the courage to fix their own country,” she said.
While heady policy discussions take place in the halls of government and in the press, the Spanish media has been inundated with advertisements aimed at people like Salas.
Lawyers and immigration-help firms are saturating their listeners with offers.
“There’s a lot, a lot of fraud out there,” Salas said.
There is also a fear that hundreds of thousands of people will identify themselves as illegal aliens to the agency in charge of deporting them. The “deferred action” program is overseen by an agency under the Department of Homeland Security. Federal officials say the information will not be used against applicants.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is urging those interested into the deferred action program to simply go to the agency’s website and to click on the link for directions on how to apply for the program.
Those eligible must be under the age of 31 and must have moved here before turning 16. Applicants can’t have any serious criminal convictions and must be enrolled in school. And, once they apply, they cannot leave the United States under any circumstances.
Salas said he is pushing forward with his application. He might have legal status within eight months.
He is rounding up transcripts from all his schools and trying to come up with the $1,500 he estimates the process will cost.
“If you’re like me, and you want to do something in this world, you have to be optimistic,” he said.