Mark Hayward's City Matters: The story of a true American
Miguel Nieves doesn't look like a one-time law breaker.
His face lacks the sharp angles of a con; his eyes are rounded, as are his jowls. He speaks in a calm, patient cadence. He and his brother operate a successful Manchester business (his fourth), and his two adult children are college-educated professionals.
But from 1977 to 1986, he was, in today's parlance, an illegal.
He lived and worked in Manchester, all without American citizenship or the necessary papers that would allow him to do so legally.
"When I came over here, I wanted to do more than I could before. Do better, go to school, own a business," said Nieves, who is 61.
As Congress works on legislation to create a Path to Citizenship for some of the estimated 12 million immigrants in our country illegally, Nieves should be kept in the back of their minds. He took advantage of Amnesty, the law passed in 1986 under Ronald Reagan that offered an opportunity for an estimated 2.9 million illegals to become citizens.
"I thought I'd come for a year or two," said Nieves, who was 26 when he flew to Canada then crossed at the border. "People's view of the United States was that dollars are coming from the trees. When you're here, the reality is something else."
In fact, he had a pretty good life in Uruguay. He had two small children and worked at a glass factory. Because of a strong union, he made good wages, worked at an easy pace and even had paid lunches. But when government policies changed and the company started forcing a full day's work on its workers, he headed north.
"When I got here," Nieves said, "I realized what work was all about."
He worked 12-hour shifts at Keller Products, a local plastics manufacturer, and took odd jobs on the side. In 1984, two years before Amnesty, Nieves opened Nieves Video, a video store on Kelley Street. By then, his children were in city schools, he had a mortgage, a bank account, a driver's license and a Social Security card.
"Everything was easier in those days. People didn't even know what a green card was," said Margarita Montes, a native Columbian who helps run the Latin American Center on Maple Street. She too took advantage of Amnesty, after overstaying a student visa. But she said only a handful of Amnesty takers - maybe 100 - live in greater Manchester.
Nieves sold the video store in 1988, after he had started the process that would eventually result in his citizenship.
He operated Lenny's Lunch. He sold it a year later and joined his brother in his cleaning company. At one point, BS&P employed 200 people and had accounts with Bank of America, the Center of New Hampshire and Manchester airport.
One of the complaints about illegals is that they steal jobs of ordinary Americans. But at this point, it's fair to say that Nieves and his brother Jose were not job thieves at all. In fact, they were job creators, the hallowed title that politicians bestow whenever they want to give a tax break or ease a regulation for their buddies.
In 1997, Nieves became a citizen. Eight years ago, the Nieves brothers opened Gauchos Churrascaria, a 200-seat Brazilian steak house in downtown Manchester. It has a payroll of about 32 people, some of them the ordinary American workers that supposedly get displaced by immigrants.
"To say we're stealing jobs, that's not true," Nieves said.
Nieves said he doesn't want to see criminals and drug dealers take advantage of the Path to Citizenship. Immigrants should come to the United States to work, not go on welfare, he said.
But overall, the United States will benefit when hard-working people can become citizens and their children get a good education, he said.
"When I came over here, I wanted to have more than I had before," he said.
For immigration reform to succeed, old and new Americans need to get to know one another, said Nieves, who adds that everyone should learn English. He tells the tale of his border crossing.
He crossed at Buffalo, N.Y., where Custom agents detained him. He had forged papers and was jailed for a week. Authorites wanted him to testify about his situation, and federal charges were eventually brought against the organization that supplied his documents.
The Feds sent him to Manchester to live with his brother while the case proceeded. The more he showed up in courts, the more Immigration and Naturalization Service agents got to know and appreciate Nieves.
They took him out to dinner. One brought him home for dinner with the agent's family. At the end of the case, the agent whispered to Nieves that he would be fine. Just go to Manchester, get a lawyer and lie low.
"After they knew me, they knew I was harmless," Nieves said. That is the lesson, he said.
"Sometimes all the Hispanic people, they put us in the same bag. But we have different cultures, different lifestyles. The only thing we do the same is speak the same language."
Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.