FIRM Spotlight: CHIRLA Executive Director Angelica Salas

We wanted to share this great story from the LA Times on Angelica Salas, the executive director of CHIRLA. Family crossed the border to success

Under a canopy of jacaranda-tinged spring bloom, hundreds of graduating Occidental College students lined up in the center of the Eagle Rock campus. When the call came, they marched slowly up the hill to an outdoor amphitheater scented with eucalyptus and filled with cheering friends and relatives.

Angelica Salas, who graduated in 1993, was back for another degree — this time an honorary doctorate. Her parents were in the audience last Sunday, standing and applauding proudly as she entered the hillside theater.   They had come to the United States illegally roughly 40 years ago out of economic desperation. They made a life, became legalized and raised a family.

And now their 36-year-old daughter Angelica, smuggled into the country by an aunt at age 5, was being called up to the podium by Dean Eric M. Frank, who spoke of her work to convince both Democrats and Republicans that the immigration system is badly broken.

That bipartisan approach has been her strength, Ted Mitchell told me after the ceremony. The former Occidental president, himself the recipient of an honorary degree last Sunday, has worked with Salas in her role as executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

"Immigration is always a divisive issue," Mitchell said, "and she's been at her best in building bridges."

Her job is to tell stories, Salas told me. It's not as easy for people to stand back and scream after they've heard a story and made a connection.

When she goes to Sacramento or to Washington, D.C., to testify, she takes students, sweatshop laborers and children of families divided for years by travel restrictions. She once took a man to Washington who'd spent 29 days along the border in Arizona, searching for a daughter who turned out to have perished during a desert crossing.

When she lobbies for day laborer centers, in-state tuition fees or driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, or when she steps into the fire to share her stories with immigrant-bashers, Salas doesn't expect to win everyone over to her way of thinking.

In fact, for all the progress that's represented in the immigration reform bill under discussion in Washington, political differences magnified by election-year politics will probably kill it. But Salas believes the tone of the debate has been and will continue to be changed by humanizing it.

I know she's right. I know because of the gardener who was shot in the chest on a job in Inglewood and returned the next day because he'd promised the homeowner he'd be done by Christmas.

I know because of the Mid-City school volunteer who lives in a cramped one-bedroom apartment with her children. If I went and saw the impoverished Mexican village she came from, she told me, I'd understand why she was so happy. So I did, and I do.

It's fair to ask questions about the cost of educating illegal immigrants and treating the sick, and about their impact on the legal labor force. But I know that if my family were starving in a country with an incompetent and corrupt government, and my children might have a better future across the border, I'd do what I had to do.

Especially given the mixed signals sent by open-armed U.S. banks and employers. It's all part of the hypocrisy that screams for honest and humane reforms that would benefit immigrants and the country, and protect the interests of those who work here legally.

Tell stories, Angelica Salas says.

So here's one:

Serefino Salas, a broad-shouldered young man hungry for work in the 1960s, came to the United States from Durango, Mexico, in the bracero program. He later sneaked back to work at a Los Angeles laundromat, followed by many years as a racetrack groomer.

Rosie Astorga came shortly after her husband did and worked in the garment industry, while relatives in Mexico cared for Angelica and her sisters Rosa and Nidia.

Angelica doesn't recall much about being smuggled across the border, escorted by a 14-year-old aunt. But she remembers getting caught, being sent back and making it through on her next try. After two years of separation, the whole family was together, but it didn't last.

"My mother's factory was raided," says Angelica, who recalls her father searching for help after his wife was deported.

Salas discovered that because his wife had given birth to a son while living in Los Angeles, the child was a citizen and they could all become legalized under a program in place at the time.

Today, everyone in the family is a success, most of them living in Pasadena. Instead of being kept in the shadows at minimum-wage jobs, with no chance to improve their lot or make a bigger contribution, Salas became a roofer, Mrs. Salas is a hospital janitor, Rosa is a fifth-grade teacher, Nidia works in production for HBO and Serefino Jr. is a groundskeeper at Dodger Stadium.

They all joined Angelica at a campus luncheon last Sunday, along with her husband, Mayron Payes, and their 3-year-old daughter Maya. Angelica's parents took turns hugging her outside the residence of the school president, while school officials and former teachers spoke of the tenacity and promise they had seen in her as an undergrad.

This moment was part of the dream he brought with him 40 years ago, her father told me:

"We're very proud."