More than 10 years after he was deported to Mexico, Miguel Vazquez was reunited at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in April with his American-born wife, Sophia, and their 13-year-old son, Miguelito.
“I remember thinking, I don’t want to let myself be happy yet,” Sophia Vazquez said, “until I’m actually touching him.”
Their reunion ended a journey that began in 1989 when Miguel Vazquez, now 54, first came to the United States legally on a tourist visa. Like so many others he knew, Vazquez faded into the immigrant underground to look for work. When his visa expired, he became one of the nation’s estimated 11 million immigrants living here illegally, many of whom now anxiously await action on a congressional immigration reform that could create a path to citizenship.
Vazquez took the more difficult route. Unwilling to live in the shadows of the law during the heightened security climate of the Sept. 1, 2001, terrorist attacks, the newly married father of a 2-year-old son in St. Paul voluntarily came forward to immigration authorities in 2002.
He was arrested on the spot.
Deported, Vazquez returned to his hometown in the state of Guanajuato, where he spent years trying to eke out a living reselling clothing he bought in Mexico City, sometimes with Sophia’s help.
That decadelong exile embodies the flip side to a bipartisan plan approved by the U.S. Senate last week that would allow unauthorized immigrants like Vazquez, who have broken no other laws, to stay in the country if they are willing to pay fines and meet other conditions.
The plan, which faces shaky prospects in the House, would require background checks, fingerprints, payment of back taxes and proof of gainful employment, among other things. It is paired with a massive enhancement of border security, including a doubling of the U.S. Border Patrol, a 700-mile fence, and a surveillance system of radar, ground sensors, radiation detectors and aerial drones.
House opponents, notably Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann, still call the proposal “amnesty.” That term has become radioactive among conservatives even though it was President Reagan who signed the 1986 amnesty bill that legalized millions of undocumented immigrants. Bachmann, together with others in the Tea Party Caucus, has been among the bill’s sharpest critics in the House, where the Senate bill has gotten a chilly reception from GOP leaders.
Minnesota Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken fully support the bill in the Senate on moral and economic grounds. “No one benefits from a broken immigration system,” Franken said of the status quo. “Families are kept apart by interminable visa waits. Our businesses can’t get the workforce they need. And American workers have to compete with undocumented folks getting paid under the table. A pathway to citizenship fixes so many of these problems.”
Klobuchar called the recent 68-32 Senate vote a historic achievement. “There are moral reasons,” she said, “but there are also very clear economic reasons.”
Opponents are not ceding the moral high ground. Nor do they trust a new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office that finds more legal immigrants in the workforce mean more government tax revenues and lower budget deficits.
Bachmann, holding up a baby from among the crowd at a Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill this month, warned about the drain of a flood of new immigrants on federal safety net programs and the U.S. Treasury. “Say hello to Terra,” she thundered. “Say hello to America’s future. … I want you to know what true compassion is on this issue. Love these children!”
But amid the nativist signs in the crowd, including “Proud American Christian” and “Shut the door,” other Republicans in Congress have called for greater outreach to the nation’s rapidly growing Hispanic population, which has skewed increasingly Democratic in recent elections. They also have been pressured by business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has launched ads featuring conservative leaders like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., talking about the current system of “de facto amnesty.”
To the Vazquez family, which followed the law for the past 10 years, Miguel’s arrest and long separation didn’t feel like amnesty. His lawyer, Michael Davis, called it “draconian.” Immigration critics acknowledge that hard-luck cases like Vazquez’s elicit sympathy — but only to a point.
“There are plenty of compelling cases for amnesty,” said Roy Beck, the influential founder of NumbersUSA, which advocates for lower immigration levels. “But there are 20 million compelling cases of Americans who can’t find full-time jobs.”
Some GOP leaders, caught in what Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., called a “demographic death spiral,” argue that the Senate compromise balances new border security measures with a “tough but humane” way for people living in the United States illegally to obtain legal status without leaving their families.
Still, many House Republicans remain wary of the deal. Minnesota’s John Kline, who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, has said little about how to deal with the 11 million illegal residents already in the United States. While migration from Mexico has dropped sharply from peak levels in the mid-2000s, Kline, like many Republicans, has focused instead on border security. “We must first come up with a plan to establish credibility on our borders,” Kline said.
South of the border
The southern border remains a sticking point in the House, where some rank-and-file Republicans are skeptical about potential loopholes in the Senate security plan. Some immigration hard-liners like Beck say that blocking illegal immigrants from working in the United States is a more effective deterrent than a fence and border agents.
For example, until Vazquez served a 10-year ban and obtained a green card this year, he represented the 40 percent of the nation’s illegal residents who came to the United States with all the necessary papers. He did not cross the border illegally. Despite his tourist visa, which is invalid for employment, Vazquez was able to find work as a landscaper and help support his new wife and child.
The Senate bill beefs up a mandatory employment verification system called E-Verify, though critics complain that it wouldn’t fully kick into effect for some five years. It would also allow those who overstayed their visas, like Vazquez, to eventually adjust their status and apply for citizenship — but only after billions of dollars in border security measures are implemented and officials clear a long backlog of legal immigration cases.
By most timetables being contemplated by Congress, that could be another 10 years — the same amount of time Vazquez had to wait in Mexico after he was deported.
Vazquez was not caught in a raid. He came out to authorities in hopes of finding just the sort of path to legal residency or citizenship that is now before Congress. “I couldn’t fathom that his son would be 13 before his dad could come home,” said his wife, Sophia Vazquez. “I never wanted to be a single mom.”
Ultimately, Miguel Vazquez took the only path that some critics say should be available: He stayed in Mexico, went to the end of the legal immigration line and waited it out, with occasional visits from his American family.
“I can’t imagine the people who don’t have the support that my husband had,” said Sophia Vazquez. “All the money and fees and lawyers. There’s no way that’s going to happen for most people in the economy that is Mexico. Without some change, it’s just going to keep going the way it is.”
Follow Kevin Diaz on Twitter at StribDiaz.