By Celine Klosterman
MUSCATINE — Leo Miranda was 19 when he first crossed the border of the United States from Mexico, alone.
His journey in 1980 to Los Angeles, which took him through desert with little food or water, was one he said not all migrants survive. But he said that because of the potential for a better life in the United States, the struggle was worth it.
Now a naturalized citizen, the member of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine was among four people who discussed immigration during an Aug. 19 presentation at Gannon Hall in Muscatine. The presentation coincided with a weeklong informational display on immigration there, organized by the parish’s social action committee.
Speaking through translator and parishioner Marta Cadena, Miranda told an audience of about 40 people that he took jobs in Los Angeles, where two older brothers lived, as a factory worker, welder and mechanic. “I worked every moment of my life,” he said.
He returned to Mexico a few times to visit family, dodging close calls with immigration authorities.
Eventually he moved to Chicago and later Muscatine, where he’s self-employed as a mechanic and lives with his wife and three children.
After President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, he applied for amnesty. Eight or nine years after applying, Miranda said, he became a citizen.
Asked by an audience member if he spoke English, he responded in that language. “I speak English, but not 100 percent,” he said. “I try to learn more every day.”
Immigrants who come to the United States do want to learn English, Father Joseph Sia said, attempting to dispel one of several myths about immigration. The priest is parochial vicar at Ss. Mary & Mathias and a native of the Philippines.
The informational immigration display, a traveling exhibit coordinated by Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center in Hiawatha, said 75 percent of immigrants speak English well within 10 years of coming to the United States.
Discussing another myth the display addressed, Fr. Sia said today’s immigrants aren’t that different from those 100 years ago. He said most came and still come seeking opportunity.
Immigrants also pay taxes, the priest noted. According to studies cited in the exhibit, immigrants pay income, property and sales taxes totaling $90 billion to $140 billion annually.
Next, Fr. Sia addressed the claim that immigrants take jobs from native-born Americans. “Well, maybe if we had a whole line of men at the rectory waiting to be priests,” he joked, to much laughter. He is in the United States on a religious worker visa.
The display noted that immigrants both take and create jobs, and that several studies have shown immigrants don’t cause unemployment for native-born Americans.
For people who weren’t born in the United States, becoming a legal resident can be a long, arduous process, said Rosa Mendoza of the Diversity Service Center of Iowa in Muscatine. If a U.S. citizen petitioned for his or her Mexican sibling, it would take 14 years before that sibling was granted an appointment with the consulate, Mendoza said. That wait is because the United States allots a low number of visas for Mexicans compared to the number of Mexicans seeking them, she added.
She asked audience members to share their ancestry, and they named countries throughout the world. Had those ancestors not made the effort to come to the United States, the audience members wouldn’t be fortunate enough to live in this country, she noted.
“I think it’s important that we hear from people who’ve come here as immigrants so we can understand the difficulties they’ve experienced and realize the need for immigration reform,” said Nancy Roberson. She led efforts to bring the immigration exhibit to Ss. Mary & Mathias. She hoped hearing from immigrants as well would ease people’s fears about those who seem different. “We are the body of Christ,” she said. “We’re all unique, but we’re all brothers and sisters.”