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Citizen Macias

A former migrant farmworker completes a journey that began two decades earlier

by: Photo By Troy Foster - Jesse Macias struts toward a federal courthouse in downtown Portland Thursday on his way to becoming a U.S. citizen.

News Editor
   April 30, 2003 — Just 24 hours before his big moment, Jesse Macias is in his comfort zone, standing before a group of high school students.
   It's a typical scene. Macias is sharing his big plans with the young, impressionable minds. For the moment, his anxiety associated with tomorrow's approaching ceremony has subsided.
   "Nobody can stop me from being a county commissioner now," Macias tells Matt Henry's U.S. Government class proudly. "Nobody can stop me from being mayor."
   He goes further.
   "I'm going to become the first Hispanic U.S. Senator," Macias says. "It's going to take some time, and it's going to take some work, and I'll need your help."
   At this time tomorrow, Macias will finally have that opportunity.
   After years of trying — and after several bungled applications stymied by the Immigration and Naturalization Service bureaucracy — the former migrant farmworker will become a citizen of the United States.
   The INS, Macias tells the students, is very picky. When the agency interviewed him in January, an official brought up a name Macias had not heard in several years.
   "She asked me, `Who is this guy,'" Macias tells the class. "I said, `He's a friend.' And they said, `I hope you had permission to use his name.'"
   The alias Macias had given to federal agents when he was captured sneaking over the border two decades earlier had reared its ugly head. After coming this far, hearing it again made Macias nervous.
   "She told me, `You never gave me a straight answer, so you'll make a good politician.'"
   

   Odd supplies crowd Macias' personal space at Madras High School.
   The educational assistant with the school's special education department calls a storage area used by science teachers his office.
   He is surrounded by stacked boxes, a set of golf clubs, beakers and test tubes. He once had a computer, but it was needed elsewhere. A Valentine's Day card is the only personal effect on Macias' wall, but he says it isn't his.
   Mr. Henry's class has been following the last leg of Macias' long journey to citizenship, inviting him regularly to share the experience.
   He is done speaking now, and after cutting through Scott Cole's science class to reach his makeshift office, tomorrow's ceremony again weighs heavily on his mind.
   "I'm really nervous," says Macias. "I'm scared. I don't know what to expect. I think I'm afraid of my emotions. I've always been able to hold them in, but I've been looking forward to this day for so long I don't know if I'll be able to."
   Macias speaks of his mentors — Sumner Rodriguez, among them — and his mother, wondering aloud how he'll surprise her with the news of his citizenship. She has no idea he's being naturalized tomorrow, he says, and he'll probably wait until the next time he visits Mexico to share the news. Then again, he says, U.S. citizens can bring their mothers and fathers here for visits.
   About 21 hours from now, Macias will be a citizen. The idea still baffles him.
   "I was thinking about this last night," Macias says. "I am going to be just as equal as President Bush. He just gets more money."
   On the cusp of launching a political career, the last week has been interesting. His friends at HAABLA, a group he formed in 1997 called the Hispanic, American Indian, Anglo Bureau of Love and Advancement, have chided him about not yet committing to a political party.
   A few years ago, his activism with HAABLA, a group formed as a round table for discussions on issues related to diversity, earned him honors as the community's Volunteer of the Year. With the help of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Macias' HAABLA launched an innovative incentive program at local schools to encourage attendance.
   He landed his job at the high school four years ago, and serves as the school's translator in addition to assisting 30 special ed students.
   He says he's come a long way from picking garlic and sweeping parking lots, but is only half way where he wants to be.
   

   It's getting late, and Macias' sister, Anabel Quintana, has gone back up to their room at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Portland to get some sleep.
   Macias is sitting in a bar, fishing for some ice cubes at the bottom of his empty drink. He notes that he'll be a citizen within nine hours now, then launches upon request into the story of how he ended up in Madras.
   He was 23 years old, attending a community college in Tijuana, when his aunt's nephew came to visit during the summer of 1984. The guy needed a place to stay for the night before he snuck over the border to head for work in Washington.
   Macias agreed to join him for a couple drinks at the bar, and after putting a few down his second-cousin through marriage began urging Macias to come with him.
   "He said come with me and we'll make something of it," Macias recalls. "And that's about the last thing I remember before waking up in a desert and him saying, `We're halfway there.'"
   But the first trip wasn't meant to be, and when daylight came, Macias and the 70 others who paid their smuggler to sneak them across the border were caught hiding in a pile of bushes.
   Macias and his buddy were put behind bars, interviewed and given a meal before being shipped back to Mexico on a Greyhound bus.
   Less than 24 hours later, they were at it again, walking through what Macias recalls as an abandoned sewer tunnel with a different smuggler. After exiting the cold, wet passage, they changed clothes and blended in with the California population.
   Piece of cake.
   Macias and his friend made their way to Madras, where his traveling partner knew somebody they could stay with for the night.
   "My friend said he'd didn't have enough money to get us both up to Washington and that he'd be back in a few days with a car," Macias recalls.
   That was the last time Macias ever saw his friend.
   

   In a few minutes, it'll be midnight, and the day will officially be April 24. Eight hours to go.
   Macias is yawning now, but agrees to pull out his green card and show the picture of a young, fresh-faced man with a mustache about 15 years his junior.
   The green card displays the words "Resident Alien," but contrary to popular belief, it's not green. Macias lived illegally in the United States for two years before he got married and took a trip to Toronto, Canada, to get that important piece of plastic.
   Now, he offers no apologies for the way he went after his American Dream.
   He says most Americans don't understand that Mexico's traditional policy has been to discourage working in the U.S., and that only well-to-do Mexicans can usually qualify for legal visas by showing proof of property ownership and a large bank account.
   The topic reminds him of his mother. He says she has been denied every application to visit. At this moment, he says he wishes she was here, now, sitting at the same table.
   Another thought weighs heavily on Macias.
   He admits that when he takes the oath of citizenship tomorrow, he'll be doing so without the blessing of everyone back in Madras. Some in the Hispanic community, Macias says, call him a "white wannabe" and even a "potato" — brown on the outside, white on the inside.
   Macias says he feels he's sometimes caught in the middle of two cultures.
   "That's really hard to deal with because I'm as Mexican as you can be, but I also respect being a citizen of the United States," Macias says.
   Macias rationalizes his controversial stature this way: He could become a role model for other Mexican immigrants who otherwise wouldn't become civically minded.
   "In Mexico, you don't get to see the governor or county commissioners or even dream of speaking to the chief of police," Macias says. "So when they get here, they wonder, `Why would I even want to do that?' And that's what hurts me the most."
   

   Jesse Macias prides himself for dressing well, but he still needs his sister to help him put on a tie an hour before his ceremony is set to begin.
   "I wonder if things are going to feel different tomorrow," he says, emphasizing a question he has brought up probably 100 times in the past 24 hours.
   His sister, Anabel, picks up the telephone and gets busy punching numbers while Macias continues to fiddle with his tie.
   He can't get over the fact that a song called "American Dream" by Madonna is playing on MTV and a copy of USA Today was left at his hotel room door this morning.
   Anabel hands her brother the phone.
   She's called their mother.
   In Spanish, Macias tells his mother this is the big day. He tells her he wishes he could share this moment.
   Then he lets his guard down and begins to cry.
   

   When Macias arrives at the courtroom a few blocks away, it's nothing like he expected. It's contemporary and sleek.
   He looks out the 16th floor of the federal courthouse at downtown Portland and thinks about where he was 19 years ago.
   "In 1984, all I wanted to do was find a soft bed and some food," Macias says.
   The hallway outside the courtroom is filled with people from every corner of the globe. Macias wonders how each of them got here, and what struggles they had to overcome.
   Then, to his surprise, two of Sen. Ron Wyden's staff members appear and introduce themselves: Jeff Stuckart, the senator's communications director, and Elsa Rosales, the woman who helped him wade through the mounds of bureaucracy to earn his citizenship.
   Concealed from Macias' view is a letter from Wyden and a gift these two messengers will present him after he takes the oath: an American flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol.
   The 75 citizens-to-be are soon ushered into the courtroom and seated in five rows. Each turns in their green card and one more piece of paper proving their identity.
   Macias is just minutes away from completing a journey he began 19 years ago, and offers one last whisper to the reporter who's been following him the past 24 hours: "My knees are buckling."
   Judge Dennis J. Hubel soon enters the chambers and begins to introduce each attendant by name and place of origin.
   Macias is introduced by his birth name, Jose de Jesus, Mexico.
   The judge then asks everyone to raise their right hands, and Jesse begins to take the oath.