Maria's story: All her dreams are hereby Mary Stucky, Marketplace
As many as 85,000 illegal immigrants make Minnesota their home, including many who have crossed the border into the U.S. from Mexico. This is the story of one of them. We'll call her Maria even though that's not her real name. Minnesota Public Radio News has agreed to protect her identity.
Maria, 20, came to Minnesota illegally five years ago. She lives with her family in the Twin Cities. She is watching closely as Congress debates whether to crack down on illegal immigrants, or give them opportunities to stay in this country.
St. Paul, Minn. — For Maria, home is the basement of a modest ranch-style house in a Twin Cities suburb.
"Home is pretty much where my family is. Because wherever they are, there is my home," says Maria.
And this family spends most of its free time at home. They enjoy being together, are tired from working, and don't feel like exploring a city they don't really understand.
They also stay home because they're afraid -- afraid of being stopped by the police, afraid their illegal status will be discovered.
LIVING A SECRET LIFE
On this day, Maria's father and brothers are just waking up. They're up late doing restaurant work. Dad and her oldest brother work at a fast food place, and Maria's other brother is a cook in a fancier restaurant.
He got that job after a big disappointment. He was offered the manager's job at the fast food restaurant, but the boss changed his mind after discovering that Maria's brother is not here legally.
The men put in 8-12 hour days, and between them bring home almost $4,000 a month. They're tired and hungry, and follow the smell of frying tacos into the kitchen.
The basement's unfinished laundry room serves as the kitchen, where Maria's mother is making homemade salsa, using the washing machine as a countertop for the blender.
There's just one bedroom -- that's for Maria's father and brothers. Maria and her mother sleep in the main room, which is also the living room. They rent this basement for $800 a month from the owners of the house, who live upstairs. The owners are an immigrant couple, but they're here legally.
The rent is no bargain for this place. Maria says they take what they can get -- some landlords won't rent to people they suspect of being here illegally.
After eating, they put lawn chairs around the TV to watch the wildly popular Mexican soap operas, called telenovelas.
But Maria doesn't spend much time watching TV. She's usually at her makeshift desk -- a card table piled with books -- studying, Her dark eyes are framed in glasses, a fashionable red tint in her long black hair.
DREAMS OF AN EDUCATION
Five years ago, Maria spoke no English. Now she studies history, politics and philosophy at a community college. Her grades -- straight A's.
"I love the way that they have education here," says Maria. "You could go into something in one field and move into something else, and keep working and studying."
Maria has big dreams. No one else in her family has more than an eighth grade education, but Maria wants to be a lawyer.
Not long ago, she arranged an informational interview with a Minneapolis lawyer. That lawyer, impressed with Maria, introduced her to me. Also impressed are Maria's teachers, - who have given her a summer reading list.
One of her favorites books, "Night," by Elie Wiesel, is an account of the author's time in a Nazi concentration camp. Maria says her struggles are nothing compared to Wiesel's, but she finds inspiration in his story, a story of resilience and survival against enormous odds.
Books are important to Maria, especially books recommended by teachers she admires.
"They inspire you," says Maria. "They make you think your dreams can come true."
Frankly, the odds are against graduating from college, given Maria's lack of money and the fact that she's here illegally. Still, to dream of an education in Mexico would have been entirely unrealistic. There, Maria's family barely had enough to eat.
A HARD LIFE IN MEXICO
They lived on the northern outskirts of Mexico City. Maria's father built their one-room house out of cement. It had no running water, no electricity, no toilet. Her father worked on road construction, which in Mexico means hard labor, carrying heavy loads in a blazing sun. This family of five lived on less than $5 a day. "We really love each other, but he couldn't stand any more to see how things were going," says Maria.
And so, one day, seven years ago, Maria came home from school to find her father packing.
"I wanted to say, 'Hey, don't do this. I want you to be at home. I want you to keep doing our same routine. I want to hear your music being played on the radio.'"
But her father left for the U.S.
Two long weeks passed by. Finally, he called to say he was safe in Nashville, Tennessee, working construction. He didn't tell them he was lonely, had trouble finding work, and that sometimes he broke down and cried.
On Sundays, Maria, her mother and two brothers went to the house of a friend who had a telephone to take a call from the United States.
"We were sitting on the couch. Everybody there waiting their turn to say hi to dad, and to tell him all the news around, and to say we were OK, and how as America," Maria recalls. "We were so curious about how was America. I especially want to know how the houses are and the weather. I want to know everything."
"But the time was very short," she says. "I remember that my mom got most of the time on the phone, but for us it was so precious this time, you know. These phone calls were everything that we had from our father."
For six months, Maria's father worked in Nashville. Then, on the advice of old friends from Mexico City who were living in the Twin Cities, he journeyed north, hoping to find steady work for more pay.
He arrived in St. Paul in August 1999, and found work at a factory and a fast food restaurant, making about $8 an hour -- more than twice what he made for an entire day's work in Mexico. He did little except work, three shifts, which left only a few hours for sleep.
"He says that the managers used to tell him, 'Do you want to die or what?' But he needed the money," says Maria.
In his first year in the United States, Maria's father managed to send home about $5,000.
THE U.S. IS A POWERFUL BEACON
Back in Mexico, Maria's brothers were eager to join their father. In February 2000, one year after Maria's father left Mexico City, her younger brother set off -- alone.
His plan was to walk into the United States across the desert with a paid Mexican guide, called a coyote. He was only 16 years old, but he made it.
"He was sick when he got in Minnesota. He had a really bad cold. Then he started to work in a fast food restaurant that was close to their house," says Maria.
The manager of the fast food restaurant asked to see a Social Security card, and what's called a green card, which the U.S. government issues to permanent residents allowing them to work.
Maria and her family have phony cards, purchased on the black market in Minnesota. They say it's easy to find someone who sells these documents -- documents which, so far, have satisfied their bosses. That could change if Congress decides to crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers.
Of course, taxes are taken out of their paychecks, and that's money they'll never see again. They don't have health insurance, so they've been lucky not to get sick or injured.
Despite the obstacles, a job in the United States is a powerful beacon. Maria's second brother made his journey across the border, arriving in St. Paul six years ago, on the 4th of July.
NO MORE SEPARATIONS
So then it was just Maria and her mother left in the house north of Mexico City. Men here, women there -- a pattern common in Mexico, It's an economic necessity perhaps, but an enormous strain on families.
"I remember that those days were really, really sad. Everything looked sad for us," says Maria.
And that's how it was for another five months, until Maria's father made the long, expensive journey back to Mexico. It had been two years since he left.
"So he got there, you know. We look at him. It's strange to see someone you haven't seen for a long time, and now look at him," says Maria.
They decided -- no more separations. They would join Maria's brothers in St. Paul. They sold what they could and closed up the house.
Mom, Dad and Maria got on a bus for Agua Prieta, Mexico, on the border with Douglas, Arizona, south of Phoenix. They hired a coyote guide and joined a group of Mexicans walking across the desert. But they had bad luck. Maria's mother turned her ankle. She had trouble walking, and fell further and further behind.
"She sat down and said, 'No, leave me here. Leave me here,' Maria recalls. "I told her, 'No, we're not going to leave you. We are going to stay together."
The guide and the other Mexicans went on ahead. Now Maria, her mother and father were alone in the desert, with no idea where they were or where they were going. And they were running out of water. Mexican migrants die this way.
"And then one of the Border Patrol caught us. These guys saved us, the Border Patrol. If we would have continued in the desert, I don't know what would have happened."
"LIKE HEAVEN OPENING"
Now they were back where they started, on the Mexican side. Walking through the desert was out. Their new plan was to pass through an official border crossing, using false identities. This was expensive. Buying the false papers cost about $3,000 each, says Maria.
Maria hates this system. She says the town of Agua Prieta felt rotten with "contrabando humano," human beings as smuggled goods.
"It was this feeling of fear, but also the whole town or city -- it's based on this 'buy and sell people.' The whole town is based on this. I don't like the place. I really didn't like it."
Maria's mother crossed first. She made it. One week later it was Maria's turn.
"My father had to wait one block away, and so I had to say goodbye to my father one block away. I was so nervous," Maria recalls. "When my turn came, I just walked casual and this woman didn't even notice me, and she said, 'Yeah, fine,' and she moved her hand and let me walk through the doors. It was like heaven opening."
Maria was taken to her mother in Phoenix, where her father eventually joined them. And then, with money borrowed from an uncle who lives in Los Angeles, they bought tickets for their first-ever airplane ride, arriving at Twin Cities International Airport in May 2001.
EDUCATION FOR ALL
Maria couldn't wait to start school, where she could learn about how things work in the United States, and she could study as much as she liked.
She attended the International Academy LEAP, a public school in St. Paul for new immigrants. The principal, Rose Santos, is Mexican American, and to Maria's delight speaks Spanish.
Santos says undocumented minors are allowed to attend public school -- no questions asked.
"It's not our responsibility to find out if they're here legally or illegally. No. Any students here in the U.S. are entitled to an education," says Santos. "It's the law that says students can enroll in any public school, and we are to accept them and we are not ask for their legal status."
"They are working, even if they are here illegally, and they're paying taxes," Santos says. "And that's being taken out of their check, and that money isn't being reimbursed to them. I think it's really important that every person in the United States get an education."
Maria got an education at the LEAP high school. She learned English, studied hard and graduated a year ago, earning high praise from her teachers.
One teacher helped Maria enroll in community college last fall. Maria hasn't declared a major, though she's leaning toward history or political science.
This summer, Maria is trying to get a job and having trouble -- her phony Social Security card isn't passing muster. If she doesn't get a job soon, she'll have trouble scraping together enough money to re-enroll in college this fall. She says her family will help if they can.
"Even if I have to just take one class per semester, I'm not going to leave college."
WE WANT A BETTER LIFE, THAT'S ALL
Maria is aware of the debate in this country over illegal immigration. She reads the newspaper and closely follows the various proposals in Congress.
One proposal would give people who entered the country illegally a way to apply for permanent residence status if they've been here for at least five years. Maria would qualify.
"If I can apply for that and become a resident, that would be great -- that would be everything," says Maria. "All of the opportunities would open, like school. I could go and take driving lessons, really driving lessons, and not being scared of the police."
Never far from their minds is the fear of getting caught. Maria says she dreads opening the newspaper to find hostility toward undocumented workers. She knows some Americans think they drain resources, depress wages and even steal jobs from American workers.
"I really understand their points. And their points could be right. I know that it's difficult, especially because we did something wrong on the beginning," says Maria. "But we're not different from them. And I think if they could have been in the same situation as us, they also would have done it. What would have happened if Mexico would have been the rich country across the border? We want to get a better life. That's all."
While Maria hopes to go to law school, her parents, who speak almost no English, would be completely satisfied with a simple life back in Mexico. They'd like to open a grocery store in their old neighborhood. But as long as their children are here in the United States, they say they'll stay here -- they've had enough separation.
As long as they can keep their jobs, Maria's brothers are likely to stay. They don't want to go back. As for Maria -- she'd go back to Mexico -- but only to visit. All of her dreams are here.
- All Things Considered, 07/21/2006, 5:35 p.m.