Hector Ramirez is one of six people Yahoo News has interviewed for our series on Americans who gained green cards under Ronald Reagan’s 1986 law that legalized 2.7 million illegal immigrants. On Thursday, we profile Ubaldo, an injured truck driver who has run into immigration problems.
Hector Ramirez was 13 years old when a smuggler helped him and a friend climb over the border fence near Tijuana into the U.S. Ramirez, the youngest of 11 siblings,
was picked up at a nearby McDonald’s by one of his older brothers, Luis, who was taking him back to his place in the tumultuous Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. But they weren’t clear yet: The smuggler, or “coyote,” who helped the two boys cross demanded $200 more than the already agreed upon $600. When Ramirez’s brother protested, the coyote punched him in the face.
The next day, a Sunday, Ramirez, who was the guest of honor at a party celebrating his arrival, believed the hard part was over. But on Monday, Luis, who owned a small welding shop, woke him at 5:30 a.m. “He said, ‘Get up and take a shower because we’re going to work,’” recalled Ramirez, who is now 45. “Since [then] we’ve been working 10, 12, 16 hours a day.”
Ramirez said he was happy for the chance to earn money. The plan was to save enough to buy a motorcycle and then go back home to Zacatecas, Mexico. His goal: speeding up the 10-mile journey from his home to school. Ramirez, however, stayed in the U.S. and never went back to school. He threw himself into welding—picking up English from the customers, as well as from watching TV—and saved up enough money to buy a home at the age of 18. For two weeks the house was completely empty because he had spent every last cent on the down payment and could not afford to buy even curtains.
“Probably my life would have been different if I were to go to school,” Ramirez said. “But I think I was lucky and smart to get into a business.”
Ramirez was 20 when he found out he could get legal status through Reagan’s amnesty program. The news, he said, was profound: Like many illegal immigrants, he was using fake identity documents and lacked a driver’s license. He and one of his brothers applied for legalization at the same time. (Ramirez’s two other brothers later got green cards through their spouses.)
In the 1990s, the welding shop, in part by selling fencing and window guards to Los Angeles residents wary of the city’s increasing crime, expanded to four locations, and all four brothers became partners. But like many other businesses nationwide, it was hit in the recession in 2008, going from nearly 200 employees to 68.
“We’ve been suffering for five years,” Ramirez said. “It feels terrible.”
Ramirez, who became a citizen in 1996, has since voted in every election. In November, his three brothers ended up backing Mitt Romney, hoping his economic policies would boost their business. Ramirez, conflicted, backed President Barack Obama, in part because he didn’t like reports that Romney sometimes advised businesses to move operations abroad as a private equity executive.
Romney’s opposition to the legalization of undocumented immigrants, Ramirez said, had little impact on his vote. But he does believe illegal immigrants should have a chance to get papers: “They’re very hard workers,” he said. He empathizes with people now trying to cross the border illegally, a journey far more dangerous than when Ramirez made it due to drug cartels frequently robbing and killing migrants who are heading north.
Ramirez now has eight children, and he said he tries to teach them how lucky they are to live in America. “I told my son, ‘You need to get up and go to work. You’re always playing with the Xbox thing.’” When his son complained that he doesn’t have a car so can’t drive to find work, Ramirez told him, “Do you see the Home Depot? How do you think they got there? They’re walking. You speak English; you have papers, and a bicycle. Get up and get out of here.”