Young immigrant's journey leads to permission to stay

Irma Marquez
Irma Marquez came to the United States as a child with her family and has been living here illegally. She just graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College and has received deferred action status, a federal program that allows some people to avoid deportation for two years. She was photographed at MPR studios Monday, Dec. 10 2012 in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

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The rustling thud of mail hitting the mailbox sends Irma Marquez on a beeline for the door of her mom's home in this southern Minnesota city.

Listening for that particular sound has become a habit, ever since Marquez applied for "deferred action," a new federal program that allows some immigrants who came to the United States as kids to avoid deportation for two years and gain permission to work.

The mail has brought a long stream of requests and updates and confirmations, and in late November, she received a work authorization card, evidence that her application had been approved. She had long imagined how that moment would go, that it would be full of tears and high emotion. "And it was more like, I saw it and I thought, wow. I still questioned whether it was real or not. I would look at it front and back."

Happy, she nonetheless wanted to hear more.

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When Marquez applied for deferred action last summer, just two days after the program began accepting applications, she mailed in a thick stack of documents. She provided proof that she had no criminal record and had been in the U.S. since arriving at age nine in 1999. She even included newspaper clippings she thought might help, such as a story recounting the day she was crowned St. James' homecoming queen.

"When you are undocumented, you have to find an alternative story for yourself."

Officially declaring herself in the country illegally took a leap of faith, since she was, in effect, giving the government the very information it would need to deport her. But Marquez was anxious to gain even short-term legal status, anxious to finally get a driver's license and a paying job where she could use the political science degree she earned last spring from Gustavus Adolphus College.

"As an undocumented person you have many barriers in terms of what you can do and can't do," Marquez said. When the deferred action program came along, "For the first time in years I had hope. I would feel more included in the term 'American' because there would be a legal way for me to contribute to a society that I've always felt a part of."

"She could be on a national plane with her skills and ability. Her status has held her back. But that no longer will be the case. She will fly and do amazing things."

Nationally, more than 300,000 people had filed for deferred action as of Nov. 15, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and about 53,000 applications had been approved. Most were from California and Texas, far fewer from Minnesota.

The state demographer's office estimates the program could affect as many as 5,400 people here. The total undocumented Latino population in Minnesota is estimated at between 60,000 and 100,000 people, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

"Every day we are getting a tremendous number of receipts and fingerprint notices for all the cases moving through the system," said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, which has represented nearly 600 cases. "Considering this is a new program... I think things are moving extremely fast." He said none of the center's applications have been rejected so far.

"This is an extremely important and historic opportunity for young people," Keller said, especially given what he described as the negative tenor of the national immigration debate. "I do believe these young people are some of the best ambassadors. They aren't looking for a handout, but a hand of welcome to allow them to use the college careers they have miraculously been able to acquire against tremendous odds."

Keller said the impact of deferred action could be especially stark in small cities like St. James, which has 4,600 people, a third of them Latinos. Many outstate cities have had sizeable Latino populations for decades, but only now are coming to terms with demographic changes. Uncertainty around immigration status has made it more difficult for residents to connect across ethnic lines.

"The support of St. James has always been there. I have nothing bad to say about the community in terms of helping me get through rough things."

"Anytime you have a minority group in a small setting, they stick out more, for good or for bad," said Keller. The way status is perceived and discussed, he said, "enhances the challenge of integrating people." Conversely, he said, in a small community, the impact of a program like deferred action can be greater. "You will see people moving on with their lives and giving back to their communities in ways that were closed to them."

In early December, in her mom's living room in St. James, Marquez opened yet another letter related to her application. This time it was the official missive containing the line she'd been most longing to read: You are now legally in the United States until November, 2014, and can apply for a social security number.

"It has always been about those nine numbers that have prevented me from doing so many things," Marquez said. "That will be the final thing that will make it for sure and more official than anything else."


Marquez arrived in St. James with her parents from Culiacan, a city near Mazatlan in Sinaloa, to stay with an uncle and learn English. They had visas. "We came to the U.S. the legal way," said Marquez. "We had all the documents. It wasn't a struggle coming in. We were fortunate not to come through the river."

"I do believe these young people are some of the best ambassadors."

She remembers leaving Mexico. "I said goodbye to my teachers and my friends and family members as if I was going to see them in a year or two," she said. "I never thought I would stay in the U.S. longer than that." But the family grew to like St. James. "I think my mom saw it as a calming, great place to raise kids. We were doing well in school. She didn't really see any reason to go back at that point. Months turn into years." When their visas expired, so did their legal status.

St. James has one of the more established Latino communities in Minnesota. Back in 1990, when many cities had few if any Latinos, the population there approached 8 percent. People have mainly been drawn by the food processing industry, companies like Tony Downs Foods and Armour-Eckrich.

The city had a hard time with the changes early on, according to longtime Mayor Gary Sturm, when there were more single men than families coming. He said people were suspicious of each other and "we had some gangs, baseball bats and stuff."

Sturm, who took Spanish lessons and found them to be a "humbling experience," said the city dealt with tensions head on. In the mid 1990s, he and others hosted a series of meetings designed to improve relations. They included people from the school, local businesses, the church, and law firms. The idea, said Sturm, was to get people to "respect differences and understand that there are going to be differences. Rather than trying to change the other, you cooperatively go forward."

"Last time I checked, we are all created equal," said Sturm, who also sells real estate.

"Last time I checked, we are all created equal."

By most accounts, the meetings had a positive effect. And so did other organized efforts, such as the University of Minnesota Extension's Horizons leadership and poverty-reduction program, family literacy efforts and leadership training from the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation.

Today, there are Latino restaurants and stores downtown. In November, St. James elected one of the few Latinos to hold local office anywhere in outstate Minnesota. And rather than separate cultural events, the city now holds joint festivals.

"People have been here long enough," said Community Education Director Sue Harris. "With the first generation, you have language barriers. Before, we had a high mobility rate. We still have movement, but not at the same level. People are staying. And their children, when you are born and raised in St. James, that is different than when you are born in Mexico and living here."

"I don't know that we're where we need to be and are 'one for all' and a totally integrated community where there are no divisions," Harris said, noting a lingering white-Latino achievement gap in school. "But we are much further down the road on this."


The city's trajectory mirrored Marquez's experiences at school. When she first arrived, Latinos hung out with Latinos and whites with whites. "There were a lot of cliques."

In middle school, "We didn't get along... and it was very much about the race," she said. "I think it was fear of the other and fear of the new. I didn't celebrate holidays the same as my peers did and I didn't talk the same. It was very different and I think there was a fear of the other in both ways."

Marquez, discouraged from speaking Spanish, learned English quickly. "You go through this phase as an immigrant of assimilation, where you feel like you have to be something you're not," she said. "As the first generation, it's hard to understand what that means, that it means losing some of your culture. Now I realize how important it is to keep as much as you can."

Now, she calls herself a "Mexisotan" and embraces her heritage. But earlier, "I remember being in school and thinking I knew I was Mexican but I knew that meant something somewhat bad and that I needed to try harder in certain things because I already had this bad feeling of who I am," she said. "You knew you were proud of who you are. But I didn't have a lot of role models in education growing up. I didn't really see a lot of Latinos as leaders."

She threw herself into school, joining theater, dance line and a youth council that was part of the Horizons program. That brought a different kind of trouble. "I would hear from my Latino friends, 'You are a schoolie because you are trying to get good grades.' I would get called a white wannabe and I would think, whoa, whoa, whoa. To succeed means you are trying to be white? I had to separate myself from people who were putting me down and do what I wanted to do."

Years later, when Marquez was in college, she would return to St. James to teach a summer class on Latino history, designed to raise the expectations of local kids.

By the time she finished high school, Marquez said, racial lines had started to fade. "It wasn't until we got older and more mature that we started to come together," she said. She counts her election as homecoming queen by both white and Latino students as a positive sign.

"It symbolized a lot of change in St. James, and good change, too."


Navigating life without documents is fraught with peril and uncertainty. Marquez described being wary of telling people about her status. At one point she was embarrassed and there was always the fear that if she told the wrong person she could be deported. "When you are undocumented, you have to find an alternative story for yourself," she said.

She couldn't get a driver's license like her classmates, explaining it away by saying she'd missed the deadline for driving class. Later, she said she'd gotten into trouble and couldn't drive until she was 21. "I remember thinking, what story am I going to come up with next, because people are going to ask. It was always making up these stories as to why I couldn't do something. It's bad, but also mentally not healthy. You get caught up in lies."

When it was time for college, her status was a factor again. She was accepted to Gustavus in St. Peter and planned to study nursing, but she wasn't eligible for most types of financial aid.

People in St. James, including Harris and several Gustavus alumni, advocated for her. "I felt so supported," Marquez said. "The support of St. James has always been there. I have nothing bad to say about the community in terms of helping me get through rough things."

Still, up until the last moment, financing was touch and go. "I would get a call saying, 'yes,' then a call back saying, 'you can't come here,'" she said. In the end, she pieced together a grant from the school, money her mom saved and, later, a scholarship from the Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation. "I don't believe something until I see it because I didn't believe I was going to college until move-in day."

Marquez spent a year and a half taking all the nursing prerequisites. But with the nursing school acceptance letter came another blow. The school needed a background check.

"That was the hardest email I sent at Gustavus, ever."

"I freaked out," she said. "I knew I couldn't do a background check. I also needed a social security number for the program in order to go to the hospitals to do clinical. I knew I wasn't going to be able to continue."

She had hoped immigration reform would come before the lack of a social security number delayed her education. But she found herself having to give up nursing and make up another story.

"I didn't tell them the reason I quit," she said. "I just said, I thank you so much for the acceptance but I have come to feel that I want to change majors. I had to come out with a lie to not put myself out there. I had to officially write an email saying, I'm declining the nursing program. That was the hardest email I sent at Gustavus, ever. I wrote it and deleted it."

"This is good, but in some ways I'm still in the same position."

She viewed that moment as a slap in the face. "I got into the program fair and square," she said. "I thought, no matter what I do, there is always going to be something."

Marquez's longtime friend Julio Zelaya, who was homecoming king to her queen in St. James, attended Gustavus at the same time and is a U.S. citizen. "Having Irma in my life has been, not humbling, but a reality check," he said. "It wasn't fair for someone who has worked so hard, even harder than I have. We come from practically the same family, the same economic status, the same culture and the same race. Why me?"

"She is the ideal citizen," he said. "Is someone American because they were born here or is it the time they've spent here that makes them American?"

"It's not that I'm sad for her," said Zelaya. "It's that if we think about it too much, the frustration gets to you. There is this impetus to do something, but what? You feel very small at times."

Marquez changed her major to political science and gender, women and sexuality studies, with the ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer. "I thought, I need to know what I can do in terms of law," she said, "because that is the only thing that is going to change my status."

She wrote her college thesis on the so-called undocumented movement, the trend of young people declaring their status, or "coming out," in order to affect change. And she began discussing her own status publicly. "It's important to come out," said Marquez. "It's huge when you do come out to people you meet. You can't ignore the immigration problem when you know someone who experiences it daily. It really makes a difference."

The Immigrant Law Center's Keller credits people like Marquez for spurring the deferred action program. "These young people get a lot of credit for pushing this issue," he said. "Activism by young people pushed the president to do something. It cannot be denied."


In May, Marquez and Zelaya graduated from Gustavus. But while Zelaya, also a political science major, works as an ESL instructor at Andersen United Community School in Minneapolis, Marquez is back in St. James. After volunteering with Minnesotans United for All Families to defeat the marriage amendment in November, she returned to her mom's house and, with her new status, is applying for jobs.

Putting together a resume has been difficult, since Marquez doesn't have job or internship experience. She can only work for two years, at least for now. And she can't drive to interviews. "We're in an economy where I am not the only one who can't get a job," she said. "In that way, I'm not complaining about not having a job because it's hard for you as citizens."

Still, she said, "This does put me back somewhat. I feel it will be hard. It will be tough to compete."

Sue Harris and others in St. James are trying to help. "She has gone far," Harris said. "But she could be much further down the road. She could be on a national plane with her skills and ability. Her status has held her back. But that no longer will be the case. She will fly and do amazing things."

Marquez's hope, as always, is that immigration reform will open a path to citizenship. "I'm hopeful and confident it will happen," she said. "This is good, but in some ways I'm still in the same position."