August 04, 2001

During a visit this week with his Mexican counterpart Vicente Fox, President George W. Bush is expected to sketch out the most sweeping immigration reform in 15 years, a plan that could legalize millions of undocumented workers. In the September 10 issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, September 3), Mexico City Bureau Chief Alan Zarembo tracks the story of one of them, Ana, a 35-year-old Mexican who's been living and profiting in New York City for the past six years.

Ana (not her real name) entered the country six years ago by crawling through a moonlit drainpipe, trudging across the Arizona desert, crossing into Los Angeles scrunched onto the floor of a car and then flying into La Guardia Airport. Arriving with almost nothing, she worked 12-hour days folding and delivering clothes in Manhattan, six days a week for $200 a week. The salary was eight times what she earned back home working in a sock factory. Hard work and American clients who became friends helped her to start up her own cleaning business, albeit an illegal one.

She now holds the keys to 70 Manhattan apartments and hires other Mexican illegals to do the cleaning. Last year, she made $50,000 and because her business is off the books, it's tax-free. But, as Zarembo writes, since she arrived here six years ago, Ana hasn't been able to return home or see her two children, who are still in Mexico being cared for by their grandmother.

Negotiating the details of immigration reform, including who would be able to apply for legal residence and whether the program would be open to all illegals or only Mexicans, will be tricky and could take another year. And Congress is likely to have fierce battles over policy. At a minimum, it is likely to create an extensive guest-worker program, which would provide temporary visas to Mexicans, writes Zarembo. Democrats and some moderate Republicans want a broader legalization that would be a first step to U.S. citizenship, if migrants can prove they have been in the United States before a certain date. But even that compromise has sparked vitriolic reaction among the most conservative Republicans, who argue that it would be rewarding illegal behavior.

However, the need for a change in policy and attitude towards illegal immigrants has gathered momentum recently with even the protectionist-leaning AFL-CIO favoring an amnesty.

And while an amnesty could ease the pressure on U.S. border police and might encourage former illegals to go home, Zarembo writes, it could also result in a flood of others coming in drawn by success stories like Ana's, and not just from Mexico.

There are at least six million people currently living illegally in the United States. Last year only 46,750 were deported. And those who remain are also staying longer than ever, precisely because the border has become more difficult to cross. They are also sending home record amounts of cash, a projected $9.3 billion to Mexico this year.

Bush's plan for one of the most sweeping immigration reforms in years -- easing strictures on millions of illegals -- is meeting harsh opposition in Congress. Could it work? Here is one Mexican's tale.

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