An immigration lesson for all

In his address to the nation last week on immigration, President Bush highlighted the patriotism of Guadalupe Denogean, a Mexican-born man who joined the Marines more than a quarter century ago and got his wish for U.S. citizenship in 2003 after being seriously wounded in Iraq.

To the president, Denogean’s story illustrates why America should continue to embrace immigrants with something to offer this country.

“When this brave Marine raised his right hand and swore an oath to become a citizen of the country he had defended for more than 26 years, I was honored to stand at his side,” Bush said of the retired master gunnery sergeant from Southern California, now 45, who says his hearing and memory were permanently damaged when his vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

But to the critics who say there already are too many immigrants here, the story of how the Denogean family settled in the United States is a different sort of parable _ a cautionary tale about the true footprint of guest-worker programs billed as limited or temporary.

Three generations later, what began as one temporary guest worker slot for Denogean’s father has morphed into citizenship _ by naturalization or birthright _ for 32 immediate relatives and descendants.

That history may be relevant now, as Congress debates an immigration bill that could open the door to hundreds of thousands of new guest workers _ and, ultimately, millions of immigrants’ relatives.

“It’s not just the guest worker,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, who is one of the staunchest opponents of relaxing immigration policy. “Every person you permit in has brothers and sisters who are married to someone who has brothers and sisters who are married to someone. … The figures are a bit mind boggling if we don’t act responsibly now.”

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act likewise opened the doors to relatives of immigrants. Those amnesty provisions, now criticized for spurring more illegal immigration, resulted in an estimated 2.7 million immigrants becoming legal U.S. permanent residents.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the immigration bill now being considered by the Senate could result in 2 million additional family-sponsored immigrants by 2016. Some conservative critics have pegged the 20-year implications of such legislation much higher _ at 100 million or more immigrants.

Denogean “obviously has made a huge contribution to our country by serving us and protecting us,” Rohrabacher said. “When it comes to the immigrants themselves I have nothing but praise for 95 percent of them for being good people. However, my job is not to represent all the good people of the world. My job is to represent the interests of my district and the United States of America.”

Master Gunnery Sgt. Denogean, or “Deno” as friends call him, was born in Mexico in 1960. For years, his father, Manuel, had traveled back and forth across the border as a temporary agricultural worker, or a “bracero,” a name that takes its meaning from the root word for “arm.”

The bracero program was created in 1942 through an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments, to supplant American labor shortages due to World War II. But agribusiness liked the steady, cheap labor so much, at least until union pressures built, that the program lasted well beyond the war, all the way to 1964.

Braceros typically had contracts of 45 to 90 days, which they could renew; their wives and children stayed behind, said historians who have studied the program.

Unlike a plan now being debated in the Senate and favored at least in broad terms by Bush, the bracero program didn’t build in a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship for Mexicans who wanted to stay.

Still, historians say, it led to the legal and illegal immigration of millions of Mexicans.

Some workers didn’t go back _ they found other jobs in the United States and lived as undocumented residents. Others went home to Mexico, applied for residency, and returned legally with their families, knowing they’d have specific employers to go back to.

“The legacy of the bracero program is, you have one who may have come in as a bracero but other family members who followed in his footsteps,” said Paul Lopez, an associate professor of Chicano studies and sociology at California State University, Chico, who is working on a book about the braceros.

“The bracero program was clearly instrumental in furthering more immigration in the 1960s, ’70s, 80s,” Lopez said. “It was the program that laid the foundation for what we see today in immigration. If the president and Congress agree to a guest-worker program, it’s going to have consequences long after the program is dismantled.”

In the Denogeans’ case, Deno’s father, Manuel, immigrated legally in 1966, with his wife and six children, Denogean said in an interview this week. A seventh child was born later, in the United States.

Waiting to leave Mexico, the paperwork process took about three years, as Denogean can best recall being told by his father, who is now deceased. As the Marine also recalls, his father was repeatedly shaken down by Mexican officials to move the process along.

“You’ve got to pay people off to get anything done,” Denogean said. “If not, you go to the bottom of the pile. I know my dad complained about that.”

The family landed in Nogales, Ariz. The parents and the children picked crops. Denogean’s father later did construction work. Denogean dropped out of high school, working briefly in construction.

“But it was not what I wanted to do,” he said. “I saw what it did to my dad. It broke him down.”

Denogean had romanticized the Marines since his early childhood in Mexico, when the newspapers there carried photographs of U.S. forces in Vietnam. At 17, he enlisted. His career took him to Japan and Southeast Asia, to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq _ where he served with Desert Storm, and more than a decade later in Bush’s mission that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Back in the states, his parents, brothers and sisters went on with their lives. All became citizens, he said. One brother died. One sister embraced a career in the Air Force. Another works in day care. One brother works at a corrections facility in Arizona, another a welding supervisor; another had a job in a factory that closed. Most of the family stayed in the Southwest.

They all had kids, and some of their kids now had kids.

Denogean also married. His wife, Jeri, is the American-born daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father who served in the military.

Jeri and Deno have four children. One, a son, followed his father into the Marines and served in Iraq in the same battalion, Deno Denogean said. That son is now university-bound.

The injuries Denogean suffered in 2003 forced him to take a temporary medical retirement; he says it’s unlikely he will return. He now works as a contractor for the Marines, teaching maintenance, repair and modification techniques for the same type of tank recovery vehicle in which he was injured.

On becoming a citizen, Denogean registered as a Republican. In 2004, he voted to re-elect President Bush. And he continues to support the mission in Iraq.

Denogean said he does not support illegal immigration, but that he does support allowing foreigners who come here as guest workers to stay.

“Why not?” he said. “I’m not supporting them. You’re not supporting them.

“This is what it boils down to: If somebody comes here on a guest-worker program and brings their family, how can you send them back?” he said. “Are you going to keep the kids that are American citizens and send them back if they’re not? See where we’re going to run into problems?”

Ultimately, the question of what the Denogeans “are” is as blurred, as circular, as it is for so many Americans. Sgt. Denogean said the family name descends from two French brothers who arrived in Mexico during the 1800s as part of France’s military efforts to take control of Mexico. The brothers stayed on after the French withdrew. They began families with local women.

But Denogean says that in 2003, “when I raised my hand that was it. I’m an American. You would never see me waiving the Mexican flag. You’re in America. There’s only one flag here.”