Of all the people I know, none listened as intently to the details of President Bush's immigration reform proposal as my friend Maria, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1986, first as an undocumented immigrant and then, legally, as a temporary worker for the last 14 years.
Maria doesn't care about the politics of the new plan. What she's waiting to see is whether the proposal will allow her to leave the U.S. and return, something she can't do now. She has not seen her son, Mauricio, since she last held him in El Salvador in the mid-1980s, when he was 3.
Maria's life has been one big labor of love, of cleaning homes, hotels and motels in and around the city. It was because of people like Maria that I dedicated a good part of my adult working life to helping the thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans living under what's known as "temporary protected status."
Maria's life offers one of the best ways to make sense of Bush's proposal to create a new group of temporary workers ? millions of Marias from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Thailand, the Philippines and other countries.
Like many immigrants, Maria knows well the "fear and insecurity" the president said he wants to end. As someone who has lost to shyster lawyers thousands of dollars earned by working six, sometimes seven, days a week, she struggles to keep at bay the skepticism about promises to end her legal prison. She keeps a small altar with the Virgin and a picture of Mauricio in the tiny box of a room she calls home.
Although some argue that Maria was once a lawbreaker without rights who should be deported instead of "rewarded," these critics probably have forgotten that people like her are full of the same hope that helped build this country and that still makes it powerful. Even Bush acknowledged that "our nation needs an immigration system that serves the American economy and reflects the American dream." But the critics won't be persuaded; they worry more about Maria being pregnant with future Latino voters who might change the political consensus of this country.
I remember the usually reserved Maria's enthusiasm and praise for the first President Bush when the temporary protected status program was announced in 1990. It sounded like the stuff of a more inclusive Republican Party. The current President Bush's promises to do for millions in this election year what his father did for Maria just before he was up for reelection has generated much excitement among the millions of undocumented immigrants.
But Maria's enthusiasm has waned since the first time round. Since then, she has been on a legal and emotional roller coaster, not knowing if she will be deported or legalized, because no president has kept the promise to end the legal purgatory that "temporary" legalization became. Not the first President Bush, and not Bill Clinton either. Instead, they kept people like Maria vulnerable to exploitation at work, kept families separate and kept the American dream just beyond the reach of a desperate community.
Some of the most devastating blows to Maria's hopes were charismatically delivered by Clinton. I participated in meetings with Clinton officials and recall the promises to legalize thousands like Maria.
I feel guilty for ever repeating those promises to Maria.
Maria still inhabits what the president aptly calls "the shadows of American life." New immigration laws make it easier to deport temporary workers. She has seen deportees on the Spanish-language newscasts.
She worries about employers who hold back or don't pay wages because they know about her temporary status. She fears she'll be stuck forever working 10- to 12-hour days, earning $7.50 to $10 an hour, depending on whether she's working steadily or moonlighting. She has little time for friends or family and lives with "miedo," or the fear endemic to temporary status workers.
Worst of all, her son remains only a voice on the phone because her status hasn't allowed her to leave the country since her arrival.
Maria reads English well enough to know the meaning of the word "temporary." With 16 repetitions of the word in the president's announcement, she is not likely to translate this latest plan with the same zeal she had for earlier proposals. She knows too well the tyranny of temporary status and probably will be sharing her insights with recently arrived co-workers, many of whom are undocumented.
She will probably encourage her co-workers not to take down their altars yet.
Roberto Lovato teaches about Latino immigration at Cal State Los Angeles and is the former head of the Central American Resource Center. E-mail: rob firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the LA Times.