1986 Immigration Reform Allowed This Mexican Immigrant to Capture his American Dream

Oscar Gutierrez is Controller of one of Indiana’s wealthiest cities and has an impressive record of service in the U.S. military. And yet, as a child, he never wanted to come to America. His childhood in Toluca, a bustling town near Mexico City, was comfortably middle class, thanks to the money his father—a beneficiary of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 under President Ronald Reagan—sent back from a job cooking in a Los Angeles restaurant.

Tragically, in the winter of 1990, everything changed for Gutierrez and his family. His mother died suddenly, and the 11-year-old boy and his two younger brothers were whisked across the border on tourist visas to live with their father.

The boys began school in southeastern Los Angeles, but shaken by the Rodney King riots, their father moved the family to Rockford, Illinois. “It wasn’t until we moved there that I realized what it really truly meant to be a minority,” Gutierrez recalls. “I could count on one hand how many brown people I knew.” Bussed across town to attend a school in an affluent, predominately white school district, Gutierrez struggled with bullying, learned to suppress his accent, and gave up playing soccer in an attempt to fit in. This urge to assimilate—and to have the same clothes, sneakers, and backpacks as his well-off friends—led the 14-year-old to get his first job, washing dishes in the same restaurant where his father worked as a cook.

He kept the job until he was 17, at which point, his father—now a permanent resident—filed the necessary paperwork to get his son a green card. It was a game-changer for Gutierrez: Legal residency opened the door to military service, and within two months of receiving his papers, he had enlisted in the United States Air Force.

He served for four years, received a college education on the GI Bill, and then re-enlisted, working as a budget manager for a Department of Defense agency. The military helped Gutierrez fast-track his citizenship application; it also helped him find his calling as a financial manager. He took dozens of accounting courses during his second tour of duty, impressed his senior officers, and was soon busy giving financial briefings to senior executives and other top military officials.

Gutierrez took those skills with him when he returned to civilian life as a financial manager for the federal government and then as a city controller—first for the city of Lawrence, where he turned a big deficit into an impressive surplus, and later as the first controller of the newly incorporated city of Fishers, Indiana.

The long-term product you’ll receive is the higher-educated workforce that the country is clearly lacking.

It’s weird, Gutierrez admits, to think of a former dishwasher, raised far below the poverty line, rising to manage the finances for one of Indiana’s wealthiest cities. Gutierrez credits his ascent to the 1986 legislation, which gave his father legal status and put Gutierrez on the path to citizenship. “I went from being a sub-par high school student, to serving in the military, to going to college, to serving in a military accounting operation, to being controller of a major city in Indiana,” he says. “These opportunities wouldn’t be afforded to someone like me anywhere else in the world, and I’m very grateful to have had them.”

That’s the single best argument for immigration reform, Gutierrez says: that children who came to America through no fault of their own deserve a chance to make something of themselves. In a sense, the 1986 immigration reform legislation gave Gutierrez the same opportunity—and the same path to legal status—that the DREAM Act envisions for a new generation of undocumented minors. “There are thousands and thousands of kids in the same situation I was in,” he says. “But when they reach the age of 17, they don’t have the opportunities I had.”

That’s a missed prospect for communities all across America, Gutierrez argues. “If you allow the generation classed as DREAMers to have a pathway to citizenship, to residency, to the opportunities I’ve been given—that’s an initial investment. But the long-term product you’ll receive is the higher-educated workforce that the country is clearly lacking,” he says.

Without a route to legal status, on the other hand, young immigrants get locked into low-paying jobs and are never able to discover their true potential. “The difference between me being the controller of the city of Fishers or being a cook in a restaurant, is that, at one point, there was leadership in this country that knew that if given the opportunity, people would do the right thing,” Gutierrez says. “I’m living proof that when we’re given the chance, we’ll choose to work hard, and we’ll find ways to succeed.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…