How amnesty gave a 100-year-old woman a new life in the US

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Marco Werman: It's been a quarter of a century since the nation's last major immigration overhaul took place. That was when President Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The legislation made it illegal to hire an undocumented immigrant. It also granted amnesty to some three million illegal immigrants already in the country. One of those who benefited was Rosaura Pinera. She was a great grandmother of Monica Ortiz Uribe, a reporter with the Public Radio collaboration, Fronteras, and also a contributor to our program. Monica, you've written this lovely story about your great grandmother (and listeners can check it out at and how she benefited from that 1986 amnesty. Tell us her story.

Monica Ortiz Uribe: Yeah, so my great grandmother was born in 1898 in the northern Mexico city of Chihuahua. We think she first came to the US as a girl to flee the Mexican Revolution, like so many others. And she came to El Paso, where she worked at a clothing factory, and we think she was able to get her US residency then. But when she was around 30 years old she got married and her husband, she and her husband moved back to Mexico where they stayed until their old age. And by then their children had grown up and emigrated legally to the US, and she'd lost her US residency by then. So when my great grandfather died she was left without any family in Mexico and we decided to bring her back to El Paso. And she came with her border crossing card, which only supposed to be for temporary visits, but it was basically the best option available for her to be able to stay and live in the US. So she was basically here illegally.

Werman: So how did this 1986 law change her life and really what stands out for you, Monica, from how you know, this one piece of legislation kind of made a difference for you great grandmother.

Uribe: Right, so my great grandmother became a US resident at age 88 and this was after President Reagan passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, or as Spanish speakers in my family call it, "la amnistia" or the amnesty. So while my great grandmother was living in the US, the hardest thing for her to get was healthcare, and so my grandfather when he used to swap plumbing job for doctors visits for my grandmother. And when she fell and broke her hip, the whole family had to pull together money to pay for her operation. One day she was out with my mom on a sunny day in El Paso and asked, you know, is it cloudy outside, I can't really see too well. And my mother realized she had gotten cataracts, but knowing, it was a sad realization because she knew the family couldn't quite afford to treat her. But after she became a resident she was able to qualify for Medicaid and she was able to go see the doctor and get her cataracts removed, and her quality of life just improved significantly.

Werman: That's incredible. So at the age of 88 she becomes an American. I suppose for some that might have been anticlimactic at the age of 88 or it could've been really poignant.

Uribe: Yes, no, no, no, it was very important for her, but even more important was for her to become a citizen, which she didn't get to do until she was 100 years old. And the reason she wanted to become a citizen, even so late in life, was that voting was always very important to her. She voted in almost every election in Mexico. It was a big deal. She would get dressed up and take her grandchildren, and so she wanted to do the same in the United States. At the 2000 election she voted in the presidential election. She was already kind of ailing in health and it turns out that she never found out the result of that 2000 election because she died just three days after voting.

Werman: Monica, you report on many people whose lives have been affected by immigration and emigration law. Do you often think of your great grandmother's story?

Uribe: Well, I did now. Just recently in writing a new stories and actually considering the possibility that there might be immigration reform again this year, of course, it got me to thinking of her, of her story. And I sat down with my mom on a Friday night and I asked her to tell me the story because really for me I was a young girl and a teenager, and so my great grandmother's story wasn't completely clear to me.

Werman: Well, thank you so much for sharing it with us. Monica Ortiz Uribe is a reporter with the Public Radio collaboration, Fronteras, their Changing America desk. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Uribe: You're very welcome.