Cover Story
BUILDING A BUSINESS: Santos Andrade prepares to sharpen lawnmower blades on March 10, near Houston, Texas. Andrade, a legal resident, runs a landscape business with his wife and four sons. He came to the United States illegally from Mexico in 1986.
Johnny Hanson/Genesis
BUILDING A BUSINESS: Santos Andrade prepares to sharpen lawnmower blades on March 10, near Houston, Texas. Andrade, a legal resident, runs a landscape business with his wife and four sons. He came to the United States illegally from Mexico in 1986.

Here to work

Immigration | The passage of immigration reform may stumble on a path to citizenship that illegal immigrants don’t necessarily want

Issue: "Coming to America," April 6, 2013

LEAGUE CITY and HOUSTON, Texas—It wasn’t easy when Mario Hernandez illegally crossed the U.S. border with Mexico in 1997: He paid a human smuggler—called a coyote—$800 to help him make the trip, a two-day trek without food or water that included facing snakes, coyotes (the animals), and U.S. Border Patrol agents. He got so thirsty he drank water from a cattle trough.

Hernandez says crossing the border is even more treacherous today. He would know: He did it this year. Instead of making arrangements with one person he had to talk to five. The coyote price has quadrupled to $3,200 (others pay twice that much), and there’s no way to avoid the drug cartels, which demand $500 for the right to swim across the Rio Grande. “If you love your life, you pay them,” Hernandez told me in February while sitting at a rustic seafood restaurant outside Houston.

Hernandez recounted his story to me with a furrowed brow: He spent five days without food or water—or significant sleep—in a dry river bed under a railway bridge in south Texas, waiting on the perfect moment to leap aboard a train car en route to San Antonio. He lost 10 pounds during the 10-day ordeal that ended Jan. 24 when he arrived safely in Houston.

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Hernandez is an example of the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants scattered around the United States, real lives that hang in the balance as politicians in Washington toss around immigration reform like a political football. Most of the Capitol Hill dialogue has been focused on border security and the fates of millions of illegal immigrants, but any effort at real reform must do what the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act didn’t do—provide a solution for the future flow of immigrants into the country.

People become illegal immigrants for many reasons, but the ones who spoke with me in Texas had one thing in common: They reached a point of desperation. When the gap between U.S. opportunity and their own situation grew large enough, they were willing to take extraordinary risks. For many, the reasons are economic, but for Mario Hernandez, his daughter needs a bone marrow transplant.

Doctors in Mexico’s government-run healthcare system told Hernandez last year they couldn’t treat his 6-year-old daughter, Fatima, until her illness turned into leukemia—which is 80 percent more likely for her than for the average person. The stocky father of three went to the U.S. consulate in Monterrey to request an emergency medical visa. When he was denied, he decided to cross the border illegally and then send for Fatima—who, Texas-born, is an American citizen.

Hernandez, who first came because he couldn’t find work in Mexico, found American life smooth for a decade: He worked 16-hour days as a carpenter’s assistant by day and a dishwasher by night for five years, then bought a lawn care business in 2002—and later a house. But in 2008 his wife, also undocumented, was caught with a fake ID and deported. Hernandez sold his business, sold his home, and moved back to Mexico with his daughters in 2009.

Hernandez isn’t unique: Around the globe migrants leave their homelands and enter another country illegally for a variety of often complex reasons. Finding work is a big reason for many: During the economic boom of the 1990s, millions of Latin Americans—mostly from Mexico—flooded across the U.S. border to enter the plentiful job market. Now, as the U.S. economy lags in a sluggish recovery, roughly the same number of Mexicans are coming and going across the border as the Mexican economy has flourished (family income rose 45 percent from 2000 to 2010).

If economic trends reverse, however, so will the migration trends. Illegal immigrants in Texas told me stories of death, divorce, sickness, and extreme poverty that prompted their trek north, and they—along with business owners—said as long as jobs are waiting on the other side, people will always find ways to cross the border.

Although most native-born Americans believe every immigrant wants to stay permanently, most of them would prefer to work temporarily and return home, according to Mexican immigrant Balbina Andrade. “We love our country,” she said.

Andrade, who received her citizenship in 2011, left behind her two young children to cross the border illegally in 1987. She worked in housekeeping for 15 years before purchasing a lawn care business with her husband, who was granted amnesty in 1986. The Andrades purchased a 2,200-square-foot brick home in 2001, and their business grossed more than $140,000 in 2012 with two full-time employees.


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