An American Dream

updated 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sometimes, amid the news of budget deficits, Nicaragua, acid rain and commuter traffic, it's easy to forget that America still represents the promised land to millions around the world. Arthur Yambao Guintu, 31, is one of them. Guintu grew up poor in the Philippines, came to the U.S on a forged passport in 1978, worked hard and lived in fear—until last year's enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which offers amnesty and legal residence to illegal aliens who have lived continuously in the U.S. since before Jan. 1, 1982. Guintu, who works in a gear factory in New Jersey, has a residence permit now and hopes to become a citizen.

The amnesty expires May 4. Although the government expected 2 million illegal aliens to apply for residency, only 1.2 million had done so as of January. Congress is considering extending the deadline.

Growing up in a barrio near Manila, I often thought, "If you give me one break, God, I'll do better than this." My parents were teachers; together they made about $50 a month. When I was small, we lived in a hut made of leaves. No electricity, no running water, no toilet. Everybody just went out the back. We were seven kids, and all we had was rice, breakfast and dinner. There was no money for anything else. A bike? My God! I couldn't even think of it.

When I was 9, I went to live with my grandmother, who was getting some money from a son in America. She had a concrete house with a bathroom and eventually even bought a little black-and-white TV. Watching American programs I started dreaming about living like an American. I watched Bonanza and The Wild, Wild West and wanted to dress tough and act like a cowboy. Later I saw shows like Three's Company. Everything looked so easy. Here's this guy Jack living with two beautiful women. I said, "Wow! Great! That's me in America!" I imagined living in a big apartment, with my own room and everything. My dreams kept getting bigger and bigger.

A few years after I graduated from high school in 1972, I made plans to leave. A lot of people sell black market American passports in the Philippines, with real names of American citizens. I borrowed $1,000 from my uncle in America and made a deal with a guy who did everything. He got me a stolen passport and put my picture on it. He made the flight arrangements and told me what to do and say on the trip.

Leaving my family was painful. I didn't know if I would ever see my parents again because they were already getting older. When it was time for me to go, tears came to my eyes, but I made myself stay controlled. I shook my father's hand and embraced him. He brushed my hair back from my face. I knew he waited to cry too. But neither of us said a word.

Getting out of the country was no sweat. Philippine officials didn't care if I was illegal. I was just one less mouth to feed. But on the flight to America I started to get real scared. I tried to sleep and couldn't, not for a minute. I was terrified of getting caught, handcuffed and sent back. I tried to eat, but I couldn't figure out the food. They served steak, which I had never seen before. When I opened up the packages of salt and ketchup and dumped them all on the meat, the guy next to me looked at me funny. I guess he realized I didn't know what I was doing.

When we landed in Chicago, I felt so cold, like ice water had been poured over me. I could hardly move my legs to walk. I got in the line for American citizens and prayed to all the saints I knew. I said, "Please help me, St. Joseph and St. Michael. Please give me a chance so I can make some money and help my brothers and sisters go to school." Every step was torture. I had to remind myself that I was no longer Arthur Guintu but Alberto Labrador, the name on my passport. I stepped up to the official and went completely numb. But after looking at some list, he casually stamped my passport. I thought, "Oh, God! I made it!" I could breathe.

From Chicago I flew to New York and met my uncle. He said, "Remember, you're illegal Work. Come home. Watch your mouth. And stay out of trouble." I said okay, but had no idea what that would mean. I was overwhelmed. I thought, "Oh, God, America is so beautiful." Everything around me looked so clean, so shiny. And all the people appeared to be giants. My uncle's house in Fort Lee, N.J., looked like a palace. They had hot water. Wow! There was a shower and a bathtub—I had never seen one. The sofa in the living room was luxury to me. That night I ate two pounds of grapes, which are very expensive in the Philippines. The next morning my aunt fixed an American breakfast with eggs and bacon, which I'd never had before. I thought, "Hey, God, this is the life!"

After a week I went to look for work and the reality began to hit me—the fear that was always there. I began to think like an illegal. I was nervous about people asking about my background. I always had to be careful who I was friendly with because someone might rat on me. And I worried that I would forget to use my new name.

I found a job at a car wash that, depending on tips, paid maybe $30 for 12 hours of work a day. That was bigger money than I had ever seen. I was able to send $40 a month home to my family. Within six months I got a dishwashing job at an Italian restaurant for $150 a week. I remember I was always wet. My friend Miguel, another illegal, and I used to laugh and complain about all the silverware Americans use. I would say, "My God, why don't they use one spoon for everything?" I was working sometimes 60 hours a week, with no overtime. I was getting ripped off, but I never complained. I couldn't rock the boat. I was too afraid. Meanwhile I was very lonely. After work I'd go straight home and sleep on my uncle's couch. Every night I prayed to God to give me a strong body and mind so I could help myself and my family.

In 1980 I moved in with my brother, who had also come over and was living in Englewood, N.J. Again, I slept on the couch. He helped me get a job at a gear-making factory that employed a lot of illegals. It paid $4.75 an hour. I had to memorize the cars in the parking lot and keep an eye out for vans and Dodges because that's what the immigration people drove. One morning, after I had been there a year, I heard a big commotion and saw people running everywhere—even on top of cars. Immigration officials were chasing a bunch of guys who had gone out on their coffee break. I saw them grab my brother and several others and put them in a van. My heart was going like crazy. I hid in my locker, then I ran to my brother's apartment, put my few belongings in a garbage bag and ran to my aunt's house nearby. I've been living there ever since. Same old couch again. Later, I got a job at another gear factory, and that's where I am now.

As an illegal you always have to be suspicious. You always try to stay in the dark. The only people I trusted were other illegals. I had no social life. I never went to parties because I worried that I wouldn't know how to act. I wouldn't know how to talk with girls either, how to ask for a date. I never went to good restaurants because I didn't know what to order or which spoon or knife to use. So I'd go to McDonald's. Give me a Big Mac, large fries and OJ, and that's it. Sometimes I'd go to the park and play basketball by myself or go jogging. But mostly I just watched TV—especially sports. I could let out all my frustration yelling, "Kill them, knock them dead!"

When I heard on the radio that President Reagan had signed the amnesty bill, I could hardly control myself. I was at work, so I couldn't yell. So I went into the bathroom and screamed, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" Soon I went to the immigration office—I was surprised it wasn't crowded. I think a lot of illegals are scared to come out. I was nervous, but everything went okay. They took my illegal passport and gave me my employment authorization card. I felt like a huge load had been lifted.

Now that I can go back, I want to visit my family in the Philippines. Ten years! I want to talk with them, laugh with them again. With the money I sent home, two of my sisters went to college. One is a chemist. The other got a business degree. My youngest sister graduates this month. Maybe now I can send a little less money to my family and start living like Jack on Three's Company. For a long time I said, "Jack, you're full of bull, you son of a gun. Life in America hasn't been so easy." Now, after all those years on the couch, I'm going to get a bed. And maybe a car, And my own apartment. And I'd like a girlfriend, a nice loving girl. I'm sick and tired of being alone.

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