“I come from a rural area in Mexico called Villanueva,” Ortega said. “We didn’t have many job opportunities over there. There weren’t many factories around there, either. It was mostly farming. Working conditions in Mexico is just doing what you can, and many just survive.”
He said that the bigger cities are more industrialized and have more jobs, but even those jobs do not pay very well. According to World Bank data from 2010, 60 percent of Mexicans living in rural areas were below the poverty line, though it is not much different in the urban areas and is even worse for the indigenous population in Mexico.
Ortega, 42, first set out to obtain his citizenship in 1994 and from then on, he had to play the waiting game.
“They go case by case. It is not ‘one size fits all.’ It’s not a quick and easy process, but it’s not a complicated process. You just have to follow some steps. It's one of those things where you have to file some forms and just wait and see if they get back to you. You may wait a couple years,” Ortega said.
For many immigrants who set out to obtain U.S. citizenship, it is typically a long process Ortega recalled that most of the immigration process involved filling out forms and waiting on the government to get back to him, which required patience.
“The process of getting citizenship first starts by someone in the states vouching for you. They use a different word for it though. But after my father filled out a petition for me, we just had to wait and be patient,” Ortega said.
When Ortega was young, his mother died in Mexico. He decided that it would be best for him to stay with his father and his brother in Chicago. Besides his family members in Chicago, Ortega did not know anybody in the U.S.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It took me a couple years to adjust. It is intimidating at first, but I’ve been very fortunate to become friends with many locals since I have been here. We have a tight group. I tell them all the time that they are like my family here,” he said.
Ortega started working for SPC Manufacturing when he lived in Chicago, and has been with the company ever since. Several years later, he moved with the company to Johnson City, where he currently lives.
Kim Schneider, Ortega’s long-time friend and boss, says she has known Ortega for more than 20 years since he has been in the U.S.
“You have to remember that this country was founded by immigrants.”
- Cruz Ortega
“He started working full time with me since he finished high school, so we absolutely became friends. He is very kind and caring. He is an excellent employee and friend,” Schneider said.
“We’ve always had each other’s backs.”
Ortega recently had a welcoming party in Johnson City as one of the nation’s newest citizens. About 35 people showed up. It was a happy moment for him and a milestone in his life-- something that called for a party.
“You appreciate it a lot after waiting 14 years,” Ortega said. “It called for a celebration. I told everybody I’ve met here to come join me in this celebration. I cooked up some burgers and my friend who is a veteran had a toast for me, welcoming me.”
He also recalled the day in court when the judge told him he was finally, officially a citizen.
“When I got my citizenship the judge told me this was a very happy moment. It’s like when a child is getting adopted, and now this country has adopted me,” he said.
“It was a teary-eyed moment for sure,” Schneider said. “He’s waited for such a long time, and we were all really proud for him.”
Ortega has many plans for his future as an American citizen. He hopes to go back to school, although he is not sure what to study. He also plans to vote in future elections and participate in the U.S. political process.
“He’s always followed U.S. politics closely,” Schneider said.
“I want to participate in choosing our next president. That’s one thing I look forward to doing,” Ortega said.
“I want to be safe and happy like everyone else. Whoever I think is best fit to run this country, I will support.”
Among issues important to him as a voter is the topic of immigration.This topic can often be very divisive. The word can spark discussion, often revealing hostilities towards what are perceived by many to be outsiders. Ortega says the best thing for him is to brush that off and keep going with his head high.
“I haven’t encountered too much of that, but when I do, I just push it aside. I don’t let things bother me. If somebody says something hateful, I just let it go. I’m not going to argue with someone,” Ortega said.
“If you want to know about me, come and talk to me. We might become friends, you know? Plus, you have to remember that this country was founded by immigrants. That’s what a lot of people don’t seem to understand.”
Ortega also says he has advice for those who may have xenophobic attitudes toward migrant workers:
“Just talk to an immigrant one day. Who knows? You may become friends forever.”
Living and working as an ordinary American citizen is something that Ortega has never taken for granted. He said many U.S. citizens do not seem to understand how much privilege they have, living in one of the richest countries with some of the best career opportunities.
Ortega also has a word of advice for those who plan to become U.S. citizens or are new citizens:
“One thing that my lawyer told me was also to try and stay out of trouble and not to do anything that would jeopardize you being able to stay here. And don’t let anyone take advantage of you. Keep going and keep being positive,” he said.
In 2012, the U.S. foreign-born population was 40.7 million residents, according to U.S. census estimates. In 2015, that number grew to 42.1 million, representing a nearly 3.5-percent increase over three years.
With 16.5 percent of the total labor force comprised of foreign-born workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, immigration is an important part of the U.S. economy. Ortega wants people to understand that.
“I want people who think otherwise to know that most immigrants are not bad people,” Ortega said. “We want to contribute to this great country and economy.”