Juan is this guy I know from Mexico who has worked at the neighborhood gas station for as long as I’ve been living in Edgewater, N.J. — 13 years. Because the station is near the George Washington Bridge, which connects my part of the Garden State, Bergen County, to Manhattan, it is usually busy with long lines of New Yorkers who cross the Hudson River to take advantage of the significantly lower gas prices on the Jersey side. There are fewer now that the toll on the bridge became so expensive, $13, but at least half the cars at the station still have New York plates.
For all that time, 22 years, Juan has lived in fear of exposure and deportation from the United States, which somewhere along the way became Juan’s home country.
Anyway, the reason Juan and I became friendly was simply familiarity; the fact he’s been there forever, speaks Spanish and that he always cleans my windshield when I fill up the tank. That may not sound impressive, the windshield cleaning part, but that once-expected service at service stations has become as much a relict of a bygone age as smiles.
So after all those years of casual chatting during my weekly fill-up and windshield cleaning, I only recently discovered that Juan is perfectly fluent in English. It was during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and I was explaining how I desperately needed to find a generator to keep my beloved collected of exotic Koi fish alive during the catastrophic power outage caused by the storm of the century.
Finally curious about this competent man I asked, “¿Por cuánto tiempo está aquí en los Estados Unidos?” (How long have you been here in the United States?) “22 years,” he replied in English with a sheepish smile. 22 years! Over the course of several subsequent conversations he eventually explained how he came here without documentation, i.e., illegally, as a young man, crossing the border during the era when crossing the border without papers was as easy as picking any of a thousand spots away from plain sight of an official border crossing, and walking or wading into the promised land of seasonal work and repeating the process in reverse when the time came to visit the home country for vacation or important family occasions.
9/11 changed that generations-old tradition of easy cross border life. Suddenly, because the United States had been attacked by foreigners, border security became the watchword of all patriots. We had to keep the terrorists out. The bitter irony is that it was mostly seasonal migrants like Juan who got kept out or who suffered getting in. With the border closed or at least much more difficult to cross than it had been, many undocumented workers like Juan were stranded here; afraid that if they left, they would have a hard time getting back. So Juan and his wife, also undocumented, hunkered down in Bergen County. They had three citizen children here, which he works hard to support with jobs at the gas station and doing lawn and garden work, plus work over the years in the once and future booming field of home construction.
For all that time, 22 years, Juan has lived in fear of exposure and deportation from the United States, which somewhere along the way became Juan’s home country. We had another conversation earlier this week, shortly after New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer said on “Meet the Press” that immigration reform was a done deal.
“It’s happening Juanito, amnesty is coming,” I said. His eyes widened, “Verdad?” Truth? Truth, I replied, perhaps more confident than I should have.
But it does look like the nation is on the verge of resolving the acrimonious debate that has helped define a decade of cable news, left millions of immigrant lives in limbo, and cost the Republican Party the 2012 election.
“With the agreement between business and labor, every major policy issue has been resolved on the Gang of Eight,” Senator Schumer said referring to the bipartisan group of eight senators that have been hammering out a long-sought but stubbornly elusive deal on immigration reform. “I’m very optimistic that we will have an agreement among the eight of us next week,” Schumer concluded.
It is difficult to describe how that news delighted people like my friend Juan, and how it has electrified the shadowy community of 11 or 12 million undocumented immigrants, and their tens of millions of children, friends, neighbors, employers and associates.
The Gang is in agreement on issues like mandatory criminal background checks, the payment of a fine in lieu of back taxes, civics and English-language classes and other hoops and whistles. But while tough, the road to legitimacy, legality, a Green Card, and yes, even ultimate citizenship seems inevitable.
Certainly there are still disputes over the details. For instance, although the Gang says it is a pre-condition to any deal, there is still no clear definition of what a “Secure Border” is or how big visa programs should be for various categories of workers. But those details will be worked out sooner rather than later.
Otherwise, absent an agreement, the political cost to the Republican Party will prove crippling.
The absence of an agreement will be so damaging to the GOP that Tea Party darling Senator Ted Cruz smells a rat. He says he fears the Democrats are doing all they can to craft a bill that is so generous to the immigrants that most Republicans will be unable to support it. “I think the reason that President Obama is insisting on a path to citizenship is that it is designed to be a poison pill to scuttle the whole bill, so he can have a political issue in 2014 and 2016,” he told Sean Hannity last Monday.
Conspiracy theories aside, the time has come to resolve the status of good men and women like Juan, who in a couple of years will own his own gas station.