SAN DIEGO — Like many of his countrymen, Adrian Duran came to the United States from Mexico and lived a typically furtive existence: He worked off-the-books in low-paying jobs and always kept a nervous watch for immigration inspectors.
“Life here is really hard for people who don’t have papers ... You’re always hiding,” Duran, 53, said Monday as he waited for work at a day laborer’s center in San Diego.
He no longer has to hide. Duran received legal residency through a 1986 amnesty program that allowed some 3 million foreign citizens in the United States to fully join American society.
Now, many more illegal immigrants may be able to follow that path under a new amnesty proposal being considered by the Bush administration.
Although the details haven’t been worked out, the administration is weighing a plan that would grant legal status to the estimated 3 million undocumented Mexicans living in the United States.
As members of Congress expressed opposition, news of the proposal spread through immigrant communities in California, where more than a third of the Mexicans in this country live.
Among many, the news sparked hope for an end to an underground existence that leaves people with few opportunities and the constant fear of deportation.
“We were talking about it here this morning,” said Alfonso Hurtado, a construction worker who was also at the San Diego day laborer center. “It’s a good idea. Immigrants should be able to participate in society like everyone else.”
Amnesty opponents say such programs reward illegal immigration, inspire more people to come, and drive down wages in the United States. Even supporters say rumors of such a program are likely to spark a wave of fraud against migrants seeking to legalize their status.
Central Americans also complain about the fact that the Bush administration is considering the amnesty only for Mexicans as part of a broader immigration agreement with Mexico’s President Vicente Fox.
“It’s not right,” said Job Siciliano, a resident of Los Angeles who came to this country from El Salvador in 1991. “It should be for all Hispanics. I don’t understand why it’s only for them.”
But for Mexican illegal immigrants, the news couldn’t be more welcome.
“I think it is terrific to have that opportunity,” said a 34-year-old immigrant from Mexico who gave only his first name, Daniel, as he waited for work with other laborers along San Francisco’s Cesar Chavez Street in San Francisco.
“I think it will be something very good for my friends.”
“It would be marvelous,” a 32-year-old single mother of two in San Diego who entered the United States illegally from Mexico six years ago, said of the amnesty proposal.
The woman, who asked that her name not be used, works nights as a janitor and described a life tightly constrained by the need to keep a low profile.
She cannot get a driver’s license or a bank account and is afraid to visit relatives in Los Angeles for fear of Border Patrol checkpoints.
“There’s a constant fear,” said another illegal immigrant, a 35-year-old woman who lives in El Cajon and who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “At any minute you can be picked up and deported.”
The threat of deportation also prevents illegal immigrants from reporting crimes, workplace abuses or consumer rip-offs and substandard housing, said Leticia Jimenez, a spokeswoman for the American Friends Service Committee, an advocacy group in San Diego.
If the amnesty is approved, Jimenez said, “they won’t have to suffer in silence.”