How Immigration Reform Has Changed Us Once Before

Hernandez Luna doesn't remember crossing the border in 1979--she was just an infant, after all. But she does remember not being able to visit family in Reynosa, Mexico as a young girl. Leaving the United States without papers meant they might not be able to re-enter and it was just too risky. She constantly feared that one or both of her parents might be deported. But like Ortega, she thinks undocumented life was a little easier back then.

"There was less anti-immigrant sentiment," she recalled during a recent phone interview from Houston.

Her parents got jobs--her mother during the day at the cafeteria in the elementary school she and her older sister, Maria, attended, and her father at a warehouse at night. They paid taxes and bought a home.

Some of her family's friends were nervous when Reagan signed IRCA into law. Was it really smart to come out to the world as undocumented?

But Hernandez Luna's parents were anxious to apply.

"They were some of the first in line," she said.

Hernandez Luna was nine when her family received permanent residency through IRCA. Suddenly trips to see family in Mexico became a reality. Her parents opened a restaurant at a local flea market and ran it for the next half-decade. The five-year mark, at which point the family was allowed to apply for citizenship, came and went, but they didn't fill out the application. It didn't feel pressing at the time.

Hernandez Luna worked her way from Gardens Elementary School to Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena, a working-class city of around 150,000 about 20 miles southeast of Houston.

She was a quiet kid, focused on her studies. It wasn't her parents that pushed her; it was internal, from somewhere deep. Hernandez Luna, who spoke primarily Spanish at home, did her homework on time, got good grades, took summer classes, skipped her junior year of high school and graduated early, at 16.

Celia Fleischman, who has been principal of Gardens Elementary School for nearly 30 years, remembers Hernandez Luna sitting in the corner of the cafeteria with her nose in a book while her mom worked.

"I could kind of see in her already that she was going to be somebody someday, but I never imagined," she said.

Fleischman didn't know at the time that Hernandez Luna was undocumented, but she made it a point not to know.

"What difference does it make?" she asked. "They're children first. That's the way I thought about it when she was here as a child. She was smart, we made the best learning environment possible, and she took advantage of that."

Years later, when she learned Hernandez Luna and her family didn't have papers, Fleischman could relate. Her own parents and some of her siblings were undocumented. It was not uncommon -- is not uncommon -- for families in the community to be mixed-status.

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