Here to Stay at Last in Arizona After seven years in the U.S., a soon-to-be-legalized immigrant family prepares to enter the American financial mainstream.
(MONEY Magazine) – To Javier Quintero, 32, the woman in the Yuma, Ariz. airport looked like just another passenger. She wore ordinary clothes and was reading a thick, leather-bound book that he took to be a Bible. When she strolled over to where Javier, his wife Juana, 26, and their eight-month-old son Rogelio sat waiting for their plane, she stopped to coo and fuss over the baby. She asked Juana pleasantly, in Spanish, where the family was headed. ''Phoenix,'' replied Juana. ''We are coming home from a relative's wedding in Mexico. Where are you going?'' ''Nowhere,'' said the woman. ''I am an immigration officer. And I would like to see your papers.'' Like most of the other 6 million to 7 million foreign-born people residing illegally in the U.S., Javier and Juana Quintero lived in daily dread of a moment such as this. In the seven years since they left Mexico, they had achieved a prosperity almost unimaginable back home. Javier, solid and easygoing, ran a carpet-laying business in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, earning as much as $30,000 a year, more than seven times as much as the average Mexican wage earner. Soft-spoken, efficient Juana was raising their three children -- Beatriz, 7, Monica, 5, and the infant Rogelio, all U.S. citizens by birth -- in a three-bedroom house with new furniture, a washing machine and central air conditioning. Now, suddenly, all that was in serious jeopardy. ''I thought, 'This is the end of our life here,' '' recalls Javier. ''I was afraid we were going to lose everything.'' Had they been caught a few months earlier, that might have been the case. But by a twist of timing that will remain forever sweet, the day before the undercover officer caught them at the Yuma airport -- Oct. 18, 1986 -- the U.S. Congress enacted the most sweeping revision of immigration law in more than 20 years and, in the process, neatly let the Quinteros off the hook. The critical change: a so-called amnesty provision inviting any illegal aliens who can prove they have lived continuously in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 1982 to apply for legal residency. The Quinteros will have no trouble coming up with the proof. In fact, they ) slipped into the system with amazing ease. Unlike many other illegal immigrants, who avoided leaving a paper trail for fear of being traced by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Quinteros filed taxes, paid their bills in their own name and kept the paperwork required by their business. It helped that Javier had a legitimate Social Security number, obtained on a four-year stint in the U.S. during the early 1970s, before Social Security offices began asking for proof of legal residency. The Quinteros' case is so solid that their lawyer, Nancy-Jo Merritt of Phoenix, regards their legalization as virtually assured. Compared with most of the families enfranchised under the new law, the Quinteros have a considerable head start on the American dream. Their profitable business has two full-time employees, including Javier's younger brother Marcos, a legal resident, and one client, Carpetime, a large Phoenix- based distributor. Last year the business earned $21,480 on revenues of $53,000, enough to bring the Quintero household income about level with the national median. The family own their home, a trim, cinder-block ranch house in a blue-collar Mesa neighborhood. Bought for $43,000 in 1980, the house is now worth about $58,000. The $39,000, 11.5% mortgage is their only debt. They also have money in the bank: $12,000 in a savings account paying 4.9% and about $11,500 in the equivalent of a three-month CD at a Mexican bank, earning about 90% -- the extravagant return reflecting that country's runaway inflation. The account is registered jointly with Javier's father so that his parents, who live in Mexico, can withdraw the interest if they need extra cash. But the Quinteros lack some of the financial safeguards that most American families consider essential. They have no wills, no medical or disability insurance and no retirement plan other than Social Security. And though Javier is the sole breadwinner, he only recently began to appreciate his need for life insurance. He is considering a $50,000 universal life policy from Business Men's Assurance Co. at a cost of $35 a month. He is also thinking of putting $10,000 down on a four-acre, $35,000 parcel east of Mesa that he believes lies directly in the suburb's growth path. Legalization will lift a tremendous burden of insecurity from the Quinteros. For the first time since they arrived, they will be free to plan for long-term goals, like college for the children, that seemed hopelessly distant before. In the short run, Javier also wonders whether his new status can help him reverse a three-year slowdown in his income. Like generations of immigrants before them, the Quinteros got their start in the U.S. with the help of a relative already here. In this case, it was Javier's older brother Lazaro, a legal resident, who found Javier his first carpet-laying job in 1972 and eventually helped him set out as an independent contractor in 1980. Carpet-laying has proved to be an ideal enterprise for Javier; it requires no inventory and little capital outlay other than the cost of a pickup truck and about $3,500 for tools such as a power carpet stretcher and electrical generator. Since there is no set place of employment, the Quinteros never had to fear the raids that the immigration service occasionally runs on factories, restaurants and other places where illegal aliens usually work. Besides, the Sunbelt construction boom that swept Arizona in recent years made Javier's first years as an entrepreneur quite successful. In 1984, his best year, he earned more than $30,000 on revenues of almost $73,000. Profits, however, have waned as construction in the overbuilt Southwest has slowed. Javier's profits last year were off 28% from 1984, and so far this year earnings are running slightly behind last year's. Only the repayment of $10,000 in loans that Javier had made to two younger brothers kept the Quinteros from having to draw on savings or reduce spending. Moreover, Javier is getting tired of the sore back and aching knees that are the job's constant physical toll.
As an alternative, Javier is considering expanding his business into a carpet distributorship, in which he could concentrate on selling carpeting to builders and leave the installation to his workers. It sounds to him like a cushy job. ''Right now in a good week I can make $2,000 ((gross)) by breaking my back,'' he says. ''Selling, I could make $3,000 a week just driving around and talking to people.'' While he is certainly outgoing enough to succeed as a salesman, he acknowledges that his ambition requires more capital than he has at hand -- at least $20,000 -- and he is not certain how to go about borrowing the money. He hopes, though, that his new legal status will smooth his transition from laborer to capitalist. ''I think, 'Be legal, and maybe your doors open a little more,' '' he says. Even then, a formidable hurdle will remain: language. While Javier's English $ is more than adequate for communicating with homeowners and office workers on the job, it lacks the nuance and fluency that a salesman would need. A much more urgent problem is his limited ability to read or write English. At the moment, his written English is so shaky that when paying by check, he merely signs and asks the payee to fill in the amount. ''If I can read and write a little more,'' he says with determination, ''I can sell anything.'' The drive and energy that have taken the Quinteros this far trace back to childhoods spent in hardscrabble poverty. Both came from huge families -- Javier is the fifth of 16 children, Juana the eighth of nine -- where everyone had to work merely to survive. As a boy Javier had to miss about half of each school year to work in the cotton fields near his home in northwestern Mexico. Until he was 14 and his family moved to the border city of Mexicali, where he could work after school, he had never been a student long enough to finish third grade. When he left school for good at 18, he had completed only the eighth grade. The memory of that poverty reinforced the couple's decision to emigrate after their marriage in 1979. At the time, Javier was making $76 a week driving a delivery truck in Mexicali; his brother Lazaro held out the prospect of making three times as much with him in the carpet business in Arizona. ''It was sad leaving our families,'' says Juana through an interpreter, ''but to make a better life for our children, we had no choice but to come here.'' Stealing into the country was easy. Javier had a border-crossing card -- a kind of passport issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to Mexican shoppers and businessmen who promise to stay within 25 miles of the border. He had obtained it in 1970 for an after-school job delivering flowers on the U.S. side. The card served to get them past the border; then they simply drove on to Mesa, 270 miles to the northeast. Juana and Javier remain remarkably close to their numerous relatives on both sides of the border -- though in families of this size, closeness can take a sizable bite out of a budget. The Quinteros' long-distance phone bills top $100 a month, and travel to the frequent baptisms and weddings both here and in Mexico costs about $3,000 a year. Christmas gifts alone ran more than $1,000 last year. Consequently, Javier and Juana tend to be frugal in spending for themselves. The only extravagances last year: a video camera, TV and VCR for $2,000. For the time being, Javier is content to see what opportunities arise from legalization. And while he longs for a job that will get him off his hands and knees, he is not about to rush into anything. ''You have to go step by step,'' he explains. ''I want to make a foundation first. That way I'll get strong from the bottom up.''
BOX: Timely paybacks
Loan repayments of $10,000 from two of Javier Quintero's brothers helped the family maintain their accustomed standard of living, even though Javier's carpet-laying business last year earned roughly $5,000 less than in 1985. The extra income also enabled the Quinteros to pay two large one-time expenses, the birth of their son Rogelio and the purchase of some expensive home entertainment equipment, and still add about $2,000 to savings. Income and outgo for the 12 months that ended June 1, 1987:
Income Business earnings $21,480 Loan repayment 10,000 Interest 596 Total $32,076
Outgo Food $5,112 Mortgage payments 4,991 Travel 3,000 FICA taxes 2,642 Car expenses 2,204 Savings 2,100 Doctor bills 1,625 Clothes 1,588 Video camera 1,470 Gifts 1,300 Telephone 1,260 Income taxes 1,227 Contributions 700 VCR and television 600 Utilities 540 Other medical expenses 499 Entertainment 400 Property taxes 275 Homeowners insurance 225 Miscellaneous 193 Tax return preparation 125 Total $32,076
Assets House $58,000 Personal property 20,000 Savings account 11,992 Mexican CD 11,500 1980 Camaro 3,250 1981 Chevrolet pickup 2,675 1979 GMC pickup 1,950 1981 Buick Skylark 1,825 Tools 800 Checking account 300 Total $112,292
Liabilities Mortgage $39,000 Total $39,000 Net Worth $73,292
BOX: ADVICE FROM THE EXPERTS
THE PROBLEMS: How to protect their standard of living, invest for the long term and boost their income.
THE SOLUTIONS: 1. Buy disability and life insurance. 2. Invest in a government bond mutual fund. 3. Enroll the breadwinner in English courses.
Money arranged for Javier and Juana Quintero to discuss their financial strategies with Phoenix financial planner Neil Barnes and career plans with Evan Morgenstern, a vocational counselor in Phoenix. Risk management. The Quinteros' first priority should be to insure Javier against loss of income from a disabling injury or illness. Considering Javier's age (32) and the nature of his job, says Barnes, a disabling injury or illness is far more likely than death. He recommends a Security Mutual of New York policy at annual premiums of $148. The steep cost -- 25% more than for an office worker -- reflects the physical wear and tear of Javier's job. That done, says Barnes, the family should obtain about $200,000 in term life insurance. One of the least expensive policies for people in Javier's age group is Northwest Mutual's 10-year renewable term, costing $217 the first year. Investing. Because of the business' declining income, Barnes advises against buying land now. Instead, Javier should leave $6,000 in his savings account for emergencies and move the remaining $6,000 into a short-term government bond fund such as Twentieth Century U.S. Governments (no load; 800-345-2021, 816-531-5575 in Missouri, up 5.5% in the past year). Once the stock market drops 15% or so, he should move the money to a growth fund such as Fidelity Magellan (3% load; 800-544-6666, 617-523-1919 in Massachusetts, up 17.3%). Barnes also urges him to retrieve his money from the Mexican bank as soon as the certificate matures: the swooning peso has eroded his capital by 40% since he deposited the money in October. He could help his parents with less risk to his principal by investing in the Twentieth Century Fund and sending his father the monthly income. Mutual funds sound interesting to Javier, but he wants to learn more about them from Barnes before investing. ''It's hard to decide on something the first time you hear of it,'' he says. Javier's business. Even in the best of times, says Morgenstern, the kind of carpet distributorship that Javier is considering is a chancy, low-profit- margin operation. With Arizona builders now in the doldrums, he adds, it is hardly the time to start one. For the time being, Javier's best course may be to remain in the carpet- laying business and try to expand his client base beyond Carpetime to pick up more revenue. When the construction industry revives, Javier can simply hire more workers. Morgenstern suggests that Javier also consider taking English courses at a local community college for about $125 a semester or, for about $20 an hour, hiring a tutor. ''I'm not talking about the king's English,'' says Morgenstern, ''but just getting to where language no longer holds him back.'' Javier is considering an offer to contract for another carpet company but worries about sending employees on a job without his direct supervision. He says, though, that he will definitely try to improve his facility in English but probably in a class rather than with a tutor to save money.