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.
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.
Andrade pays employees between $11 and $12 an hour—more than 50 percent above minimum wage—but still can’t find enough labor. “How does the government expect me to grow the business if I don’t have workers?” she asked. Andrade said those who will work don’t have papers, and those who have papers won’t work—alluding to native-born Americans who often turn down jobs requiring hard physical labor.
That problem isn’t isolated to Texas: Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, told me farmers are desperate for workers, but the ones who will work can’t pass E-Verify—an Internet-based government program for employers to confirm a worker’s status—and the ones who pass E-Verify won’t work. “Farmers don’t want to break the law,” he said. “Give us immigration reform and a guest worker program that works, then bring on E-Verify.” If lawmakers made E-Verify mandatory without dealing with the realities of the economy, Wooten said, farmers would be put out of business: He estimated more than half of North Carolina agriculture workers are undocumented.
Current immigration policy is geared toward family reunification, which accounted for two-thirds—about 688,000—of the 1.06 million immigrants granted legal residence in 2011. Those numbers include many non-immediate family members, a result of policy that should change, according to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Arizona lawyer Clint Bolick in their new book, Immigration Wars. Bush and Bolick present a six-point plan to replace today’s “cumbersome and irrational” immigration laws with an all-new approach that would use, among other things, increased state involvement and a revamped visa system to help achieve border security. “Strong border security does not go hand in hand with suppressing immigration,” Bolick wrote.
Similarly, allowing illegal immigrants to stay and work legally does not necessarily mean granting citizenship. Under the plan Bush and Bolick present in their book, released March 5, adult illegal immigrants would have a path to permanent residency, but without the opportunity to earn citizenship. “It is absolutely vital to the integrity of our immigration system that actions have consequences,” they wrote.
Bush and Bolick would allow immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children—so-called “DREAMers”— to receive a green card and have a clear path to citizenship once they complete high school without a criminal record, but that didn’t prevent a media firestorm over the idea of granting some people residency without citizenship. Bolick told me the controversy is “frustrating because the book presents a comprehensive plan” that “only works as a whole.”
What do illegal immigrants want? “People just want to work,” Balbina Andrade said. “Ninety percent of the immigrants don’t care about the citizenship.” Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, placed the number even higher: He told me that at a 2011 gathering of 1,000 undocumented immigrants in Phoenix, 99 percent said they would be satisfied with legalization without an option to become citizens (although Rodriguez advocates for a path, with penalties, to citizenship).
History suggests many do not want to become citizens: More than half of the illegal immigrants granted residency in 1986 did not apply for citizenship. One of them is Rafael Gutierrez, who illegally entered the United States from Mexico in 1982 at age 16. Gutierrez, whose wife is still undocumented, has been content to maintain his legal status for the last 27 years while working at a restaurant and raising three children near Houston. He said it’s illegal status—not the lack of citizenship—that causes problems for immigrants, millions of whom drive without a driver’s license and cannot obtain health insurance.
Cynthia Huerta, 19, came at age 7 to the United States with her parents on a travel visa and never left. Huerta’s aunt, an American citizen, petitioned for the family’s permanent residency in 2000, and they’ve been waiting 13 years for an answer. “I can’t get married or else the process will start over,” she said in soft-spoken but flawless English. Huerta, who works part-time at a law office, graduated in the top 10 percent of her high-school class in Houston last year, but she had to opt for a community college instead of Texas A&M University, because undocumented immigrants do not qualify for government financial aid.
Financial aid and other entitlements are a sensitive issue for conservatives, who believe illegal immigrants, if legalized, would overburden an already bloated system. Advocates on both sides have cited studies indicating the 2007 proposed immigration reform law would have added or subtracted from the country’s bottom line, but ultimately it was the issue of a guest worker program that derailed negotiations. Talks fell apart after then-Sen. Barack Obama cast the deciding vote (49-48) on a labor-union-backed amendment that would end a new guest worker program after five years.
Obama made no mention of a guest worker program when unveiling his plan in January, focusing instead on an eight-year path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and more enforcement measures—neither of which will fundamentally change the way immigration works in the future. But in a March 8 meeting at the White House with 14 faith leaders, including Samuel Rodriguez, Obama expressed an eagerness to address future flow issues, though he wants to strengthen the current visa system instead of creating a new one.
In Congress the “Gang of Eight,” a group of bipartisan senators, released a framework for immigration reform, but Republicans like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio first want the borders secure. The problem, critics say, is how to define border security when illegal immigration is already down sharply, deportations are at record highs, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has an $11.84 billion budget.
ICE has most of its 20,000 agents on the southern border, and it placed nearly 1 million “detainers”—holds issued to local law enforcement—on suspected non-citizens between 2008 and 2012, according to the Transactional Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Of those, more than three-fourths had no criminal record, only 8.6 percent had committed “serious” crimes (traffic violations were included), and more than 28,000 were legal U.S. residents.
That’s inefficiency at its best, says Mark Shurtleff, Utah Attorney General from 2001 to January 2013. “You simply can’t hold them all,” he told me, adding that after consulting with local law enforcement agencies, ICE recently enacted a new policy to detain only criminals. Shurtleff said most local law enforcement resists harsh policies because illegal immigrants are “the first line of defense, and they’re very cooperative with law enforcement.” He said 90 percent of all confidential informants are undocumented, with only a “small percentage” of them criminals, so harsh state laws meant to drive out immigrants “hurt public safety.”
It’s still unclear how far the Senate plan would go to overhaul the legal system of entry, but a bipartisan group of House members, led by Tea Party favorite Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, is squarely focused on comprehensive reform that would address the future flow of immigrants.
The idea of a guest worker program has worked before: Illegal immigration declined sharply in the 1950s when the Bracero visa program—a robust guest worker program—funneled hundreds of thousands of immigrants into a legal system. But details make all the difference, and special interest groups like organized labor or homosexual activists, who want to include same-sex partners in family reunification policies, could unravel the entire reform effort.
The situation is a win-win for Obama, who received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote last November and will likely take credit for a sweeping political victory if immigration reform passes. Some polling suggests immigration reform may not help Republicans with Hispanics, who tend to favor larger government, but Texas immigrants told me their support for Democrats is a direct result of immigration policy. “Republicans don’t leave us any choice,” said Balbina Andrade, who is active at Alvin Seventh Day Adventist Church and voted for the first time in 2012.
For Mario Hernandez, politics are the furthest thing from his mind: His daughter, already underweight for her age, is not eating enough, and evenings bring tears of loneliness without her mother and sisters. “I’m trying to take good care of my baby,” he said.
Hernandez and his two other daughters, Dhamar, 9, and Leslie, 7, have been tested to see if they are potential matches for Fatima, but results won’t be known until the end of March. In the meantime, Hernandez and his American friends are petitioning area congressmen and even Texas Gov. Rick Perry to get him protection: “I’m trying to become legal.”