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Sunday, June 27, 2004

STLtoday - Immigrant now leads nation's immigrant services

STLtoday - News - St. Louis City / County

By Karen Branch-Brioso
Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau
06/26/2004
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WASHINGTON - When Eduardo Aguirre, the nation's immigration services chief, oversees the oath of citizenship Friday for 77 St. Louis-area residents, he will do so from experience as a naturalized citizen himself. But his earliest experiences here were far from the American dream.

He was one of 14,000 children whose parents sent them, unaccompanied, to the United States to flee Fidel Castro's regime in the early 1960s. Aguirre landed in a Catholic-run orphanage near New Orleans where he witnessed sexual abuse by his caretakers.

"I went to Hope Haven, which was an orphanage. It was a very, very bad place that offered no hope and, worse, no haven," Aguirre said in an interview last week in his office near Capitol Hill. "We were a group of 13 Cuban boys and so we banded together and we protected ourselves, but we saw other children - mainly American children - being abused by brothers and priests."

Aguirre said he and others reported the abuse to a Catholic social worker. The social worker's investigation confirmed that there had been abuse, Aguirre said. He said was moved from the orphanage, and so were the Salesian brothers, who ran the institution.

A spokesman for the archdiocese of New Orleans confirmed that the Salesian brothers order ran the orphanage at that time, but said they were no longer there.

Yet Aguirre, at 15, refused to let the experience turn him against his new country. Nor did academic failures frustrate him, as he struggled in high school and flunked out - twice - from Louisiana State University because of poor English skills. When LSU rejected his third attempt to enroll, he appealed to a college dean, who overruled the decision.

"I had to go to college and graduate, there as never any option," Aguirre said, who earned a degree in business administration, took an entry-level job at a Houston bank and eventually rose to the level of president of international private banking at Bank of America.

Aguirre met George H.W. Bush in 1977 when both worked at a Houston bank - and eventually became George and Barbara Bush's private banker. Aguirre met their son, George W. Bush, when the Texas governor appointed him to the University of Houston system Board of Regents.

At that time, in the mid-1990s, Aguirre traveled with University of Houston athletes when they played at LSU's Tiger Stadium.

"I walked out of the visitors' locker room into Tiger Stadium, and, all of a sudden, I just started crying," said Aguirre, who had lived in dormitories below the stadium's stands as a student. "That was the cheapest place you could live at LSU in those days. It came to me that I had traveled a lot in my life to get to this point, started at a very rocky beginning. And look how well it had turned out."

Aguirre, 57, exudes the same confidence now toward his new job, despite his initial misgivings when President Bush asked him to take it early last year.

The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services was one of three former divisions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service that moved to the new Homeland Security Department in March 2003. Members of Congress, fed up with problems that plagued the old INS, passed a law to split up the agency's enforcement and service duties.

In an agency whose very name seemed to favor the enforcement arms of immigration, the services bureau's task is more about letting people in: granting permanent residency, reuniting families and naturalizing immigrants. But it was plagued by backlogs and post-9/11 fears that it was too welcoming of some.

Aguirre, meanwhile, was a banker whose only experience with immigration services was his personal one, and that of his brother and parents, who followed him to the United States. At the time, he was serving as Bush's appointee to the Export-Import Bank, well-tailored to his decades of banking experience.

"My main concern was that I would embarrass the president in failing to do this job well," said Aguirre. He since changed his mind: "In retrospect, I'm perfect for this job. I have customer service experience and we are in the service side of the immigration. I have loan experience in risk management and certainly risk management is part of this job - we have to make sure that national security is closely guarded. I have management and leadership skills that are important in making a 15,000 (employee) team optimize their efforts. And, as an immigrant, I have a sensitivity that perhaps others might not readily have."

Yet he still struggles with problems that have long plagued the agency, particularly backlogs. Applicants can wait years to be approved for their citizenship or permanent residence applications. The bureau estimates 3.7 million such applications lag behind the six-month processing time that Bush vowed as a goal in his 2000 campaign.

In mid-June, Aguirre unveiled a plan to fix that. He will send special backlog teams in to immigration offices plagued with the largest numbers of significant delays. He's improving technology. And increasing the number of applications that can be filed online.

His target date to eliminate the backlog: the end of 2006.

Aguirre believes another major immigration vow of the president's will also have to wait for a second Bush administration: the president's temporary-worker plan that would legalize millions of undocumented workers. In an election year, it has received a cool reception in Congress.

"I do expect that if the president is re-elected, he will continue to carry this as one of his agenda ideas, and I do believe immigration reform for illegal immigrants will come," Aguirre said. "If the president is not re-elected, the question is, will a first-term president take immigration reform as a priority? I can't imagine any first-term president, Republican or Democrat, taking immigration as their first priority."

Yet, will Aguirre be part of that agenda if Bush is re-elected?

The man whose accent betrays far more of his Texas years than his Cuban roots speaks wistfully of his home in Houston. He keeps a saddle in his office "just to remind me where I came from and where I'm going to."

He'll only say: "Whatever the president wants me to do, that's what I'll do."

But for now, his task next week is clear. In special Independence Day week ceremonies across the nation, his agency will oversee events where 16,000 people will become U.S. citizens, and he will speak at several from El Paso, Texas, to St. Louis to Boston. His own naturalization ceremony took place in 1970 at a Houston courthouse, when Aguirre, almost 24, took the oath alongside his wife, Maria Teresa. She, too, had come to the United States as an unaccompanied minor from Cuba in what is known as Operation Pedro Pan.

He's still not quite sure what he'll say as he faces St. Louis' newest citizens at the Old Courthouse at 1 p.m. Friday. But he says he'll likely use words that emphasize the "responsibility of a new citizen to pull our own weight."

When Aguirre's parents, Eduardo and Altagracia, joined their sons in New Orleans, Catholic Charities asked them a favor. The agency asked the former fabric-importer and homemaker to become full-time foster parents to other Cuban children. They readily agreed. Then the Aguirres all moved into the house rented by Catholic Charities - and six children at a time moved in with them.

"My parents were doing this out of service," Aguirre said. "They did that for a number of years: six kids at a time, they ran through 36 of them over the years. In the end, because of the Cuban missile crisis, Cuban kids were not coming out of Cuba anymore, and so they ended up taking in a lot of American kids. They wanted to give something back."

Post-Dispatch Washington bureau reporter Karen Branch-Brioso covers immigration issues.
B Y K AREN B RANCH-BRIOSO
Reporter Karen Branch-Brioso
E-mail: kbranch@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 202-298-6880

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