Special Reports

Illegal immigrants who follow the rules face frustrating trap

Her mother always told her: Do what's right and it will all work out.

So Alejandra, a 35-year-old illegal immigrant and single mother, has followed the rules. She won't use fake documents, which means she can't get a job. She can't legally drive, so she asks friends for rides or takes the bus. Three days a week, she volunteers at a hospital in the central San Joaquin Valley.

She hopes her good behavior will convince the government to give her a green card so she can work. She'll be able to use the certificates she's earned from a local adult school to become a secretary. Her three U.S.-born children won't have to depend on the welfare system.

"I think I'm capable of doing more than just being on welfare," said Alejandra, an often-smiling, curly-haired woman who speaks perfect English. "If I had the chance, believe me, I would definitely work."

Alejandra is not alone. Sometimes illegal immigrants, either out of fear or conscience, refuse to use fake documents to get jobs. Instead, they hold out hope for a legal solution.

But their stubborn refusal to break the law may hurt them. Ironically, some proposals for immigration reform would grant amnesty to illegal immigrants only if they have worked in the United States for at least a few years. But to get a job, illegal immigrants must use forged Social Security cards and green cards. Alejandra won't do that.

"My mom has a lot to do with this. She is always telling me, 'You have to do things right. One day it will pay off,' " she said.

Alejandra scrambled across the border when she was 13 -- her 11-year-old brother in tow -- so that she could reunite with her parents who had already immigrated here illegally. In high school, she graduated with As and Bs. She still has her transcripts neatly collected in a folder.

Seven years ago, with her children all in school, Alejandra began volunteering at a hospital gift store. She sells trinkets, books and candy. She's also earned certificates for data entry and computer literacy. Her boss, Audrey McBride, said she considers Alejandra an adopted daughter.

"She's dependable and a hard worker," McBride said. "I would do anything I could to get her a job here."

But it's unclear if that will ever happen.

Alejandra's father, who was granted amnesty through the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, successfully petitioned for his wife, three sons and another daughter to be legalized. Some of them are citizens now.

But for reasons that aren't clear to her, Alejandra's petition wasn't accepted. For years, she's tried to gain legal status and has visited lawyers up and down the Valley, racking up thousands of dollars in legal bills. Meanwhile, her family members have moved on with their lives: One brother is a soldier in Iraq, her sister is a nurse, another brother is a farm-labor contractor. They help Alejandra provide for her children and pay her attorney fees.

Alejandra said she sometimes feels like she's living in a "golden cage." It's much nicer here than in Mexico, but she can't live a normal life.

Three years ago, Alejandra's brother-in-law tried to rape her and she wound up in an emergency room. He told her: "You can't do nothing because if you say something, we'll send you back to Mexico."

But he was arrested, convicted and -- in an ironic twist -- deported. Now Alejandra is trying to gain legal status through a provision in the law that grants amnesty to women who are victims of violent crimes.

She's still trying to follow the rules, even though at times she's tempted to take the easy way out.

Alejandra often wonders if she should buy some fake documents so she can better provide for her kids -- two daughters, ages 12 and 15, and a son, 18. But it would be wrong -- and besides, what would happen to them if she was caught? She wishes the world would understand her situation.

"Most of us are here because we had no choice. We came here when we were little," she said. "We're just trying to survive here in this pretty golden cage."

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