Authors: José Orduña
The months following the deadline held a peculiar feeling for Yoli. She saw two frozen crows on two separate occasions in February and took it as a bad omen. One of them appeared to have frozen while standing under a tree, and it remained stiff, on its side. The image disturbed her: from time to time
she brings it up, never in context, just the image of the crow having frozen alive, perhaps on its feet. She said she felt as though she couldn't breathe in enough, like time during that stretch of days felt like waiting, except she didn't know for what. At moments she felt resigned, and this brought calm. She says she spent a lot of time staring at the door, daydreaming about what it would look like when someone came through it. In other moments she felt a panic she'd felt when she was a girl and knew something bad was coming. Each time the phone rang it triggered muscle spasms under her diaphragm, and she could feel a fluttering that made it difficult to breathe. This was before caller ID, and we didn't have an answering machine, so sometimes it would ring and ring and it wouldn't stop, so she would pick me up and take me to the park. Neither of them ever said anything about it to each other, they didn't want to acknowledge it, but in the mornings when MartÃn left for work there was a sharp moment in which they looked at one another and felt the abhorrent possibility each time he walked out the door.
Yoli takes a bite of her concha, and then there's a knock at the door. She inhales some of the white crumbs and almost chokes.
“Ha de ser tu pinche padre,” she says.
When I open the door he's standing there holding a foot-long plaster statue of the archangel Michael crushing Lucifer's head under his foot.
“What the fuck is that?” I ask.
“An old lady from work gave it to me,” he responds.
It's one thirty in the afternoon and he's home from work already because he's been there since 4 a.m. Whenever I visit and stay at my parents' house I hear him leave for work right around the time I go to sleep. When certain people ask what
he does, I tell them, and there's an awkward pause, and then they avert their eyes. A lot of times the answer is a conversation ender. When it's not, the person to whom I've said it carries on talking hurriedly, without acknowledging it. Once, when I told an affluent white guy I was acquainted with that my father worked at an industrial food production plant, he awkwardly blurted out something like, “but he's, like, a manager, right?” I extended his discomfort as long as I could before answering. “He's a shift manager.” It means he stands in a giant refrigerated warehouse with no windows overseeing the production of prepared food items for various retailers. Everything is done on various assembly lines, and the workers on his lines are contracted and subcontracted labor.
He takes off his boots and sits down on the couch. Yoli hands me a single sheet of paper from the box and tells me to show it to him. It's a photocopy of a handwritten flyer with a heading that reads “Special Agricultural Workers.”
“Holy shit,” he says when he sees it.
He explains that one day he was walking to work after getting off the train, and a young kidâmaybe eighteen or nineteenâstanding on a street corner handed a flyer to him, that he never used to take flyers or things people tried to hand him but that for some reason he took that one. “You have until Nov. 30, 1988 to file! Your application must be complete, and submitted with all the required documentation.” That's how he found out there was another deadline and another way to qualify for the IRCA. Farmhands were eligible if they had some way of proving they'd worked harvesting vegetables, fruits, or any other perishable crops for at least ninety days during a one-year period that ended May 1, 1986.
“Around that time,” he says, “estaba de la puta madre.”
It felt to MartÃn and Yoli as though they lived teetering on a precipice. “I think we might be seeing each other really soon,” he'd written his mother. He said that la migra maintained a “presence” in Chicago, both before and after the law
passed. “It didn't feel like they were trying to round everyone up, or shut everything down for real. You know? They'd send two or three agents here, two or three agents there.”
One morning, Nacho, a guy he worked with, warned him he'd seen two agents in olive green uniforms at the Milwaukee and Western bus stop taking a few paisas away in cuffs. It really spooked him because that was just four or five blocks from our house, and he took the Western blue line. He walked by that spot every morning on his way to work. Another time a friend told him about his brother who worked in a factory that got raided. They kicked in the doors and stormed in with guns drawn, and the brother couldn't run anywhere because they had the place surrounded, so he climbed inside a big plastic drum and stayed crouched for five or six hours until everything was quiet. He waited another two for good measure, and he would have waited longer but his knees felt like they were going to pop. When he climbed out, the huge production room was empty. He'd never seen the lines still, without workers on them. They'd taken around fifty people. A constellation of hairnets and pairs of orange earplugs connected by blue vinyl string were strewn across the production floor.
MartÃn fit the incredibly narrow criteria and was granted temporary residence.
“I always try to remember what the kid who gave me the flier looked like, but I can't. I can't even remember if he was white or black or a
or what. I think he was wearing a red jacket or maybe blackâI don't know.”
He says he felt a second of relief that was drowned out by the fact that Yoli and I didn't qualify. It's estimated that around 1.3 million people applied under the agricultural worker criteria, so in total around three million of the estimated five million undocumented individuals living in the United States suddenly had temporary status. Employer sanctions were gutted, but the raids and periodic snatching
of people off the street continued. The final version of the law meant the only thing employers had to do to avoid culpability was make sure their employees' paperwork “reasonably appears on its face to be genuine,” which meant the Justice Department would only be able to prosecute if they could prove that employers were hiring undocumented workers
. Other times industries like landscaping, construction, factory work, and agriculture maneuvered around any liability whatsoever by using contracted and subcontracted labor.
On November 6, 1986, upon signing the IRCA, Ronald Reagan released a statement in which he outlined his reasons for signing the bill into law. Part of it reads:
In 1981 this administration asked the Congress to pass a comprehensive legislative package, including employer sanctions, other measures to increase enforcement of the immigration laws, and legalization. The act provides these three essential components. The employer sanctions program is the keystone and major element. It will remove the incentive for illegal immigration by eliminating the job opportunities, which draw illegal aliens here. We have consistently supported a legalization program, which is both generous to the alien and fair to the countless thousands of people throughout the world who seek legally to come to America. The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.
We now know these words were coming from a president whose eight years in office were among the bloodiest in the
history of the Western Hemisphere. His administration continued the long-standing US tradition of making incursions into the affairs of Latin American countries, and since this was the Cold War it was in the name of anticommunism. In Guatemala, Reagan provided the right-wing government with military and economic support despite the State Department and White House being apprised of the ongoing violence under the leadership of RÃos Montt. In 1982 the US embassy in Guatemala sent cables to Washington right after a massacre in the Ixtil village of Sacuchum. One of the cables specified, “Reports of torture and strangulation (and possible incidents of rape) [suggest] the modus operandi of the extreme right.” As these cables came in, the US State Department continued publicly asserting that it could not “definitively attribute the killing to one group or another” and that the Guatemalan military was “taking care to protect innocent bystanders.” In classified memos from the very same months, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Bosworth reported that “the military continues to engage in massacres of civilians in the countryside” and said his department had recently received a “well-founded allegation of a large-scale killing of Indian men, women and children in a remote area by the army.”
Many who survived were interned in “model villages” that were nothing more than detention camps supplied by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). After the period of open massacres ended, targeted assassinations by death squads with ties to the Central Intelligence Agency continued to torture and kill alleged dissidents into the nineties. A truth commission report published in 1999, titled “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” estimated that two hundred thousand people were killed or disappeared and that 93 percent of the human rights violations and acts of violence registered by the commission were “attributable to actions by the State.” The commission also found that “the
Army's perception of Mayan communities” played a part in the “aggressive racist component of extreme cruelty that led to the extermination en masse, of defenceless Mayan communities.” The US-backed Guatemalan army perpetrated
acts such as the killing of defenceless children, often by beating them against walls .Â .Â . throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive; the extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera of victims who were still alive; the confinement of people who had been mortally tortured, in agony for days; the opening of the wombs of pregnant women, and other similarly atrocious acts.
Reagan supported similarly atrocious conflicts in El Salvador and, most famously, Nicaragua during his presidency.
Although it's impossible to say with certainty what the motivations were for legislators and the president in passing the IRCA, I feel confident thinking it had nothing to do with reducing immigration, improving lives, or helping people “step into the sunlight.” What it did do was allow the United States to reset a game board by regularizing the immigration status of the people who were already here, while leaving the policies that had made them “illegal” to begin with in place for the next wave of immigrants, so that they too would be inscribed with the same vulnerabilities.
Maybe it had something to do with Mexico's strategic place in Latin America during the Cold War. It feels as though part of my realityâand MartÃn's and Yoli's realitiesâwill always remain arbitrary and unintelligible. I have a very clear memory of something that happened during the mid-1990s when my dad and I were watching TV. The local news broadcast came on. It played a clip of Ronald Reagan in Hollywood wearing a cowboy hat, putting a saddle on a
horse, and then a clip of President Reagan standing at a podium in front of the Brandenburg Gate, telling Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.” The anchor announced that Reagan had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and I knew what that was because one of our neighbors, an old Polish lady, suffered from it, and Yoli had explained what it meant. MartÃn said something like “Que se lo carge la chingada” and turned off the TV. I think I remember it still because my dad badmouthing someone suffering such misfortune wasn't something I'd heard or thought I would ever hear. It was a long while before I understood.
This morning my eyes are slits and I'm grumbling to Ariel, my friend in the passenger seat, about these appointments being so sudden. A week earlier I'd received a certified letter with the Department of Homeland Security seal on itâa blue eagle holding an olive branch in one talon and thirteen arrows in the other. It was a summons to have my biometrics captured, to have my fingerprints cleared by the FBI, one step closer to being naturalized. Ariel offered to come along to keep me from falling asleep at the wheel and crashing the car I borrowed. We'd also half-joked that her whiteness would keep us both safe.
My appointment: February 14, 2011. 210 Walnut Street. 1 p.m. Des Moines, Iowa.
Shards of sunlight have just started creeping over the long hills along I-80 West. We made sure to leave early enough to make it on time in the event of a flat tire or some other incident. Ariel snaps photos of me driving.
“So you'll remember.”
She snaps another one, squinting behind the viewfinder. “Are you excited?”
I watch the sunrise tremble in the rearview. It takes me a moment to answer.
It takes another moment to work out that “not really” is, in fact, precisely true.
When I moved out of my parents' house a few years back, my mom told me to make sure to report to Homeland Security.
“Homeland Security. En el Internet.”
She explained that as “lawful permanent residents” we had to report to the US Citizenship and Immigration Serviceâone of seven agencies that comprise the Department of Homeland Securityâwithin ten days of moving.
“Pues quiÃ©n sabe.”
Valentine's Day. Along I-80, the corn and soy have long been harvested, the landscape is topped with husks and wisps of snow. What's left is the gray geometry of agribusiness. Talk radio has been tranquilizing me with a voice at a volume so low that it no longer carries words, only textures. I feel like I'm gliding on the muted surface of a Luc Tuymans painting: colors one would expect from a drowned corpse, images stripped of their context and mediated into blasÃ© obscurity. The monstrous actuality of the landscape concealed by its absolute banality.