Secret status

Illegal immigrant dreams of becoming a true citizen

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

VALLEJO - Alicia is relentlessly haunted by numbers.

In her modest mobile home, where a $450 monthly rent includes two bedrooms, gas and water, the 31-year-old Filipino woman awakens to her worst nightmare every morning.

Alicia is undocumented.

She wants her own numbers, she says, nine of them on a blue and white card with her name typed across. But attaining her Social Security documentation will be difficult, as she knows.

"You don't wish this on your worst enemy," says Alicia (not her real name). "You can't buy a car or a house or things like that. This is not on a temporary status. It's permanent. Do you know how awful it is to tell your story?"

In December 2005, the House passed the Illegal Immigration Control Act, which focuses on making the unlawful presence of any one of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States a felony subject to deportation.

Alicia, who faithfully wears a charm of the Virgin Mother around her neck, goes to church everyday and prays to remain in this country. She prays hard for a change in the system.

But she still endures sleepless nights because ultimately, she could be deported at any given moment.

Unlike some immigrants who enter the United States illegally as adults, Alicia was brought to America by her parents 21 years ago. She came as a young child. And she had no choice.

Alicia attended school just like other Americans and shared their dreams and aspirations to make it big one day. She worked, paid taxes, passed her driving test and voted for President George Bush because it was the "church thing to do."

"How can people tell me I'm not American or I can't stay here?" Alicia asks rhetorically. "I went to grade school, middle school, high school and college in California. I'm not going around killing people or selling drugs, I'm not part of a prostitution ring and I'm not a gangster. I just want to work!"

Alicia believed she was legal until four years ago, when she discovered the truth while working for the City of Vallejo. The Social Security number Alicia had been using during her life in America belonged to her mother, not her.

Inside, she felt cheated. A thoughtful woman whose pulled-back hair emphasizes the pain in her eyes, Alicia's name might as well be synonymous with the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Desperation, sadness, anger, frustration and the desire to become an American swirl endlessly in her mind.

"I feel somewhat upset at my parents," she confesses. "It's as if they didn't do their part, they didn't' apply for me, didn't take care of my future. I feel like my life just stops here."

A souped-up car

Not all vehicles are made to move.

"I feel like a car with everything on it but I have no gas," Alicia says. "It's like my whole life, I put on the right tires, that's my education, my colors are good because I get along with everyone and my engine is good because I know my value system.

"But I can't go anywhere," she continues. "I feel left out, but I don't blame America for trying to get rid of people breaking the laws."

It wasn't long ago that Alicia took law-study classes in Moraga and acquired the necessary classes in Napa Valley to become a paralegal.

Since the news of her undocumented status, however, Alicia put aside her desires to become a lawyer and instead focused on employment that did not require papers, such as becoming a housekeeper, where she cleaned 15 houses during a 12-hour shift for an average of $55 a day.

"I'm cleaning their rooms and thinking this is such a shift of things," she quietly says. "I was working in Vallejo and the next thing you know I'm cleaning people's homes. I couldn't do this for long."

Today, Alicia baby-sits as a means for income and volunteers with an animal rescue center.

"I go online and see what jobs are paying for people with my education. Then I turn around and baby-sit Fridays and Saturdays at $25 a night for some entrepreneur and it hurts. It's a mental and spiritual warfare," she says.

Items that she purchases, such as clothes, food or small trinkets, are determined by the nights she works. The black watch on her wrist, she says quite fondly, is two nights worth of baby-sitting. Her sandals, on the other hand, were one.

Laureen Laglagaron, an attorney and equal justice fellow for the nonprofit organization Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, believes there might be 180,000 undocumented immigrants in the Bay Area alone, many of whom are Asian.

She is familiar with cases such as Alicia's and states there is a large number of people in the same situation.

"People like her had no choice, she was raised with other U.S. citizen kids and taught the same aspirations and worked well in school," says Laglagaron, who provides direct legal services for immigrants. "But then her immigration status got in the way."

Laglagaron said it can take 23.5 years for a U.S. citizen to petition for his brother or sister in the Philippines.

"I am often the bearer of bad news when it comes to wait times for family petitions," she says. "That is what's being ignored, people who are trying to migrate legally have a horrible wait time."

Laglagaron also mentioned that many undocumented citizens have opted to marry U.S. citizens as a way to garner legal status. But, Laglagaron insists, "marrying to obtain a green card or any other immigration benefit is illegal."

"We certainly don't help engage in marriage fraud," she says. "It's lying to obtain immigration status and it's the worst thing you can do to ruin credability before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and any legitimate chance you may have to obtain immigration benefits."

Alicia, knowing she has choices, opts to take the honest route.

"I'd rather go to the Philippines than marry someone for papers," Alicia says matter-of-factly. "But I see it everywhere. Some people get married for papers and that's like selling your soul. Marriage should be the real thing."

Tago ng Tago

There is a saying in the Filipino community when a person is hiding under the radar - Tago ng Tago. Alicia is one of them.

"The government will give you money for telling them information about me and then I'll be deported," she says, quickly adding, "Well, that's what I heard."

For many undocumented immigrants like Alicia, a clandestine persona is paramount to keeping safe in this country.

"Most people think they're hiding from immigration but sometimes they're hiding from the community," Laglagaron says. "If people know of your legal status they could threaten to deport you. It's certainly something community members could hold over you."

Likewise, if an employer hires that person and knows they are undocumented, they might force the employee to work longer and harder hours.

"They know it's something that could jeopardize your stay in the States," Laglagaron says.

For Alicia, living in fear has become a daily routine. Although her sister, an American citizen, petitioned Alicia five years ago, she knows her status remains undocumented.

"When you're driving and there is a cop behind you, you pray to your favorite saint that the cop doesn't pull you over," admits Alicia, who drives with an expired driver's license. "If you show your license, he'll ask where is the new one. I don't have one."

Do I look illegal?

Alicia, a woman who looks younger than her 31 years, laughs at the thought of what an illegal person resembles.

"Yeah, don't I look illegal?" she asks, dressed in Khakis and a black T-shirt. With her eyes then focused and narrowed she says, "What does an illegal person look like?

"People think if you don't speak English you're illegal. They also look at the way you're dressed!" she continues. "But the reality is that it's all about numbers, a stupid number. Can you imagine? I know every trick in the book to get a number illegally but I refuse to do it."

Alicia can't recall the last time she went to the doctor or the dentist, instead saying she polices her health diligently.

For Alicia, it's the daily hurdles she must endure that cause her deep aches.

"What hurts the most is when I walk around and see people who don't work, people who were born here and carry their number in their pocket and they don't work," she admits. "And here I am begging for someone to sponsor me."

Ultimately, Alicia doesn't blame her parents completely. They did what was needed to protect her from being deported.

"But now, I sit here and I think, 'What am I supposed to do?' I can't work, I can't get my license, I can't vote, I can't do anything," she says. "I just want to have that American dream."