From Undocumented to Citizen
(Dec. 14, 2021) - Many may be surprised to know that in 1986, Republican President Ronald Reagan signed arguably the most beneficial immigration reform in U.S. history. The Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986 gave a path to citizenship to almost 3 million undocumented immigrants, one of those being my father.
Juan Castellanos was born in México and came to the United States when he was 17 in the early ‘80s. Like many in his situation, he needed to help financially support his family that stayed back in Mexico.
“In those days, like so many of us, we would get here without papers to work, to look for a better future to help our families, our parents, and our siblings. I had many young brothers and sisters.”
Even with the hope of a better life, there were many difficulties for undocumented immigrants in the early ’80s, including the threat of deportation.
“I remember we were waiting for the bus to go to work and we started hearing about immigration raids. At that point, Ronald Reagan was President and there were raids on the streets and public transportation.”
The fear of deportation was so strong that Juan preferred to walk for hours to get to work than to take public transportation.
“There was so much fear. We didn’t want to go out to the grocery store, we didn’t take public transit, we didn’t want to go to work but we had no choice. All we did was go to work, go home, and to the store to buy the bare necessities. That’s it.”
Juan recalls it was during this time that there were rumors about legislation that would give people like him a legal status.
“I was working in Houston in construction around ‘85 or ‘86 when I found out the amnesty had passed. My boss, Frank Crawford, -an American- was the one who told me and helped me with the application process.”
If it wasn’t for Frank-Juan admits-he wouldn’t have applied. “He encouraged me a lot, encouraged a lot of us, because I was really scared that it wasn’t true and that it would be a trap.”
It took 8 months for Juan to get his legal temporary resident status and even though he wasn’t 100% convinced that it was valid, having a status had immeasurable positive impacts on his life.
“I started to work more, to go out more. We started to go out and have fun more, and have a normal life. We had more friends, started going to school, and after work, we would do activities.”
Because of this policy, Juan was able to go from being undocumented to a naturalized citizen.
“I feel like a citizen of this country, I feel like a free person, I feel like I have greatly contributed to this country and to México.”
Read the previous article in the series, “The Reagan Administration: Lasting Reform”