Two Immigrant Stories, Two Vastly Different Views on Immigration

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Mario Herrera (right) and Iliana Perez (left) pose together in Murrieta, California, after sitting down for a candid conversation on immigration. Herrera is heavily involved in Republican politics, and Perez is an undocumented immigrant. (Tena Rubio/KQED)

For a new series we’re calling Start the Conversation, we listen in on pairs of Californians who have very different opinions on issues, but who also want to find common ground.

They’re civil dialogues, not debates — and we hope they’re a way to try to bridge some of the big divides between us in this politically charged time.

Iliana Perez and Mario Herrera both have firsthand experience with the U.S. immigration system.

Perez was born in Hidalgo, Mexico, about 50 miles north of Mexico City. She came to the United States with her parents and younger brother in 1995 when she was eight years old.

They came on tourist visas, but when the visa expired, Perez and her family stayed, joining the ranks of undocumented immigrants.

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Since then she has become a Dreamer -- one of the hundreds of thousands of people who were brought to this country illegally as children and are now protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

She's used that protection to its fullest -- she has a master's in economics, is working on a PhD in education policy and does immigration and advocacy work.

"My entire life has been all about finding ways to earn a living and to get access to higher education within the confinements of being undocumented," Perez says.

Two Immigrant Stories, Two Views on Immigration

Two Immigrant Stories, Two Views on Immigration

Herrera was born in Corona, California, not long after his mother immigrated legally from Mexico. He says she spent 15 years trying to become a citizen.

"I got to see my mom spend thousands of dollars on immigration lawyers that don't really do anything other than set out the paperwork and take your money," Herrera says. "It's a broken system."

He spent six years in the Marine Corps before going to school in Riverside. He then found his way into local Republican politics as an elected member of the Republican Party Central Committee and consulting with various Republican legislators.

After initially backing Marco Rubio for the Republican presidential nomination, he became a staunch Trump supporter, serving as delegate to the Republican National Convention and attending the inauguration.

Herrera and Perez have very different views on U.S. immigration policy, but they agreed to sit down and talk with each other about their thoughts as part of our "Start the Conversation" series.

Here are some highlights from that conversation:

On how to solve the immigration issue:

Herrera: I would like to see more border security implemented, I would like to see a vetting process take place, and I would like to see somewhat of a merit system be put in place -- a system that expedites the current immigration system because the reason that people are coming in the shadows is because we have such a messed up immigration process where people would rather come in the shadows rather than fill out the paperwork. So I do think that we need to reform our entire immigration system to make it easier to become a citizen.

Perez: I try to think of a more global perspective in terms of immigration where we need to be able to work with different countries in terms of also helping with economic development. ... Even a vetting process or anything like that will not work because immigration will just continue to occur whether it's undocumented or documented individuals. It's a global perspective that we all need to be thinking about

On the perception of undocumented immigrants:

Perez: I think it's this idea that we're stealing a job. I've heard this even from my own family members. My brother and I are the only undocumented individuals in the family, and we're the only ones that ended up going to college where all my other cousins who were born here and who had the financial resources to go to college didn't. They always thought that I took a space from them.

Herrera: I have members of my family that are undocumented. In my opinion, just because I'm related to them doesn't make their situation any better. I still think they should have gone through a specific process. ... I really do think Iliana is by far the biggest exception I've ever seen. You're very articulate, you're very intelligent. You are definitely an exception. I'm confident that if anybody had a perception of illegal immigrants if they were to meet you that you would not be the person they would think [of].

On President Trump:

Herrera: I don't think it's a secret here that I'm a staunch Trump supporter. I went to the inauguration. I was a delegate for the RNC. I guess you could say I drank the Kool-Aid. ... In his speeches, he talks about the criminal aspect of illegal immigration, but then afterwards he starts going onto 'We need to make it easier to become a citizen so people don't come into the shadows.' You never hear that in the media, and I think that's kind of what's helped create this polarizing climate that we have.

Perez: One of the most infuriating things regardless of political parties is the fact that Trump continues to create this idea of illegal immigrants just being these horrible individuals. I think that the media also contributes to disseminating the stereotypes about individuals, and it divides societies. That's how we get to a point where human rights just are not considered.