To Israel Lopez, there is nothing like Christmas in the tiny village of Tequesticlan, Mexico, where pinatas hang in the main plaza and the whole town fits in the old church. Blas Duran misses the traditional Christmas pilgrimages, the Posadas of Nayarit. Irma Quinonez simply wants to see her mother.
They miss their hometowns, their families and the friends they grew up with. For many illegal aliens in this country, it has been a long time since their last Christmas homecoming.
But for the thousands of soon-to-be-legal U.S. residents under the new immigration law, this holiday also brings hope. For the first time since their arrival, the ghost of deportation will not haunt their celebration, and a Christmas at home may be just one year away.
"It's been 10 years since I last stepped on Mexican soil, I can hardly remember what it was like," said Duran, 34, two days before Christmas, as he sat in the East Los Angeles federal legalization office with his wife and two daughters, waiting to be interviewed for temporary residence.
"I'd love to be in (the Mexican state of) Nayarit, but I don't want to risk being arrested or locked up in a freight wagon by a coyote. The first time I came to the States I had bad luck--I spent eight hours without food or water, and I ran all the way to San Diego. They arrested me there and I was deported. I crossed back the next day and I never returned" to Mexico.
Like many of the more than 430,000 amnesty applicants in the Los Angeles District of the INS, Duran has received a temporary work permit, but temporary residence is still a step away in the legalization process. While 98% of the district's processed applications have been approved for temporary residence, 87% of the applications are still being processed. And until the temporary residence card arrives, only agricultural workers are allowed to travel in and out of the country unless there is a documented emergency.
"So we'll cook some tamales and wait for the next Christmas," said Duran, a baker. "It's not too big a sacrifice. The government here is good. It provides many benefits. And the people are even better."
For Irma Quinonez, 43, it will be another sad Christmas, but, she hopes, the last. Her resident card will not be ready in time, so she will not be able to return to her native city of San Salvador, in El Salvador, to be with her family.
"Of course everybody, with or without (legalization) papers wants to spend Christmas with their family," she said. "God willing, I'll be allowed to go next year for a few days."
Quinonez left in 1975 and has never gone back. She lives alone in East Los Angeles, and she has worked in the same garment factory for the last 10 years. She plans to spend her Christmas watching a religious channel on TV and "commending (herself) to God, and crying and praying to God that we come out well next year."
Israel Lopez, 32, can't even compare the Christmases he spent in his village drinking beer and knocking pinatas with the ones he has spent for the last 17 years in Los Angeles, coordinating Christmas meals for Marriott In Flight Service. Not that he is complaining, he said. The United States is a country of opportunities and his three children are deprived of nothing.
But every morning this month he has checked the mail, and once a week he stops by the immigration office and asks for his resident card, which is due any day now.
For other immigrants like Maria, 25, this will be their first Christmas in Los Angeles. In years past she had crossed the border illegally to spend the holidays with her parents in Tijuana, but now with her legalization papers being processed, it is not worth the risk.
While for many immigrants 1987 will be the last Christmas that they are forced to spend away from home for lack of legal documents, the minority of applicants with seriously ill relatives will be able to return legally.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service does not keep figures for the emergency travel passes it grants every month, but according to Anita Maker, an INS deputy legal officer, the number of requests has doubled in the last two weeks.
Isidra Ruela de Franquez, for example, received a 30-day travel pass on Wednesday to visit her mother in Jala, Mexico. It will be the second year that Ruela and her mother spend the holidays together.
To get her daughter home, the mother sent a telegram saying, "Come home. I'm very ill."
"You have to give the person the benefit of the doubt," Maker said.