Eight-year-old Art Rivadeneyra was so excited about going to Disneyland that he never asked why his parents were giving away all the furniture in their Mexico City home.
But this trip was no regular vacation. When the family's tourist visa expired, his parents planned to stay illegally in the United States.
"Later my parents told us the reason they didn't tell us we were staying was because if an immigration officer asked us, we might say something," Rivadeneyra said.
Throughout much of his childhood, Rivadeneyra was an undocumented immigrant in California. But in 1989, he joined some 2.7 million immigrants who became U.S. citizens under under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 signed by President Ronald Reagan.
The law has become a touchstone in today's debate over immigration reform, with both immigration advocates and critics distancing themselves from what widely is considered a legislative failure.
Those who oppose further reforms argue that it encouraged more illegal immigration by allowing millions to come to the United States without legally required immigration documents. Even supporters of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants today are careful about what they propose.
"Amnesty now is a dirty word," said Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center.
For immigrants like Rivadeneyra, however, amnesty was life-changing.
Becoming a U.S. citizen meant being able to vote, obtain a driver's license and passport. It meant being able to open a bank account or call the police without fear. It meant a better education and a more prestigious career.
When Rivadeneyra became a citizen, he abandoned his childhood dream of working a counter job at a roadside doughnut franchise and instead went to college and then law school.
"If it hadn't been for luck ' if it hadn't been for the date my parents arrived here, my age, and the debate that happened to occur at that time ' I wouldn't be in the same situation," he said.
Although their stories differ, other immigrants who became citizens under the 1986 law also prospered.
Giovagnoli calls the law a "huge boost" for new U.S. citizens and even more tax revenue for the government. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2006 that allowing legal status for some 7 million undocumented immigrants would yield $65 billion in federal tax revenue over a decade, according to an Immigration Policy Center study from January 2013.
While critics say the law's amnesty provision spurred more illegal immigration, scholars say that has more to do with the law's failure to create better options for guest workers.
"They didn't address the fact that temporary visas weren't necessarily in keeping with demand," Giovagnoli said. "What that meant was, as the economy really started to grow, there was all this demand for jobs and there were no visas to hand people."
Becoming a U.S. citizen can take decades or longer.
"For somebody who has a legitimate shot at coming here through a visa from Mexico, the back of the line is ridiculous," said Sherrie Kossoudji, an economics and social work professor at the University of Michigan. "Guess who could come in on visa in January of this year? Somebody who was approved, qualified, accepted in July of 1993."
Kossoudji says this 20-year lag time demonstrates why it's unreasonable to chastise families who take the risk to illegally immigrate.
"People say, 'Why don't they just fill out the paperwork?'" Kossoudji said. "Well suppose you took the SAT and got your high school grades and applied to the college of your choice. And then they said, 'Congratulations, you're in. We'll see you in 20 years.'"
Under the 1986 law, immigrants could first get green cards that allowed them to work here legally and then, after five years, obtain citizenship, a time frame that Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University, calls both "reasonably slow and reasonably quick."
None of the current proposals about immigration reform are as generous.
Today's debate over how to fix the system is so steeped in politics that lawmakers can't agree whether some immigrants should even have the chance to become full citizens; some are pushing instead for a legal working status without voting rights.
"When you give people citizenship, it's increasingly seen as connected to voting," Chishti said. "These voters are seen as potential Democrats. So if you're a Republican, why would you want to do that?"
As discussion of immigration becomes mired in abstract arguments about the labor force and political philosophy, little heard are the stories of the millions of immigrants like Rivadeneyra who became U.S. citizens in the 1980s.
Rivadeneyra, now 41, was in third grade the year his family settled in East Los Angeles. They lived in an industrial neighborhood where there was little to do. Without a public library or playground to visit, he and his friends would hang around a Winchell's Donut House.
"It was the only place to go," Rivadeneyra said. "I remember being 11, thinking, 'Someday, I want to get a job here. It would be so awesome to work here, to get a job at a place like this.'"
His mother had two jobs ' one as a cook at a restaurant and one as a caretaker for the elderly. Rivadeneyra remembers visiting the garment factory where his father manufactured clothing. It was a cavernous warehouse with "rows and rows of sewing machines" and piles of clothing everywhere. After his parents divorced, Rivadeneyra's mother considered giving up and moving back to Mexico.
"A couple of times it crossed her mind to go back," Rivadeneyra said. "It was so hard. Because the fact is, nobody leaves their family just for fun. Nobody leaves everything they know just for the heck of it."
Even before 1986, Rivadeneyra says he felt "more American than anything else." But he also was acutely aware of how he was different. The public school he attended in Montebello was a long bus ride from his grittier unincorporated neighborhood. Although many of the students there were Latinos, they came from families that had been in the U.S. for at least a generation.
"When the bus would arrive to the school a lot of the kids would say, 'the boat is here, the boat is here,'" Rivadeneyra said. "These concepts of what being American meant, I understood them and I espoused them. But I still was not considered really a part of it. One of my first experiences thinking about identity was around the time of Martin Luther King's birthday. I remember thinking what a great country this was. Thinking about how immigrants and people like me were treated, I honestly remember thinking 'Wow, I wish that at some point in my life, I might have that influence over such major change that has positive effect."
When Rivadeneyra obtained permanent residence in the United States, his childhood dream of working behind the counter at Winchell's evaporated. He had been accepted to a list of prestigious colleges including the University of California at Berkeley. Because of his pending citizenship, he was able to pay in-state tuition. Without that status, he says he wouldn't have been able to afford it.
Twenty-four years since Rivadeneyra, then a college freshman, picked up his green card, the experience remains so vivid in his memory it still makes him cry. He took the train from campus to a little office in San Francisco's Mission District, a neighborhood bright with Mexican influence.
"I remember walking out of the office and it was this sunny day, a beautiful day," Rivadeneyra said, his voice coated with emotion. "I just remember the feeling of being so happy. It was just such a huge change, the opportunity that I was given. This whole world had opened up. This world, I remember being aware of that."
The last time Rivadeneyra went to Mexico ' a shopping trip with his mother ' he remembers waiting in line at the border to re-enter the California. Boys crowded around the car, peddling packs of gum.
"I remember thinking, 'It's just luck that I'm not out in the streets selling gum,'" he said. "Without citizenship, I'd probably be working at that Winchell's or, you know, looking for work in the garment district like my dad did."
After college, Rivadeneyra went to law school and has spent a career as an advocate for immigrants. He was laid off recently and is looking for work. Like any American, like any person, Rivadeneyra has endured heartache. During college, he lost many of his belongings in a fire. More recently, his partner of more than a decade passed away.
But as he looks to the future of immigration in the United States, Rivadeneyra says he's never been more encouraged. The quality of the debate, he says, is richer and more inclusive. People aren't just talking about the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. Lawmakers are also considering how to improve the path to citizenship for skilled workers, for example.
"This is the most optimistic I've been in a very long time," he said. "But at the same time as I'm optimistic about some kind of reform, I think until we're ready to deal with these issues of racism, these issues of entitlement, these issues of taking for granted that when you're born in this country you have rights that have never been afforded to any other people in the history of mankind; only when we start to think about these concepts in a much bigger sense, will we have some kind of more productive, working immigration system."
On his Facebook profile, Rivadeneyra quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old."
Rivadeneyra's past isn't so distant. The faraway trip to Disneyland that his family took more than 30 years ago is as clear to him as ever.
"The Disneyland symbolism is not lost on me," Rivadeneyra said. "It symbolized America to us. I remember arriving at the gates and getting the book of tickets you needed to get on the rides like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful, sunny day. And we had arrived at the happiest place on earth."