My best friend, the 'illegal immigrant'

What a Peruvian-born engineer from L.A. can teach Washington state about its stalled DREAM Act.
Crosscut archive image.

Hugo Kugiya (bottom row, third from the left) and his friend Tony (bottom row, very end of left side) in first grade.

What a Peruvian-born engineer from L.A. can teach Washington state about its stalled DREAM Act.

I met my first real friend in 1971 when I was five years old. He was new to the class; new to the school; new, it turned out, to the country. He was cheerful and trusting, and I thought he kind of looked like me. We became best friends immediately.

Tony was from a place called Peru, he said. Over the years and decades, I found out things, some right away, some after we grew up, some just this year.

His parents, Julio and Antonieta Rios, like the parents of a lot of kids in Los Angeles, spoke little to no English. Neither did Tony, just several months before I met him. He made a friend in his apartment complex, a daily companion who spoke English, and also spent a summer watching a lot of American television, so that by the time he started school in September, he spoke English as well as any kid in the class.

He lived with his parents in a one-bedroom apartment in Culver City, at the intersection of two major arterials, a half block from the San Diego Freeway. (He would live there until he graduated from high school.) I moved to a new town at the start of fifth grade. We kept in touch for a few years, reuniting the summer "Star Wars" came out. We saw it together. Shortly after that, we lost track of each other.

After graduating from high school, he wrote me a letter. We arranged to visit, got reacquainted, promised this time to stay in touch, but had by then become adults who were mostly strangers to each other. It was many years later, during an unplanned, serendipitous visit — I was passing through California, driving from Florida to Seattle to start a new job, and looked him up — that something permanent and unexplainable took hold and we became true friends again.

That, too, was when I found out something else I had never known: Tony was among a class of people we had come to call “illegal immigrants” a pejorative disguised as a formal definition. The label is at best imprecise. When used, it is often a lazily-reasoned, emotional reaction to fear or resentment.

Without saying so exactly, the institution of journalism agreed.

Recently, the Associated Press announced it would drop the term “illegal immigrant” from its industry-standard style guide. The Los Angeles Times did the same, upping the ante by also banning “undocumented immigrant” from standard practice. The AP’s rationale was grammatical — an act is illegal, not a person. The basis of the Times’ reasoning was accuracy — neither term consistently and accurately describes the situation of the people assigned to those labels, the paper contended.

Tony was the kind of kid the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act is intended for. He excelled in school and wanted to attend college. His parents were not of great means.

The federal DREAM Act provides conditional residency status for non-resident minors, with a path to permanent citizenship through military service or completion of a college degree. Supporters cite its potential economic and social benefits, an amnesty program for motivated immigrants who did not knowingly break any rules when they entered and stayed in the country. Opponents generally base their objections on two principles: that it rewards and encourages the circumventing of rules, and that this is not a worthwhile expenditure of scarce public resources.

About a dozen states, including Washington, have drafted their own versions of the DREAM Act, which provide for tuition assistance and other financial aid for qualified immigrants who want to go to college. For reasons that have been detailed on this website, Washington’s DREAM Act never came to a vote, missing a key deadline, and dying in committee.

Technically, the state legislature can still revive the proposal, bringing it back for a vote any time during the current session. Supporters believe that can still happen, but the current political sentiment does not favor it. Washington’s DREAM Act is in limbo and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future.

When we hear the words illegal immigrant or undocumented immigrant, we imagine different things, different people. Most of us imagine a person we do not know. Or at least a person we don’t realize we know.

Tony’s father was the first to leave Peru, getting a job in Los Angeles parking cars, and later working as a bookkeeper for a garment maker that employed Spanish-speaking workers. He entered the country on a work visa, eventually applying for and receiving permanent residency. A few years later, he sent for his wife and young son. They arrived with travel visas, good for a temporary stay, and just never left.

Tony’s father procured forged green cards for his wife and son, so that she could get a job (as a bank clerk working with immigrants from China, Vietnam, the West Indies, Africa, all of whom spoke little English), and he could go to school.

For many years, Tony was unaware of his family’s precarious standing. He was a teenager when his parents explained.

“Your dad knows what he’s doing,” his mother told him, “and he’ll protect us.”

About the time Tony started high school, he and his family took a trip to Vancouver, B.C. When they re-entered the U.S. it was with legal passports as permanent, legal residents. (Precisely how that happened is beyond Tony’s memory and understanding of the events; he just knows that for years, his father investigated avenues and loopholes to make his family’s status as residents official.)

Citizenship is often spoken of, usually by those who have it, as a privilege earned by merit, effort or virtue, even though the vast majority of U.S. citizens were simply born that way.

The DREAM Act would benefit a specific class of immigrants; immigrants who have completed secondary school, who want to go to college, who are entering the prime of their earning powers.

“I’m not saying it’s the U.S.’ responsibility to look out for the world,” Tony told me, “but if people can come and make a difference in the economy, and move our society forward in a positive manner, then it’s almost beholden on this country to open the borders and make a global difference. The borders should be opened responsibly though. There needs to be a mechanism, and laws have to change to support these mechanisms.”

Tony graduated from Culver City High School in 1983 as its valedictorian. He was accepted to several colleges, among them Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Cal-Berkeley and Harvey Mudd College, where he studied engineering with a combination of private scholarships, loans and a modest amount of his parents’ money.

During his senior year of college, he became a citizen, attending a swearing-in ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center. By then, citizenship had become an afterthought. He already felt like a citizen; the ceremony was just a formality. He could see though, that that was not the case for most of the others there. Many of them dressed in formal attire for the occasion, openly displaying emotions.

Tony borrowed even more money to attend graduate school at UCLA, leaving with a debt the size of a mortgage. When we were 31, I went to his wedding. Tony married another Californian immigrant — his wife Philomel Pena was born in the Philippines. Her father was a repairman, her mother an accountant. She too earned a graduate degree (an MBA) and worked in the financial industry.

They had four children, settled in a comfortable, hilly suburb of the Bay Area. The American dream could have no better representatives than the Rios-Pena family.

This year, Tony was hired as the director of engineering for a company called Memsic, a Chinese-owned company headquartered in Massachusetts that designs sophisticated sensors for industrial applications. He occasionally travels to the company’s manufacturing center in Jiangsu, China, a foreign-born citizen working for a foreign-owned corporation, each contributing considerably to this country’s economic longevity.

Nationality in today’s marketplace has become less and less relevant; where you were born has become much less important than what you can do. Ride the elevators of any Seattle technology company and you will routinely hear English spoken in several accents. That seems to be the underlying premise of the DREAM Act. It is not so much charity or socialism, but an investment in human capital, in people who have already distinguished themselves with ambition and effort. And yes, people who happen to have lived in the U.S. without their paperwork in order.

“It never really felt wrong to me,” Tony said. “The fact is my family and I broke the law, but the laws in our minds were incorrect, and in order to preserve our family, we did what we had to do. I never thought I was hurting anyone or hurting our world in any way, and in fact I feel my family has made our country a better place, in a very small way of course.

“I don’t condone criminals who come here looking for new avenues or channels to continue their criminal endeavors. But that is easier and obvious to stand against. I’m sure the reality of things is much grayer than what I have in my mind … but these are the conclusions that I have formed for myself.”


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at