Struggling for Citizenship
Carolina fidgets nervously with her hands as she recounts her daily fear of deportation.
Dressed in blue jeans and a striped shirt with heart-shaped buttons, Carolina, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, looks 15 years younger than her 35 years. She has large, almond-shaped eyes that spill tears as she talks about the possibility of having to leave behind Kings Beach and her three beloved sons.
“The money is the hardest, and living with the doubt that we could be deported,” Carolina says in Spanish. “Right now, some people think it’s better not to try and get their papers because they can get deported.”
Having spent seven years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to get U.S. citizenship for herself and her husband, coupled with the possibility she could be forced out of the U.S. as an illegal at any time, Carolina says she is afraid of returning to a country she barely considers her own.
Carolina wants to stay in the U.S., and specifically North Tahoe, because of the life she can offer her family here ” better education, strong community, close extended family and more opportunity, she says.
“It’s a healthy way of life for my sons,” she says.
Carolina was born and raised in Mexico City and moved to the United States in 1991. She and her husband have been married for 19 years and have three children; two who were born in Mexico.
Carolina and her husband first applied for U.S citizenship in 2000. They paid a lawyer $10,000 to file the paperwork and were awarded work permits three months later. This allowed Carolina more employment opportunities, including a higher paying job preparing food at the Hyatt.
“We started the process for our legal papers because of work, because it’s very difficult to earn a living,” she says. “If you don’t have a good Social Security number they don’t pay you the same wages, and those are the hardest jobs.”
Without legal working papers, Carolina gets paid $8 or $9 per hour to clean houses or work in a kitchen. With the papers, she can make $13 to $20 per hour.
Carolina and her husband have been denied citizenship twice now and are in their third round of applications ” and they are hopeful that this is the last, they say.
With their legal status in limbo, both Carolina and her husband could either be granted citizenship or be immediately deported, leaving behind their young sons. Potentially, Carolina may learn her fate as soon as tomorrow, or, on the other hand, more than six months from now. It’s a time of insecurity, she says.
Carolina’s eyes well up again and she bashfully apologizes for her emotion. Friend and translator Sylvia Doignon offers her a tissue and relays the terror Carolina endures daily about the possibility of deportation.
“She thinks about it a lot and even has nightmares,” Doignon explains.
“Even if you don’t want to think about it,” Carolina says, “you do. It’s something I want to forget about and it’s always in the news.”
Doignon, herself an immigrant, moved seamlessly from Mexico to the U.S. about 30 years ago.
“For me, I didn’t even suffer. I got it really easy. For them it’s different,” Doignon says. “Now there’s a lot more people who want to immigrate ” the lines are longer and it’s just harder.”
Advocates at Truckee’s Family Resource Center agree.
“Especially after 9/11, it’s been very hard for people to get their process moving. They’re turning away a lot more people now,” said Elizabeth Balmin, resource center advocate and mediator.
Many of Carolina’s friends and family prefer to remain in the U.S. illegally and stay under the radar, she says.
But Lake Tahoe feels like home, Carolina says, and she longs to stay here permanently and with the rights of an American citizen.
“First of all, I’d like that illegal people be encouraged ” that they are working people and work hard,” she says. “We are normal people who are trying to help our community and we want to be legal in this country.”
Debates surrounding immigration are splashed all over the media now, thanks in part to the Senate’s recent bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to stay in the United States permanently under a new visa program. The topic gains momentum as politicians and others wrangle over how best to address the current immigration situation.
And while some believe illegal immigrants cost the American people too much time, money and resources, others ” the immigrants themselves ” think the country’s workforce would deteriorate in their absence.
“We are also good people, we are hard workers … we might be the feet of the body and you guys might be the head, but you see the head cannot go without the feet and the feet cannot go without the head. In other words, we need each other,” says Truckee resident and three-year U.S. citizen Monina Vasquez. “Do you see your wife cleaning bathrooms? So you see yourself cooking or doing dishes? It’s easy ” we need each other.”
Pregnant and excited for a new life stateside, Vasquez moved from Guadalajara, Mexico in 1986 with her husband and four children. It took Vasquez and her family more than 10 years to get legal residence.
“The hardest part was that you’re never in touch with people who can help you fix things … like five times worse than a DMV. Then once you get to the window, if your question is not right there, it’s like ‘Next!'” Vasquez says.
Even from the beginning Vasquez says she felt she and her family were a positive asset to their community.
“We never went back [to Mexico] because we saw there was more opportunity here. And I like to serve the community a lot. I didn’t think we were a burden in the country, even when we were not legal. In the beginning we started paying taxes. We have not not paid taxes.
“We thought we could be productive here, too. We have more opportunity in this country and for our kids. If we could be good citizens in Mexico, why can’t we be good citizens in the U.S., too?” Vasquez says.
Carolina and dozens of other Latinos, Europeans and other foreigners living and working in the North Tahoe and Truckee area jump through hoops, spending abundant time and money trying to obtain legal citizenship. Many blame the process itself for their hardships and are upset by the implication that they wouldn’t make productive, contributing U.S. citizens.
“I didn’t see why we can’t try and make a better life in the world wherever we go,” Vasquez says.
“I work really closely with the community, I know people who are struggling a lot, trying to get their papers, hoping something good will resolve with Bush. I definitely know a lot of people who would like to have something good happen,” she says.
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