Bellagio long way from home for now-legal resident

Cesar Perez was only 14 when he "snuck" across the border from Tepic, Mexico, in 1985, openly riding in the car of friends who already lived in California, and relying on the fiction that he was just visiting. Perez says he did it because he wanted American-style freedom and prosperity.

In the years since, Perez has prospered enough to support a family of seven children, all born in this country, all bilingual except for a 2-month-old infant daughter.

And now, he is also securing a bit more of the American dream for himself: citizenship. He filed his application in April, taking advantage of a naturalization workshop offered through his employer, the Bellagio. He explains why: "I want to be more productive. It's a privilege to vote."

Only residents with legal status, who have a "green card," can apply for citizenship. It took Perez about 10 years to achieve that status, called legal permanent residency.

He started out as an illegal immigrant in Calexico, a California border town, doing odd jobs for several years for the family friends that took him in. Then at about age 17, he started working in local agriculture. One employer helped him get a work permit.

From farm work, the permit enabled him to move into jobs at small factories in the Los Angeles area, which produced products including paint, doors and airplane interiors.

In 1988, he became a legal resident. In 1993, he married his U.S.-born wife, who is bilingual. But the high cost of Los Angeles living pushed the Perez family to Nevada in 1996, when both husband and wife found jobs at the Monte Carlo, which was just opening. Cesar moved to the Bellagio when it opened in 1998. He works in hotel housekeeping.

"It's a privilege to be a citizen, to embrace this country. I was born in Mexico, but everything that I have right now, I received in the USA," Perez says. Once naturalized, he intends to use his citizenship to sponsor relatives for legal immigration to this country. But Congress considered reform to reduce the importance of family ties when foreigners apply to immigrate here.