Mario is my brother-in-law of six years. When I called him and asked if he would be OK with meeting for dinner to talk about his immigration story, he agreed without hesitation. As usual, he deferred the choice of restaurant to me. I decided to go with a Chinese restaurant in Bountiful with a great walnut shrimp. He was his normal enthusiastic self when we met—appearing genuinely happy to see me, as I was him. The atmosphere of the restaurant was more formal than I remembered, perhaps more appropriate for a date. Nonetheless, there were only a few other diners, and the waiter was good at both giving us space and keeping our cups full. To keep the conversation open, I began by simply asking Mario to give me a brief summary of his life—from his youth to the day he became a citizen of the United States.
The oldest of four—two boys and two girls—Mario played a caretaker role in the lives of his younger siblings, a role that was increased upon immeasurably when at age twelve his father passed away unexpectedly. So, at age thirteen, he quit school and went to work. He laughs now at what sound like horrible memories of his first job: a clerk at a small grocery store. The boss would yell at him “like a crazy person” and hit him with the broom whenever she felt his work was inadequate. Meanwhile, Mario’s mother took whatever jobs she could while taking care of three young children. After a few years barely scraping by, Mario’s family, along with his cousins and a few others, decided they were going to come to the United States.
Mario was seventeen when he arrived. His family had relatives in Las Vegas they stayed with for the first several months. Additionally, they set Mario up with a job at a mechanic’s shop. Despite things being cramped and uncomfortable, Mario still beams excitedly as he recalls those difficult times. Although doing his best to lead a modest and decent life, his undocumented status made for a few close calls with police. He described one such encounter while working at the mechanic’s shop: police came in and were questioning the owner about his workers’ legal status, and as the situation escalated into a verbal altercation, Mario managed to escape through the back. This pressure pushed Mario to find a wife—perhaps earlier than what would be natural for men under normal circumstances—and enjoy the citizenship protection that marriage brought. After being married for a couple years, his wife gave birth to his first child, a daughter. Mario was instantly in love. And I can confirm that he still is; I know few children as spoiled as her.
Unfortunately, the stress of a child was too much, and Mario’s marriage began to fall apart. After their divorce, despite now having a U.S.-born daughter, Mario’s immigration status was still at issue under the law. Las Vegas did, however, have a more lenient policy towards undocumented immigrants than much of the rest of the country, and Mario was able to maintain protected status by virtue of a worker’s visa. After another five protracted years of paying taxes, Mario was finally given a shot at citizenship, and on June 8th, 2011, he was sworn in as a citizen of the United States.
Mario’s humility and vulnerability as he tells the story are plainly ingenuous. He doesn’t regret his choice to come to the U.S. illegally. Although he clearly knows his path to citizenship was not ideal, he is still grateful for the opportunities he was afforded. Mario now owns his own trucking company with three trucks. He employs two men and pays them well for their work as drivers. Seeing the quality of character he possesses, it’s hard not to empathize with his plight and the plight of those facing similar circumstances. And yet, there are millions exactly like him facing insurmountable odds for a decent life in the U.S. They are compelled to work tirelessly through whatever channels available—legal or otherwise. Thus, the time to set aside politics and affect real immigration reform cannot and should not wait.