Reagan gave my father path to citizenship. Immigrants fighting pandemic deserve the same.

Lynne M. Centeno

The coronavirus didn’t kill my father, but it kept me from saying goodbye. Perfecto Santana died of organ failure among strangers at Woodhull Hospital in the early morning on April 10. Social distancing rules kept my family from his bedside when he passed.

But COVID-19 won’t keep me from telling you about who he was, and what he meant not only to my family, but to this country — especially now that President Trump has issued a temporary ban on green cards for most immigrants as part of the government’s coronavirus prevention plan.

His mother named him Perfecto.  His siblings called him Perfo. His friends back home called him Professor. My mom called him More and I simply called him Papi. I know I’m a bit biased, but my father was a great American, and in these fractured United States, during this terrifying global emergency, you all need to know about men (and women) like my father. Not only do they love this country fiercely, they’re proving it yet again while being on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Now more than ever — while we battle the coronavirus — we depend on immigrants to do the jobs many Americans do not want to do. They understand the dangers of the virus, but many do not have the luxury of working from home. They still expose themselves to COVID-19 to perform low-wage jobs that are essential to the survival of this country.

The kind of jobs Papi did for decades after he migrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States in the early 1980s. And yes, he came here illegally. He would always smile so broadly whenever he told the story of his journey here.

 “When I arrived at JFK, I went through a door marked with the word ‘Exit’,” he would say, then pause for maximum effect. Even after hearing the story dozens of times, we would patiently wait for the punchline:

“You know, because success in Spanish is ‘Exito’.”

Perfecto Santana immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States in the 1980s. He died from organ failure April 10.
Perfecto Santana immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States in the 1980s. He died from organ failure April 10.

Every time, we would laugh as if it were the first time he said it. Papi meant to say that he was walking into success. To my dad, just like to many other immigrants, this country means success. It means the ability to give their families a better life. 

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States. Undocumented immigrants and green card holders farm our land, build our homes, clean our houses, care for our children and stock our supermarket shelves. 

So why not design a fair, clear, humane path to legal residency? After all, these immigrants have proven themselves to be contributing members of society. Some would say that it does not happen because of a twisted political ideology, greed and racism. But I believe in the higher ideals of this country, those taught to me by my father; America welcomes everyone because the pie is large enough, and we all have a chance to succeed.  

Pandemic hits Hispanics hard

Today, Queens, New York, the most immigrant-rich area in the United States, is being called the “epicenter of the epicenter” for the spread of COVID-19 in America. Queens is the hardest hit borough in New York City, with hundreds of deaths. The borough of Brooklyn, which my nonprofit, RiseBoro Community Partnership calls home, is not far behind.

Data shows that Hispanics in New York City are disproportionately affected by the virus. This is neither a coincidence nor a surprise. 

Meanwhile, even though many undocumented immigrants pay income taxes, they struggle to get proper health care and they will not even receive the $1,200 allocated from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

When my dad arrived in this country, he went from being a respected teacher to a delivery guy, a factory worker and a dishwasher. He often held three jobs simultaneously. Dishwashing was the worst. He used to say that he thought his fingers were going to melt out of his hands. But he did it gladly.  He knew that it was going to pay off. After all, this is the land of opportunity. Right?

Reagan gave path to citizenship

His opportunity came in the form of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.  After years of being afraid of encountering immigration officers, years of being away from his family, years of low-wage jobs, finally he had a chance. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed IRCA into law. A friend told me once, you live in the United States because of a Republican president. 

Perfecto Santana was one of 2.7 million undocumented immigrants who became legal residents within 18 months of the law being passed, and this law precipitated a series of fortunate events for him. Within a few years, my dad improved his English, graduated with a bachelor’s degree, got his wife and three children a green card, and later became a U.S. citizen and a teacher. 

The research shows that he was not alone.  Many others who obtained legal residency through IRCA obtained better jobs. His three children did well, too. My brother enlisted in the Navy to defend “his country” after the attacks of 2001 and made a career of it. My sister built a career in corporate banking and later become an entrepreneur, a privilege my father never dreamed of having. I am an executive in a New York non-profit.  All of this happened because of the political will of a few and the support of many brave Americans who understood that this country is rich enough, great enough and generous enough to welcome immigrants. 

My dad is now gone, and I will miss watching him study math at his kitchen table. I will miss his spontaneous declamation of poems during family functions. I will miss his ceaseless need to write everything down — everything.

But I will see him in the faces of those stacking supermarket shelves, delivering meals, cleaning restrooms in health facilities and driving taxis. I also see him in the young men and women whose ambitions gleam clearly on their faces.    

When we talked about his wishes after his death, he would say that he wanted his body to be buried in the Dominican Republic. That wasn’t an option — another cruel consequence of COVID-19. He was buried in New York, in his adoptive country which he gave so much to and which, in return, gave even more to him.  

Mirtha Santana is vice president of empowerment for RiseBoro Community Partnership in Brooklyn, New York.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Immigrants helping to fight coronavirus deserve path to citizenship

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