Walter Torrez and Tomas Villalta share some history. In the early 1980s, they both paid “coyotes” to hurry them across the desert and into the United States illegally. In the late 1980s, both became legal residents — and eventually U.S. citizens — after President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the program often cited as the last mass effort to legalize undocumented aliens.
But the two men went on to vastly different lives in the Washington region, illustrating the mixed results of the 1986 program for 2.7 million participants and the arguments it offers for both sides in the current immigration debate.
President Obama’s recent executive action temporarily shielding an estimated 4 million immigrants from deportation is not as dramatic as the permanent legal residency offered by the Reagan-era initiative. And comparisons are further complicated by the lack of research on the beneficiaries of the 1986 amnesty.
Even so, the fates of Torrez and Villalta provide a glimpse at how differently the new protections could play out for those just now able to, in the president’s words, “come out of the shadows.”
After getting his green card, Torrez, 46, went on to college, started a series of small businesses and now owns La Nueva 87.7 FM, a Spanish-language radio station broadcasting from Silver Spring. The Bolivian native lives a comfortable suburban life in Prince George’s County and is driving his seventh Mercedes-Benz. He credits becoming a legal citizen with setting him on the path to American success.
“Without it, maybe I would still be painting houses,” said Torrez, taking a break from the morning radio show in which he regularly exhorts his largely immigrant audience to seize the opportunities available in their adopted country. He’s been a vocal advocate for legalizing today’s undocumented residents and offers on-air advice to those navigating the immigration system.
By contrast, Villalta remains on the lowest rungs of the region’s economic ladder 26 years after getting his first residency card. Even unskilled work dried up after the Georgetown restaurant where he’d washed dishes for 16 years closed in August. Villalta, 65, who became a U.S. citizen a year ago, recently found himself in a Home Depot parking lot, hustling for work with undocumented day laborers.
The Salvadoran-born Villalta is proud of his new blue passport. He was thrilled last month to cast his first vote in the D.C. mayoral election (“por Muriel!”). He knows he is better off in Northwest Washington than in the poor mountain village in El Salvador where he was born. But he has begun to question the value of a legal right to work in a country where no one wants to give him a job.
“Now I see all the young guys getting work who don’t have papers just because they are young,” he said in Spanish. He has never learned more than a few workplace phrases of English.
The class of 1986 is tough to characterize, immigration experts say. Other than a pair of follow-up surveys taken in the program’s first five years, little formal analysis has been done of the 2.7 million immigrants who gained green cards through the law.
“I think that population did reasonably well,” said B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration. “But we’re talking about a small population relative to the U.S. labor force.”
A 1992 survey by the Department of Labor suggested that participants were enjoying at least a modest boost in wages. Most of those with full-time jobs paid federal and state taxes and “were not exceptionally prone” to seeking food stamps or other public assistance.
“Suddenly, it was like coming out from under a big tree into the sunshine,” said Silvino Camacho, 52, a Mexican-born tile contractor in San Mateo, Calif.
Camacho, who had been an undocumented farmworker for 10 years, began taking English classes at night, learned tile work and now runs his own small company. All three of his U.S.-born children have graduated from college, and one daughter is working on her PhD in languages.
Is his story typical or exceptional? Without follow-up studies, academics can’t say.
“You’re talking to a data-geek demographer,” said Audrey Singer, who worked on the last survey and is an immigration scholar at the Brookings Institution.
“I would have loved to have more information about this group.”
Critics of legalization say one of the biggest impacts of the 86ers, many of whom were allowed to bring immediate family members into the country, was forming the beachhead of the huge immigration waves that built over the following two decades.
“The large impact is that it permanently increased the flow of migrants to the United States, both legal and illegal,” said David North, a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. He predicted that Obama’s executive action would trigger another surge of undocumented immigrants.
Torrez was 15, and from a Bolivian family that valued education, when he and a friend traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, in 1981. He jumped a backyard fence near San Diego and eventually joined relatives in Maryland. After enrolling at Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County, Torrez learned English from friends and by reading closed captions on TV.
But after he graduated, he said, Montgomery College wouldn’t let him enroll without documents. So he worked in a delicatessen and as a cleaner at a gas station and took classes in Spanish at the Columbia School of Broadcasting in Vienna, Va.
“They didn’t ask me for a green card,” he said.
After the 1986 bill was enacted, Torrez gained permanent residency and started business and marketing classes at Montgomery College.
From there, Torrez steadily built his small DJ business into a string of radio gigs and an advertising company. In 2009, he and a partner leased a 1,000-watt FM broadcasting license. La Nueva now employs 14 staffers and airs an eclectic blend of Latin music.
Torrez wears a zippered black-leather jacket and sports swept-back black hair. He idolizes Elvis, adores American innovation and has filled his office with Apple laptops and hip furniture.
“I learned that American kids like cool,” he said. “I’ve always tried to be cool.”
For Villalta, assimilating has been more about survival than attitude. He came in the 1980s after Salvadoran rebels threatened him.
His wife had already crossed illegally into the United States and was working in Washington, where Villalta eventually ended up.
Last week, he pulled a worn card from his wallet, the temporary work permit he was able to obtain in 1988. Being legal never seemed to make it easier to find work, Villalta said.
But he always enjoyed the moment when a boss would ask if he had papers and he could whip out his card.
“It made me feel like a big shot,” he said.
The real change came three years later, when Villalta and his wife got their green cards. Villalta was able to return to El Salvador for the first time. And the couple brought their five children to Washington.
Villalta cleaned offices up and down 14th Street NW and worked in a series of kitchens. Finally, 25 years after registering with the federal government, Villalta was eligible to take the citizenship exam in Spanish, a program open to older, longtime residents.
Villalta took Saturday citizenship classes given by Carecen, an advocacy group in Mount Pleasant. Carecen teaches U.S. history and civics through lectures and role-playing to clients who don’t read well in any language.
Villalta can rattle off the six questions he nailed to pass his citizenship exam, including “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?” He said he feels American now.
But his U.S. passport has been no shield against hard knocks. He and his wife are divorced. His children don’t call him. After 16 years as a dishwasher at Mr. Smith’s, he lost his job when the restaurant closed last summer, and he’s now three months behind on his rent at the apartment he shares with three other men. He worked three days cleaning a store for a man who hired him off the street and then didn’t pay him.
It’s legal for anyone to hire him, but lately, no one will.
“I feel helpless,” Villalta said. “I have the papers, I am a citizen, but I don’t have any work. That’s all I want, is to work.”