Maria’s passion for architecture and work as a graduate student fall prey to one consideration: She is an undocumented student. Every life decision is hinged on how she can keep her status a secret.
This might have been more difficult in Arizona, where negative sentiment toward undocumented immigrants reached a fevered pitch and spurred SB 1070. The law would have required officers to check on citizenship status whenever they suspected someone might be in the country illegally. But on July 28, the day before the law was scheduled to go into effect, Federal Judge Susan Bolton blocked this and other controversial portions of SB 1070.
But even though the federal judge struck down the most contested provisions of the law, Maria (whose name has been changed in this article to protect her identity) still has reason to feel uneasy about her future. It is difficult for her to find work, as she is never sure who will hire her without a Social Security number. Yet she has been allowed to attend college through grad school on a career-oriented track. By all appearances, it’d be difficult to guess she’s an undocumented immigrant—or that she’s even an immigrant, period—but she has spent her life in limbo.
Maria moved to the United States from Chihuahua, Mexico, when she was 7-years-old. She has attended school in the United States ever since. Though her father was deported once (and managed to return), Maria did not grasp the personal consequences of her immigration status until she started to apply for jobs. "Before, it was just something my parents had to deal with," she says. Her first brush with disappointment came right after high school, when she applied for a summer position at a financial company. Her would-be employer needed to perform a routine credit check but could not do so without a Social Security number.
"I came home crying and my dad started laughing when he heard what happened," she recalls, laughing herself. "He said, 'You better get used to it.' ”
Since then, 25-year-old Maria has built up a thicker skin, but she is not immune to feeling a sense of injustice. She says she probably won't be able to work as an architect in the United States. That is, unless the Dream Act, a piece of legislation that will allow her to remain here legally, becomes law before she graduates from UNM's School of Architecture and Planning in May 2012. (Find out where New Mexico’s congressman stand on the Dream Act here.)
The act, which has bipartisan sponsorship, would grant conditional residency status to undocumented citizens who crossed the border illegally at a young age and remained in the United States. To qualify for this status under the law, residents would have to have arrived before they were 16, lived in the United States for at least five years, and received a high school diploma or a G.E.D. certificate, and they must be under 35 when the bill is passed. Opponents have argued that it will further encourage illegal immigration. A leaked memo from the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services revealed the Obama administration was considering ways to dodge Congress and grant legal status to undocumented students. But in an Aug. 8 New York Times article, the White House said it will push a bill through Congress after all.
Maria fits the qualifications for conditional residency under the Dream Act. If it passes before she graduates, it will make a job search possible for her in the United States, since she would no longer be undocumented.
A conditional resident would be granted permanent legal residency status if the immigrant has demonstrated "good moral character" through a clean background check, and has graduated from a two-year college or served two years in the military.
When Maria applied to CNM, her first college, she listed her Individual Taxpayer Identification Number on her application rather than a Social Security number. But as the end of her two-year associate's program loomed, she was faced with the same dilemma: Even with the degree, she wouldn't be able to find work. At her boyfriend's suggestion, she decided to apply to UNM.
In 2005, a bill passed in New Mexico that allowed undocumented immigrants to enroll in New Mexico colleges as state residents. This qualified them to receive the Lottery Success Scholarship. Unfortunately for Maria, she graduated from high school in 2003. When she transferred to UNM, she was no longer eligible for that money since she did not come directly from high school. "I've been struggling hard doing monthly [tuition] payments every month so I can go to school, but it's worth it because what else am I going to do?"
“Obama met with me and the heads of about 15 Latino and other groups, and he said he was our ally and friend. He said he was a man of his word, and he would push for reform.”
Rosa Rosales, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens
She scoured the Internet for private scholarships that did not require a Social Security number. Though she did find a few, most of them were through private corporations rather than Hispanic organizations. “The way they advertise Hispanic scholarships, it’s really for Hispanics who have Social Security numbers," she says.
Maria's parents have been more than happy to help her out. After all, poor education and lack of job opportunities were the reasons they left Mexico. Maria’s mother, who received a college degree in Chihuahua, worked as an executive assistant to an attorney in Mexico. Her father worked as a technician. In the United States, her mother cleans houses for a living and her father operates his own construction business, which Maria helps out with when she can. She writes invoices, does taxes and manual labor when her father needs an extra person. “It’s ideal because I’m in the architecture field, and it’s important to know how things come together.”
Her mother is still paid more than she was in Mexico, according to Maria. “Then, people in Mexico made about $70 per week." When they left Mexico, the exchange rate was about 12.5 pesos for one U.S. dollar.
While the terms “undocumented” and “illegal” call forth images of people stuffed in car trunks or hopping fences, her own parents’ entrance into the United States was relatively calm, Maria says. The family, including her older sister and younger brother, entered legally with a travel visa. They settled in Barstow, Calif., where Maria continued second grade. When she said goodbye to her friends in Mexico, her parents didn’t tell her it would be for good. “You come to the U.S., and all of a sudden you realize you didn’t come to visit.”
Compared to Albuquerque, Maria says Barstow was a difficult place to live. "There was a lot of racism. They [employers] would take advantage of undocumented people. When my dad worked, sometimes he wouldn't get paid or his employer would call immigration on him."
The family lived there for four more years, until she was 12. Her parents heard from a relative that there were more job opportunities in New Mexico, so that’s where they went. Maria says they found steady work in Albuquerque, but she still does not take anything for granted. One time her father was injured on the job and hospitalized. He didn’t have the money for the hospital fee, but he promised to pay it back in installments. It took him two years. “Through all the years we’ve been here, not once have we been on food stamps, not once have we been on welfare,” Maria says. “I would love to have a Social Security number and continue to pay taxes.”
Her parents requested an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number—assigned through the IRS—as soon as they started working in the United States. While they do not receive the promise of Social Security benefits, they have paid taxes for 17 years. Maria says her parents feel they need to contribute to the economy and that they hoped one day a law would pass granting them citizenship.
Maria must complete three years of an internship to become a licensed architect. She risks deportation every time she applies. She does not tell potential employers about her status until she is sure she is a strong candidate for the position. Being honest about it has not paid off. The most recent sting came earlier this year from an architecture firm in Albuquerque. She knew the company was about to hire her. “My interview was long; it was only supposed to be 20 minutes but it was an hour long.” The interviewers appeared excited about her, she says, but when she mentioned her status, they backed away. "They called and said, We’re sorry, we can’t help you. You were our No. 1 candidate, but we can’t hire you.”
While she was frustrated by the rejection, she was glad the company “was cool about the whole thing” and did not contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Maria says she hears about people who are deported all the time. She has also experienced it firsthand—her best friend was deported in 2008, and her father was deported when the family was living in Barstow. “He was working in Las Vegas, and when immigration comes, people just run like little ants,” Maria says. Because he was working at a construction site and his schedule took him away from home for two weeks at a time, “We didn’t even know he got deported,” she says.
An earlier version of the Dream Act was drafted in 2001 and has been proposed in every Congress since. In his speech on July 1, President Obama described the immigration system as “broken” and vowed to fix it. He stated that providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants was a top priority. Maria is feeling the pressure of a ticking clock, as she knows she will have to face the job market in two years.
“When I graduate with my master's, if things don’t get better, I’m going to be forced to go back to Mexico, and maybe I’ll try to go legally to Australia or something,” Maria says.
The League of United Latin American Citizens held its national conference in Albuquerque July 12 through 17. The schedule included panels on issues facing Latinos, such as SB 1070 and the Dream Act.
Rosa Rosales, the national president of the organization, is certain the act will pass while Obama is in office. “Obama met with me and the heads of about 15 Latino and other groups, and he said he was our ally and friend,” she said in an interview with the Alibi. “He said he was a man of his word, and he would push for reform.”
Given the political climate that propelled SB 1070, others are not so optimistic about the Dream Act. “It’s not going to pass,” said Gilbert Sierra, the Iowa state director, at the conference. “I thought as soon as Obama passed health care, immigration laws would breeze right through. But there’s just too much hate out there.”
Maria says that since the passage of SB 1070, the news coverage has become more negative, which feeds into stereotypes about undocumented immigrants. She says this makes her future seem even more precarious. "It's scary to know Arizona was the way New Mexico is right now. They gave (undocumented) people driver's licenses, they let people go to college, and then they just got rid of it all. What makes us think this isn't going to happen here in New Mexico?" But Maria says she is willing to endure the uncertainty, the discouraging job search and even the prejudice for a chance at a more prosperous life.
“It’s worth it to have the jobs that nobody wants," she said, speaking about her family. "For us it’s like a deal because we’re going to be able to help our families back in Mexico, save a little money and have the things we were never going to be able to have out there. It makes perfect sense for us," she says. "We love this country. If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t be here.”