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January 19th, 2011 BETH SLOVIC | Cover Story
 

Hiding In America

For a child of illegal immigrants, life remains in the shadows.

Hiding In AmericaIMAGE: Darryl James
     
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Editor’s note: Cecilia Gomez is not the subject’s real name. No other detail about her life has been altered, although some identifying information, like her native country, has been left out.

In some ways, Cecilia Gomez lives the American dream.

In her early 20s, she’s risen to the ranks of manager at her job. She has the material trappings of a middle-class life: a car, a house, a cell phone with a sassy animal-print case and a wardrobe that looks like it jumped off the pages of an H&M catalog. Every few weeks, Gomez, who has long, black hair she wears straight and loose down her back, treats herself to a manicure. “The diva in me,” she jokes. For Christmas, miniature holiday decorations in lacquered red and white polish dotted her nails.

At home in Southeast Portland, markers of her success hang on the walls: an elementary-school academic award with Bill Clinton’s reproduced signature, a high-school diploma from Franklin High School, and a certificate from a Portland Community College technical-training program.

But Gomez knows her dream could turn nightmarish in an instant. “All it takes is one call,” Gomez says.

Like 4 percent of the population of Oregon, Gomez is one of 150,000 people in the state who are undocumented immigrants. Call them illegal aliens. Call them lawbreakers. Gomez calls herself an American.

More than a decade ago, when she was 9, Gomez traveled with her family to the U.S. on a temporary tourist visa to see Gomez’s grandmother in California and visit Disneyland. But when they arrived in Portland about a week later to visit an uncle, Gomez’s parents announced they weren’t going back home. They’d planned to stay all along. It wasn’t until much later that Gomez realized the significance of her parents’ decision—that their choice to pursue better opportunities for their family had made her, in essence, an outlaw. “I realized it toward the end of middle school,” she says. “Up until then I wasn’t conscious of the situation; maybe because I didn’t understand the issue.”

By ninth grade, though, news coverage of beefed-up border security, immigration raids and deadlocked political debate started to draw her attention. “That’s when you started to realize you have all these limitations, even though you feel like everyone else,” she says.

As a young person in Oregon, Gomez wants many of the same things as her peers. She wants a good job, a nice boyfriend and more time to hang out with friends. She has aspirations of becoming a professional writer.

As an undocumented immigrant, Gomez also worries about something most of her American-born friends can’t fathom: being deported and returned to a country that is no longer home to most of her family. It’s a fear that became reality last year for 400,000 people in the U.S., including 10,000 people in the Northwest.

For Gomez, deportation may never come to pass. But that only makes her more uncomfortable. “It’s kind of uncertain for me,” she says. “It could go either way. It could change tomorrow. Or it could be another 10 years, and I could be here doing the same thing.”

To understand Gomez’s anxiety is to enter her world, one that is full of inconsistencies, limitations and, conversely, enough loopholes for Gomez to persist.

Gomez says she finds it hard to believe the U.S. government doesn’t actually want her to stay here. “There’s always these little windows that they leave for you,” she says.

One of those windows closed in December, when the U.S. Senate blocked passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. The DREAM Act, which Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley (both D-Ore.) supported, would have carved out a new path to citizenship for about 1.1 million undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children before the age of 16. “We were very gratified that it didn’t pass,” says Jim Ludwick of the anti-illegal-immigrant group Oregonians for Immigration Reform.

Says Melissa Sarabia, a Portland State University student and advocate for the DREAM Act: “People are definitely not discouraged.”

The focus will now turn to state capitals, where many are working to tighten the laws. In Salem this year, a number of new bills seek to make Oregon more like Arizona, which last April gave local law enforcement officials more power to enforce federal immigration rules. On Jan. 11, Rep. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer) introduced a similar measure in Salem, House Bill 2802. (See page 21.)

“We don’t want Oregon to become like Arizona, a place of bigotry and hate,” says Francisco Lopez, director of CAUSA, an immigrants’ rights coalition in Oregon.

Gomez is prepared for that possibility. “It could very well happen that people could be OK with it, just like in Arizona,” she says. But she’s not prepared to leave Portland. “If you’re more than a good citizen, why shouldn’t you be allowed to stay?”

*

While an estimated 150,000 illegal immigrants live in this state, Gomez is part of a smaller cohort. She is one of an estimated 40,000 young people in Oregon who came to the United States illegally as children, according to estimates from CAUSA. In essence, they had no choice in the matter.

These children attend Oregon public schools, learn English and, in some cases, forget their native homes. “They are Americans as far as you and I can see,” says Brent Renison, an immigration lawyer in Portland. “They just don’t have a paper to show it.”

Gomez’s transition from a teeming Latin American metropolis to a rainy city in the Pacific Northwest was easy at first. Her family moved in with a relative in Portland. She enrolled in a nearby public elementary school, which requires no proof of citizenship. (A 1982 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court protects the rights of undocumented children to attend public schools until the 12th grade.) And she worked feverishly to blend in. “That was our No. 1 goal,” Gomez says. “You have to fit in.”

It helped that television in Latin America is so Americanized. Nickelodeon programs, for example, streamed across the television screen in Gomez’s native country, dubbed in Spanish. “It was kind of easy for me to come here and adapt,” Gomez says. “It was just learning the language. A lot of the culture I had already been familiar with.”

Her homeroom teacher in Portland, a fan of Harry Potter, would read to her students for 30 minutes a day. “I remember sitting there watching her mouth carefully, seeing how she pronounced everything and telling myself, ‘I have to learn to say those words,’” Gomez says. “I had no idea what she was saying. It was 30 minutes that I was blank, but I would hear sounds and mimic them.”

About a year after her family moved to Portland, a relative who is a citizen helped them buy a modest house.

At Franklin High, Gomez was an active and social student. She played varsity sports and participated in school plays. The school was a safe haven, the only place outside her parents’ house where Gomez felt comfortable divulging her secret to adults. As a result, a few teachers at Franklin were aware of Gomez’s predicament, which was common at the school. And they encouraged her to excel academically.

“We took it really personally,” says Osvaldo Garcia-Contreras, a former math teacher at Franklin. “All these kids who worked so hard, they tasted the freedom.”

(Another recent student at Franklin was the subject of a cover story for this newspaper [see “Illegal Scholar,” WW, Nov. 15, 2006]. That young man, also an undocumented student, wanted to go to Reed College, which welcomed his application despite his immigration status.)

Once high school ended, Gomez entered a world where it mattered far more that she didn’t have a valid Social Security number, the key piece of documentation for proving that you are an American and for getting a job and enrolling in college.

That meant Gomez had two choices. She could get a fake number or go without one. Gomez chose the former option (getting a fake Social Security card is remarkably easy), but she’s exceedingly careful about when she uses it.

Representatives of Oregon’s largest public universities are careful to say they comply with the rules of the Oregon University System, which does allow undocumented students to enroll in Oregon colleges. (There’s no federal law barring that.) However, those students must pay the tuition charged to international students, which is typically about three times the tuition that in-state students pay.

“If we know the student is undocumented,” says David McDonald, associate provost at Western Oregon University, “they’re charged at that higher level.”


Portland State University President Wim Wiewel and elected leaders at a September press conference about the DREAM Act.

In practice, Portland State University appears to have looser requirements when it comes to establishing residency. However, a university spokesman denies this, writing in an email that PSU “would not intentionally allow undocumented students, or any other non-resident student, the in-state tuition benefit if they would not meet the residency test.” PSU President Wim Wiewel is nonetheless an outspoken advocate for the DREAM Act, which would give states the power to charge undocumented students in-state tuition. “PSU is here to serve these students,” he said at a September press conference. “We want these students, and we want them to be able to get in at a price they can afford.”

But even the in-state tuition of $7,000 a year at PSU was prohibitive to Gomez because, without a valid Social Security number, she can’t apply for federal student loans. Instead, she enrolled at the less-expensive Portland Community College, which also enrolls undocumented students. The community college does not require a Social Security number unless a students seeks financial aid.

All the while, Gomez has worked, in part to pay for classes but also to support her parents as well. This spring, when members of another class of students from Franklin graduate from college with bachelor’s degrees, she’ll still have too few credits to qualify as a college sophomore.

To get a job at a fast-food restaurant, Gomez used her fake Social Security number. Her employer either didn’t double-check her number or didn’t care that it wasn’t a match to her name. Giving it to the restaurant was a risk, but it was one she felt worth taking.

She now works for two franchises of the same chain, clocking 70 hours a week. That doesn’t entitle her to overtime pay, since she technically has two employers.

“She never has time for school,” her best friend says. “She never has time for friends. She sleeps for six hours a day at the most, and that’s split up into two three-hour blocks.”

Gomez does pay taxes. But she doesn’t use her Social Security number on her forms, because she believes that the IRS and the Oregon Department of Revenue (unlike her employer) would check and determine that it was phony. Instead, she fills out her taxes using an individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN. The irony is that only taxpayers who don’t have Social Security numbers would use an ITIN. “If they were to investigate,” says Gomez, “they would be able to find out.”

Yet no authorities have ever followed up; a spokesman for the IRS in Seattle says his agency does not police immigration law.

“The mandate of the IRS is to enforce the tax law of the United States,” says Richard Panick, a spokesman for the IRS. And in the meantime, Gomez believes her verifiable record of having paid taxes year after year with an ITIN could actually help her should immigration officials consider her for citizenship.

“Me and my family try to live as best we can, do everything the right way as much as we can,” she says.

*

Gomez also takes care how and when to share her secret with friends. For example, her best friend, Kiera, had no idea Gomez was undocumented until years after their friendship developed. Gomez would try to broach the topic of illegal immigration to gauge her friend’s response to the controversy. “I didn’t know how she’d take it, so I’d bring up the subject every now and then and say, ‘What do you think about that?’” Gomez says.

Then one day it became impossible for Gomez to maintain the lie.

It was spring 2008, before the Democratic primary. Kiera wanted to know whether Gomez planned to vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. But when Gomez told Kiera she couldn’t vote, Kiera got upset. “Why?” she demanded to know from Gomez, “It’s so important to vote!”

When Gomez finally revealed the reason, she said she felt relieved.

Since 2008, Oregon has required a Social Security number to get a driver’s license. But Washington remains one of three states in the country that still doesn’t require proof of legal status to get an ID card. Rather than risk detection by using fake documentation to try to get a license in Oregon, Gomez used an uncle’s address in Washington to get a license there.

Gomez drives as little as possible and with extreme care, because she doesn’t want to be stopped. She has her fake address in Washington memorized just in case an officer quizzes her. But she fears getting pulled over and being asked questions she can’t answer truthfully, such as, “Why are your plates from Oregon and your license from Washington?”

If living clandestinely in this country involves a certain amount of deception, it also involves a great deal of avoidance. Gomez lives at home because she worries about submitting an application to a landlord who may want her Social Security number. “The safest place for me is with my parents,” she says. “If we fall, we fall together.”

She doesn’t fly because she doesn’t like passing through security checkpoints. If she were caught, she could be detained by immigration officials.

Dating is problematic because she wouldn’t want to fall in love with someone who has his own immigration problems. “It would be hard to think about a future,” she says. If the young man were a U.S. citizen, she wouldn’t want him to think her love stemmed from a need for a green card; immigrants who marry citizens jump to the front of the immigration line. “If I get married,” she says, “it’s going to be for love and not anything else.”

The anxieties and inconveniences that Gomez endures raise a question: Wouldn’t it just be easier to be back home? Gomez says Portland is home. “There are a lot of people who’ve done this for years and years,” she says. “They’ve built a family. Their children grow up.”

But if her life in Portland suddenly ended, knowing English alone would help her succeed elsewhere in the world, she says. “This is better than the life I would have had back home if I would have never left,” she says. “Much better.”

She still pins her hope on legislation like the DREAM Act, which would give immigrant students access to some federal loans as well as legal status after two years of college or military service.

Passage would transform Gomez.

“My life will start when that happens,” Gomez says.


WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS: Without federal immigration reform, education effectively ends at high school for most undocumented immigrants like Gomez, pictured here walking in front of Franklin High. IMAGE: Darryl James

Obama’s Two Sided Policy

Under President George W. Bush, federal immigration officials deported 180,000 illegal immigrants in 2005. Of those, 4,369, or about 2.5 percent, came from the Pacific Northwest. In 2010, under President Barack Obama, the nationwide total of deportations more than doubled, increasing to 392,862—an all-time high. In the Pacific Northwest, nearly 10,000 illegal immigrants were removed from the country.

Advocates for undocumented immigrants believe the increase in deportations was an attempt to gain support for the DREAM Act by showing hard-liners that the administration would enforce existing federal immigration laws before asking for compromise on legislation like the DREAM Act. A Dec. 19 story from The Washington Post quoted an anonymous administration official supporting that theory.

“One of the arguments that gets trotted out regularly is that the government can’t do its job,” the official told the paper. “We believe the government can do its job, and our work hopefully is evidence.”

But there’s a flip side.

“Obama is publicly advocating for the DREAM Act while his administration is fighting tooth and nail to deport young people who would be eligible for the DREAM Act,” says Dave Bennion, an immigration lawyer in Philadelphia who blogs at Citizen Orange.

Law Amid Disorder

In the first week of the 2011 Legislative session earlier this month, Rep. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer) introduced the following five resolutions, all related to illegal immigration.

House Bill 2802 comes closest to Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070. It would prohibit restrictions on a “public body’s ability to enforce immigration law” and require police officers to make a “reasonable attempt” to determine a person’s immigration status if that person is stopped or arrested for a crime. It also would create the new crimes of “failure to carry an alien registration document,” “smuggling” for transporting illegal immigrants and “encouraging unlawful immigration” for harboring undocumented immigrants.

House Bill 2803 would require counties in Oregon to verify the immigration status of persons incarcerated in county correctional facilities.

House Bill 2804 would require proof of citizenship when a person registers to vote for the first time.

House Bill 2805 would block state agencies from providing services to illegal immigrants but exempts a number of benefits like emergency healthcare services, K-12 education and prenatal care, among others.

House Bill 2806 would force employers to use E-Verify to check the Social Security numbers of workers or risk losing state tax benefits. E-Verify is a federal program that allows employers to check workers’ employment eligibility.

Rep. Tina Kotek and Sen. Chip Shields (both D-Portland) are considering legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to again have Oregon driver’s licenses. The bill has not yet been introduced.

Rep. Michael Dembrow and Sen. Chip Shields (both D-Portland) may also introduce a state bill similar to the federal Dream Act. Referred to as “tuition equity,” it would allow Oregon universities to charge undocumented students who graduate high school in Oregon in-state tuition rates.

 
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