BROWNSVILLE, Tex. — Elihever Munguia, illegal alien, knew the risk when she pondered whether to apply for amnesty under the new U.S. immigration law.
The law seemed tailor-made for people like her.
She has lived in the United States continuously since Jan. 1, 1982, as the law requires, has a steady job, pays her taxes and sends her children to school.
The new law recognizes that thousands of such undocumented aliens, perhaps millions, are scattered across the United States. The law says, in effect, that the past is forgotten, come take a first step toward citizenship. And Munguia clearly passes every qualifying test.
But down the road, in her case, there appears to loom a Catch-22.
What About the Children?
Would accepting the once-in-a-lifetime invitation also drop a legal curtain between this mother and three of her four children, who just as clearly do not qualify because they have not lived with her continuously the required five years?
"My lawyer," Munguia said, "advised me to apply, so I did. We will worry about the future in the future. \o7 Que sera sera.\f7 "
Her predicament is commonplace among families of Mexican descent, who represent the vast majority along the 1,900-mile southern border. For generations, many have considered the border less a national barrier than a local inconvenience.
After all, the culture and even the predominant language are the same on both sides and the flow back and forth a routine of daily life. At the busiest border crossing, between San Ysidro, Calif., and Tijuana, an estimated 50,000 make the daily commute legally.
Number Is Unclear
How many cross illegally is anybody's guess. Even since the new law took effect, passed mainly to stem the flow, some Mexicans apparently believe that getting to America is still worth even the risk of perishing in a boxcar in the desert.
Munguia's risk is nothing so dire. At worst, she might have to forgo American citizenship, so generously proffered, and live in Mexico in order to raise her children.
Three of her children were born in Mexico, just across the Rio Grande River. The fourth was born in the United States and therefore is a U.S. citizen.
How things wound up this way is a classic example of life on the border. It is also one reason why applicants for amnesty are far fewer than expected along the border, where perhaps the greatest concentration of illegal aliens reside.
It's Like Informing
The amnesty application requires listing the names and whereabouts of all the applicant's relatives. To many, that's an unheard-of involvement with \o7 la migra\f7 , as the Immigration and Naturalization Service is known, viewed as informing on your own.
Munguia is a tiny woman of 37 with a small voice and eyes like a frightened fawn. She speaks no English, which is less a handicap than speaking no Spanish, or, in border argot, Spanglish.
She was the third of nine children born in a three-bedroom farmhouse in Valle Hermosa, Mexico, about an hour's drive across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Tex. Her pride is that she went through the ninth grade in school--three grades beyond the usual for her peers--which her parents provided for at some sacrifice.
In 1965, her older sister, Rosa, took a day trip to Brownsville to celebrate Charro Days, an annual border festival. While buying a soft drink, Rosa was offered a job by the grocer, who needed a clerk and cleaning lady. He had a room for her in back of the store. She still works there.
The following year a great storm off the Gulf of Mexico wiped out the Munguias' farm crop.
Time to Go North
It was decided that Elihever would join Rosa in the United States and help out by sending money home as Rosa had been doing. Rosa found her sister a job selling popcorn at the Victoria Theater for $12 a week. The grocer agreed that she could live with Rosa.
So Elihever, at 16, gathered up her birth certificate, a letter from her parents and her school records, took a bus to the bridge at the border and presented her documents to the U.S. immigration officer.
Satisfied that the girl lived in Mexico and likely would return there, the officer issued a local pass allowing a 72-hour visit to America. The time limit is widely ignored, and often, as in Munguia's case, permanently ignored.
The sisters made frequent trips home to Mexico. Munguia once stayed for six months, when her mother was ill. Each time they could return to America on their local passes, but after the 72-hour passes become illegal, they were prey for \o7 la migra.\f7
Man in the Picture
As time passed, Munguia fell in love. Her father disapproved of the man, however, and refused to allow a marriage. He did not object to their living together.
As it happened, the man, Andres Garcia, was an American citizen by birth; his father was an American, his mother a Mexican. Nonetheless, the couple chose to make their home in Matamoros, the Mexican city across the bridge from Brownsville. That was not unusual; many Mexican-Americans, or American-Mexicans, live in Mexico by choice.