Stories of immigration: the lure and trials of coming to the U.S.


Stories of immigration: the lure and trials of coming to the U.S.

2:17 p.m. PST December 12, 2016

Growing up in Mexico, Maria Guadalupe Mendoza had no plans to leave.

She had a job she enjoyed with an automotive company and most of her family was there. It was her home.

But Mendoza’s world changed when she and co-workers were physically assaulted on a business trip.

“I had my life (there),” she said. “But that night, everything changed.”

For months, Mendoza moved from city to city within Mexico, hoping to escape her attackers.

She eventually applied for an American visa and asylum in the United States, but was denied both times.

With four brothers living legally in the states, she applied for them to sponsor her, one of the many ways someone can immigrate to the U.S.

There are multiple ways people can immigrate, including being sponsored by a family member, being an armed forces special immigrant, or through the lottery system, also called ‘diversity immigration.’

Oregon is home to more than 391,000 immigrants, making about 10 percent of all Oregonians “foreign-born.”

More than 11 million immigrants are estimated to be living in the United States illegally, according to the PEW Research Center and Migration Policy Institute.

By comparison, in 2014, around 47 percent, or 20 million, of all U.S. immigrants were naturalized U.S. citizens. The remaining 53 percent, or 22.4 million, included lawful permanent residents, unauthorized immigrants, and legal residents on temporary visas, such as students and temporary workers.

Immigration, both legal and illegal, has been a divisive topic in Oregon and the country for years, and with a new president about to take office, the future for all immigrants, past and present, may be in question.

Here are two such immigration stories: that of Maria Mendoza, and of Rosendo Tonga.

Escaping danger

Mendoza, now 46, entered the U.S. illegally to get away from the crime and danger she faced at home.

She applied for a visa in Mexico and had to provide a list of family members in the United States, after which her brothers had to send letters to the Mexican-U.S. consulate.

She spent the next two years living in various locations with family until the sponsorship paperwork was complete.

Immigration via sponsorship can take upwards of 14 years.

Though she is now a legal resident, Mendoza is not an American citizen. She applies to be a citizen every couple years, but has yet to be approved, most likely because of how she initially entered the country illegally, she said.

Mendoza has lived in the U.S. for about 23 years. She works as a community organizer for Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario, an immigration nonprofit, and lives in Salem with her husband and three children.

Mendoza said she doesn’t feel she has had many restrictions or limitations as an immigrant; she has always been welcomed.

“We need to do everything right,” she said, advising other immigrants. “If I get a ticket for speeding, I pay it.

“It’s hard when you come to a new country and you have to learn what to do and (how to) follow the rules.”

Mendoza said she is happy now, especially with her kids in school. Her two youngest attend a private school.

“It’s hard to get the money … but it puts them on the best education and career path,” she said. “My most important goal in this country — the only thing I want — is for my kids to go to college.”

Finding his home

Rosendo “Ross” Tonga is another immigrant living in the Salem area.

Tonga originally came to the United States from Micronesia in 1975 on a student visa to study at Western Oregon University in Monmouth.

While attending college, he met and fell in love with his wife. Both were pursuing careers as teachers.

After graduating, they moved to Micronesia, where they taught for a few years. They returned to the states in the 1980s.

Then the worst happened.

In 1999, two student gunmen killed 13 people and then themselves in Columbine High School in Colorado. The incident heavily influenced Tonga and his wife.

“Columbine made us not want to teach anymore,” he said.

They both got jobs elsewhere. Tonga went on to work at a training center, then the state hospital.

He retired in 2013 when his wife was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Since the relationship between the United States and Micronesia has changed over the years, Tonga’s passport, and his need to apply to be a citizen has changed too.

He has lived in the United States legally with his green card for decades, but didn’t apply for citizenship until this year.

When he submitted his citizenship application, he had to include a copy of his “resident alien” ID green card, two pictures and a check of $860 to cover his fees. His application was submitted to homeland security after he completed a citizenship class through Voz Hispana.

While Tonga describes the U.S. as his home, he said he never really thought about applying to be a citizen until Donald Trump began his presidential campaign.

“I thought, ‘I better become a citizen before Donald Trump becomes President,'” he said.

In his retirement, Tonga, like many, enjoys traveling, but doesn’t have much money.

“I’d like to golf every day if I could afford it,” he said.

Tonga now has grandchildren in the states.

“I enjoy it,” he said, of being a grandfather. “I think I’m a people person.”

“My home is here more than the island (now),” he said. “I have no reason to go back there.”

An uncertain future

Andrea Williams, executive director of Causa, said there are two major areas many people do not understand about immigration and immigrants — the complexity of the American immigration system and immigrants’ contributions to the country.

“The U.S. immigration system is incredibly complex and difficult to navigate,” she said. “For many undocumented immigrants, there simply is no ‘line’ to get into; processes to gain legal status can take decades.”

Causa, like other immigration rights organizations, advocates for immigration reform on state and national levels.

She said many immigrant families live in ‘mixed status’ families, meaning individual family members hold varying statuses of documentation and citizenship.

“The impact of deportation of one individual has an impact on an entire family, resulting in separation of parents from their children and the loss of an income earner, which can lead to difficulty paying rent or a mortgage, groceries, and other basic necessities,” Williams said. “Unfortunately for many undocumented family members, there are limited options to adjust their status.”

Immigrant families may now face a larger risk of deportation under the Trump administration.

“Many immigrant families will be watching … Trump’s actions and words very closely to better understand what the risks will be,” she said. “(His) administration has promised to deport millions of immigrants, particularly immigrants of color, which will tear apart Oregon families, communities, and our economy.”

According to a report by the New American Economy, in 2014 Oregon’s immigrant workers contributed more than $736 million in state and local taxes and $1.7 billion to federal taxes.

Additionally, Oregon would lose $3.4 billion in economic activity, $1.5 billion in gross state product, and approximately 19,259 jobs if all undocumented immigrants were removed, according to the American Immigration Council.

“(From) his speeches … appointments and … policy proposals, there is little doubt that Trump will follow through with his plans,” Williams said. “His advisers have fantasized about a time when workplace raids will again be routine, where immigrants are hounded daily for their papers, and Muslims — citizens and immigrants alike — are profiled and discriminated against.

“The future for so many immigrant families is uncertain.”

Contact Natalie at, 503-399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate, on Facebook at or on the Web at

Coming to America

News of refugees coming to the United States and parts of Europe this year was met with resistance from many. This series addresses those concerns and discusses the different ways and reasons people come to the United States.

All of the Coming to America stories, photographs and other resources can be found at


Refugees: Someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Asylum Seekers: Someone “whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed.” They travel to the country from which they seek asylum, apply and wait to be approved.

Immigrants:Someone who is identified by the government as a “permanent resident alien” and “those who have been naturalized as U.S. citizens.”

The titles “foreign born” and “immigrant” are often used interchangeably and refer to persons with no U.S. citizenship at birth. This includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees, persons on certain temporary work or student visas, and “unauthorized” or undocumented immigrants.

An “illegal alien” is not a permanent resident alien, but would be an immigrant under the Immigration and Nationality Act definition.

An immigrant is a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country; whereas a migrant is a person who moves from place to place to do seasonal work.

DACA: According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is an American immigration policy started by the Obama administration in June 2012 that allows certain undocumented immigrants to the United States who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.

To be eligible, immigrants must have entered the United States before their 16th birthday and before June 2007, be currently in school, a high school graduate or be honorably discharged from the military, be under age 31 as of June 15, 2015, and have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor or otherwise pose a threat to national security.

It is within President-Elect Trump’s power to take away this program, and he has made campaign promises to do so, according to Andrea Williams of CAUSA Oregon.

The program does not provide lawful status or a path to citizenship.

By the numbers

According to the American Immigration Council:

  • More than 39 percent of immigrants in Oregon are naturalized U.S. citizens, meaning they are potential voters.
  • About 9 percent of all business owners in Oregon are foreign-born.
  • Latinos and Asians in Oregon have the purchasing power of $15.6 billion.
  • Undocumented immigrants pay $83.1 million in Oregon state and local taxes.

According to the Migration Policy Institute:

  • In 2014, approximately 51 percent of immigrants were female.
  • Twelve percent of the 42.4 million foreign born in the United States in 2014 entered since 2010, 29 percent between 2000 and 2009, and the majority (59 percent) before 2000.
  • In 2014, around 47 percent of immigrants (20 million) were naturalized U.S. citizens.
  • 48 percent of the foreign-born population in 2014 reported their race as white, 26 percent as Asian, nine percent as black, and 15 percent as some other race; more than two percent reported having two or more races.
  • In 2014, 46 percent of immigrants (19.4 million people) reported having Hispanic or Latino origins.

Learn more online at or

Famous Immigrants

  • Cary Grant
  • Sophia Loren
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Charlize Theron
  • Eddie Van Halen
  • Neil Young
  • Yao Ming

Published by Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She wrote about education for more than seven years at the Statesman Journal and now covers education and other topics throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is originally from Colorado and earned her B.A. in Politics and French from Willamette University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: