Undocumented dreamers find doors opening in Minnesota

Published 10:23 am Monday, April 1, 2013

By Allie Shah

Minneapolis Star Tribune

ST. PAUL — Irma Marquez Trapero took the wheel of her girlfriend’s sedan, weaving through traffic on her way to work in Minneapolis one recent morning.

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“So far, so good,” she said, her eyes on the downtown skyline ahead. Moments later, she hopped out of the car and strode into the law firm office where she works as a legal assistant.

Driving and working are among the many firsts for Marquez Trapero, 22, and hundreds of other young undocumented immigrants in Minnesota who are embracing new freedoms since federal officials approved their requests to stay and work legally in the country for at least two years.

First announced last summer by President Barack Obama, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was denounced by some lawmakers as “backdoor amnesty” and cheered by others who argued that young people brought here as children should not be forced to leave.

For Marquez Trapero and others recently approved for deferred action, the opportunity to walk through newly opened doors comes at a time of shifting attitudes in Minnesota and nationally toward the 11 million illegal immigrants already here. Two recent major polls show that most Americans are willing to find some way for illegal immigrants to stay, with some conditions.

A deal reached over the weekend between business and labor groups over a program for new low-skilled workers raises the likelihood that a bill will be introduced very soon in Congress to allow illegal immigrants already here to eventually become citizens.

At the State Capitol, a push is underway for the Minnesota Prosperity Act, a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants who have grown up here and attended Minnesota schools to pay resident tuition rates at the state’s universities and colleges. The bill has passed a Senate committee and a House hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

Nine digits

Born in Mexico, Marquez Trapero came to live in St. James, Minn., when she was 9 years old. Her parents had crossed the border with their children, but without proper immigration papers.

She thought she was like other kids for a while. Then, when she was about 10, she rushed home with an application for her very own library card. She began carefully filling it out. When she came to the space asking for her nine-digit Social Security number, she paused. Puzzled, she showed it to her mother, who told her that she did not have one.

Though she did not fully grasp what it meant to be “undocumented,” Marquez Trapero knew it was something she must hide. From that moment on, even a routine trip to the grocery store filled her with fear that immigration agents might catch her or her brother or her parents.

She hid her uneasy truth from all but her closest friends. When her peers at St. James High were getting their driver’s licenses, they asked her why she didn’t drive. She told them she had gotten into trouble for driving without a license and now the authorities wouldn’t let her drive until she was 18. When she got closer to 18, she said she had to wait until she was 21.

After graduating with honors, Marquez Trapero went to Gustavus Adolphus College. She was intent on studying nursing and was accepted into the program in her sophomore year. But again, those missing nine digits interfered. The school needed her Social Security number to perform a routine background check. Seeing no way around it, Trapero dropped out of the program.

Some of the nursing professors asked her why. Was it for financial reasons? they asked. “I just can’t do it,” Marquez Trapero recalls telling them.

Her big break

She changed her major to political science and graduated last May.

Her big break came in June. President Obama announced that immigrants under the age of 31 who had clean criminal records and met other criteria could apply for permission to live and work here legally for at least two years.

Marquez Trapero and her 19-year-old brother applied as soon as the application season opened. Within a few months, the mail brought acceptance letters for both. Then came the entry keys they hadn’t dared hope for — a work permit and Social Security card. Before, her only government-issued ID card came from the Mexican Consulate in St. Paul.

Today, Marquez Trapero’s fears of being found out are gone.

“For me, it’s definitely not having to worry about who I can tell my secret to, who I can openly speak to about this,” she said. “I feel more happy and I feel more light.”

Now in her first job, she takes pride in seeing her nameplate affixed to her cubicle wall. When she first started, she asked to see her paycheck instead of having it deposited directly into her bank account. “I wanted to see it, feel it and take it to the bank, to cash my first check,” she said.

She’s applying for a credit card — another first — and is the proud owner of a learner’s permit, which looks like a driver’s license, except for the “status check 11-18-2014” label.

It’s been years since lawmakers focused so much attention on fixing the nation’s immigration system.

“The political winds are blowing in very different directions in 2013 than they were blowing in 2011,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, which along with the Brookings Institution, recently conducted a major survey of American public opinion on immigration policy issues.

Diversity of opinions

While immigration changes are in the works at both the state and national level, public opinion polls show Americans remain conflicted on the subject. Among the findings of the PRRI/Brookings survey of nearly 4,500 American adults, 61 percent favored the idea of granting legal status to illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, while 34 percent opposed the idea. But the poll also revealed that Americans rank immigration reform only sixth out of seven issues as the highest priority for Congress and the president.

On Thursday, the Pew Research Center released new poll results showing that Americans across all demographic and political groups say there should be a way for undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements to stay in the country legally. But there are mixed views on whether they should be eligible for citizenship.

In a recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, 64 percent of respondents said the government should create a path to citizenship for those already here, but should also beef up border enforcement to stop illegal immigration.

Hope renewed

For Thalia Estrada, an official work permit has allowed her to seek jobs in the open for the first time.

The 17-year-old senior at Central High School in St. Paul plans to earn money for college and also for prom.

On a frigid afternoon recently, she crisscrossed Grand Avenue in St. Paul, going from store to store to ask about part-time jobs. She picked up a few applications and handed them to her mother, who trailed behind her daughter’s purposeful walk.

“It’s kind of hard because usually employers don’t really look at your grades,” explained Estrada. “It’s more your experience, and since I don’t have much experience it’s hard to get a job.”

Originally from Peru, Estrada was brought to the United States when she was a small child. Watching her daughter struggle to land a job makes Estrada’s mother’s heart ache. “Sometimes I’m feeling so guilty because I think maybe it wasn’t a good decision to be here,” she said. “But at the same time, I feel it is better here. There are better jobs, better schools, better opportunities for them.”

Moments later, Estrada emerged from the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop, a triumphant smile on her face and yet another application in hand. “Mom!” she cried. “They’re hiring!”