Hugo Ortega felt sick. Fumes from the exhaust pipe wafted up through the holes in the trunk of the 1950-something Chevy Impala and overwhelmed the teenage goat herder from Puebla, Mexico. He tried to breathe but couldn't and vomited into the dark compartment he shared with three other boys.
It had been one month since he left his family in Mexico City and traveled north to the Rio Grande. It had taken six or seven tries but eventually he'd worked his way across the swollen river in a rickety boat and walked across the border into Laredo, Texas. There he'd boarded a train bound for San Antonio where he squeezed into a closed storage compartment with several others. Now, here he was, in the back of an Impala that creaked as it bumped along the road toward Houston.
The life he was fleeing in Mexico had been tough, miserable even. The economy was stagnant. The government was a mess. His father struggled to find work to support the family and fell into a deep depression when he couldn't. A cousin, David, lived in Houston and told Ortega how much money he could earn in the United States. It seemed like a fortune. He thought about it and then decided. I'm going north, he told his parents. He had no idea what awaited him.
Ortega and the other boys arrived, skinny and covered in dirt after a month in the desert, and fell into the embrace of an old Mexican woman who fed them plate after plate of hot chilaquiles. They were safe. None of them knew her but she was from the same village back home, and she knew someone who knew someone and that was how it worked. You took care of your own.
That was in the early 1980s, although he doesn't remember exactly. It was easier back then for these ghosts, these shadows, as Ortega calls the millions of undocumented men and women who have traveled north in search of a better life. Not easy, but easier. It was pre-9/11 and the twin towers were still standing. People weren't quite so suspicious of foreigners yet. He got an ID card and worked a series of odd jobs at local markets to stay afloat. He opened a bank account and saved a little money.
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Then President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986 and life got better still. Ortega applied and was approved for legal status, and citizenship followed in the mid-1990s. He signed up for culinary school, graduated, and 11 years ago, opened Hugo's Restaurant. He now co-owns another, Backstreet Cafe, where he washed dishes in the mid-1980s and where he met his wife, Tracy, who owned it. The two married in 1994 and welcomed a daughter, Sophia, in 1997. He has been named "Chef of the Year" at Houston's annual Culinary Awards and was a finalist for the coveted James Beard Foundation Awards last year.
"Who knows what could have happened [without IRCA]," he said during a phone interview. "Maybe I would not have been able to accomplish what I have accomplished."
IRCA granted legal permanent status to roughly 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, about 70 percent of them Mexican. A quarter million became citizens a decade later, when the entire cohort became eligible to naturalize. By 2009, about 1.1 million had taken the oath of citizenship.