In pursuit of citizenship Northumberland County woman describes emotional toll of being an illegal immigrant
Editor's note: To protect her identity, the subject of the following story asked that her real name and some details about her past not be used.
There are only a handful of people in "Ashley's" life who know why she is so excited to show off her Social Security card.
The Northumberland County resident, who will celebrate her 24th birthday this week, had not technically existed in the United States - according to the federal government - until December.
Yet she's been here since she was 4.
The young woman, who loves watching "Seinfield" reruns and listening to Queen and Paul Simon, is one of at least 11 million undocumented immigrant children who came to the U.S. with their parents.
For Ashley, her illegal status has produced a life of lies, intertwined with an otherwise normal upbringing.
But she and millions of others were recently granted temporary relief from the consequences of their illegal status. President Obama and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Janet Napolitano announced in June that the federal government would not seek to deport certain young people who were brought to the U.S. as young children, who do not present a risk to national security or public safety, and who are hard-working, contributing members of society - a description that fits Ashley, who was born in Mexico but knows very little of her early life in that country.
These individuals are eligible to apply for the Deferred Action Program, good for a period of two years before renewal is required, and are eligible to apply for work authorization through DHS.
In December, Ashley received formal notification that she had qualified for the program. In an interview with The News-Item Thursday, she was proud to show off, not only her newly acquired Social Security card, but her Employment Authorization Card, which allowed her to obtain a Pennsylvania State Identification Card - a third ID she proudly pulled from her purse - and eventually will allow her to pursue a driver's license.
For Ashley, it relieves nearly two decades of constant fear.
"Sometimes I would be so scared," she said. "I would think, someone's going to know something. I'm going to be driving to work and I'm going to be stopped, and it's going to be ruined," she said about her life in America. With her family, friends and life here, if she were to be deported, "What am I going back to?" Ashley asks.
Even with her recent steps toward citizenship, she remains concerned and protective about her status.
The first lie
Ashley was just 4 when she came to America with her parents from Mexico, where 59 percent of illegal immigrants in the United States came from in 2011. Another 6 percent came from El Salvador, 5 percent from Guatemala and the rest from other countries.
Her father had previously worked illegally in Chicago, but her parents obtained an extended legal visitor's visa for themselves in the early 1990s with the intention of finding work - even though such a privilege is not granted by that particular visa.
They realized late in the process that they didn't have a visitor's visa for Ashley, so they arranged for legal friends in Texas to bring Ashley across the border. At the crossing, the friends identified Ashley as their daughter.
That was the first lie.
Ashley's family successfully started a life, although with undocumented jobs, in the U.S. Two years later, they had another daughter, who, because she was born in the U.S., is a legal citizen.
A better life?
In 2000, a labor contractor told Ashley's father about work at a business in Northumberland County, promising three-bedroom houses and backyards. This time, her family was not creating the lie; they were the victims of one. The work existed, but it wasn't a better life, and there was no three-bedroom home.
Leaving Texas was difficult. Ashley recalled the day her family boarded an airplane and flew to Philadelphia.
"I kind of knew my situation, but I was 11 so I didn't really grasp it," she said. "I remember being very nervous. They (her parents) were like, 'Just be as American as possible.'"
She said she used that advice in how she dressed that day, and played her Nintendo Game Boy on board the plane.
She recalled having not eaten that entire day, and her parents debating whether it was safe to enter a McDonald's in Philadelphia. It was a long, stressful day before they finally boarded a Greyhound for Harrisburg.
"Everyone was looking at us, because we were different. At least it seemed like that," she said.
Conditioned to lie
Ashley received public education in Texas from pre-kindergarten to middle school. Once in Northumberland County, she was enrolled in a public school district. There were no instances in the first few years where Ashley or her family had to provide any information that brought her background into question. But a few years later, it was time for another lie.
In updating a school form, Ashley was asked to provide a Social Security number. She left the space blank.
Although the school district demanded the number, a local education advocate who had been helping Ashley's family stepped in on her behalf. That person told someone at the school that the district had no business asking for that kind of information, and the school backed off.
During middle and high school, Ashley's continuous life of lies took an emotional toll despite her bubbly personality.
"I did good in high school, but not as good as I could have done," she said. "One teacher told me - and to this day, it haunts me - 'Why aren't you doing your work? You're smart. Look at these tests. You're getting straight A's in tests. Why aren't you doing your work? Why aren't you doing good.' I couldn't explain why I was so depressed."
Ashley paused during the interview, holding back tears, before continuing.
"I couldn't do good, because what was the point? I wasn't going to college. I wasn't going to do anything in my life. What was the point in anything? I couldn't tell him that. To this day, I think about that all the time," she said.
Her life had become a continuing act of covering for her parents and for herself. She avoided joining sports teams or going to parties for fear of being exposed.
Even typical rites of passage became a lie.
"Why aren't you getting your driver's license?" people would ask Ashley. She used sarcasm to blow it off, joking about hiring a chauffeur. Or, she said her family didn't have enough vehicles.
Naturally, she said, it was difficult to trust anyone or allow anyone into her life.
"I was conditioned to lie," she said.
Ashley also faced racism from her peers - "You're Mexican. You don't understand," they'd taunt - and her friends who weren't aware of her secret would talk about illegal immigrants.
"They're talking about you, even though they're your friends, even though they don't know," she said. "They're saying, if they knew what you were, they would not be your friend. They wouldn't like you for what you really are."
At times, the legal status of her sister - who is intelligent and successful and allowed to be hailed for her achievements in local newspapers because of her legal status - created conflict for Ashley. Is she jealous?
"I try to be a better person, but I am. I am," she admitted, again fighting back tears. "I just want to be (Ashley). â¦ I don't want people to say, 'Oh you're Mexican' or 'Oh, you're American.' I just want to be myself."
'I do pay my taxes'
After she graduated from high school, Ashley worked various local jobs for which the applications didn't require a Social Security number. She was a garbage disposal company secretary, a restaurant waitress, a greenhouse assembly line worker, a car dealership employee and a cafe barista.
She was on the payroll at each job, and state and federal income taxes were deducted.
"It gets me so annoyed that people say I don't pay my taxes. I do pay my taxes," she said. "I pay whatever everyone else pays, but I don't get the benefits. I can't."
The same can be said for her parents, who have also held down jobs.
According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, households headed by undocumented workers collectively paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2010, including $1.2 billion in income taxes, $1.6 billion in property taxes and $8.4 billion in consumption taxes.
The only time Ashley had trouble with a job is when a restaurant owner who knew she was not a legal citizen refused to pay her. She likened it to blackmail.
While she could find work, Ashley wanted to go to college. Knowing she'd have to provide a Social Security number, she rehearsed a line she learned about in an online forum: "I don't give that for security reasons." While that didn't work at Luzerne County Community College, it did at Bloomsburg.
Just one month into her first semester, however, Ashley's father was laid off from his job and was unable to help with tuition. Without citizenship, Ashley and her family are unable to apply for grants, scholarships or loans. She was forced to drop out.
With the Employment Authorization Card she obtained through the Deferred Action Program, however, Ashley could try college again. But it's another bitter memory.
"I feel so bad. I don't even want to go back," she said. "I was doing so good, too. I can't face it. I feel so ashamed."
An emotional big step
As it was for college enrollment - one institution rejecting her application, another accepting - it was one person's subjective decision that aided Ashley in her effort to apply for the Deferred Action Program last August at a Social Security office in York.
She needed ID to apply, so she took along the only things she had: her birth certificate from Mexico, her high school ID card and her high school yearbook and diploma. The lady she met with wasn't impressed with the choices and consulted her supervisor. Ashley could hear their conversation, and the one the supervisor had on the phone with someone else. She was certain she was going to be denied.
Instead - after being "tested" with questions by the supervisor - she was given the OK. Moving on to the next step in the process that day, Ashley was sent to another location in the building to have her photograph taken. The person who took her photo told Ashley she was lucky that another supervisor wasn't there that day - because he likely would have rejected her IDs.
With the all-important authorization card she qualified for that day and just received in December, which notes her "country of birth" as Mexico, Ashley can apply for any job and could reapply for college. However, there is a warning printed on the front of the card: If she leaves the U.S., she can't come back.
As happy as Ashley was to get approval that day, and despite the authorization card's critical importance in her future, the experience drained her. Returning to her friend waiting in the parking lot, "The first thing I did was start crying," Ashley said. She said they sat silent in the parking lot for an hour as Ashley "processed" what she had been through.
Time to help others
Despite her reservations, Ashley does plan to go back to college. She wants to get a better job, raise enough money to move out of her parents' house and get her own place.
She wants to help other people, especially those in similar situations.
"I want to be activist. I know it won't earn me a lot of money, but I want to help people," she said. "I want people to know that I went through it, and you can get past it. It's very, very hard."
Before all that, all Ashley wants to do is become a legal citizen and move past this part of her life.
"People will never understand unless you've been through it. You'll never understand that depression that you will never be able to do anything in your life," she said.
She has come to realize, however, and wants to tell others, "There's light at the end of the tunnel."