After Maribel Solache’s neighbor was kidnapped in Mexico City more than a decade ago, Solache and her husband took their young children to the United States on a tourist visa. Too fearful to return, the family remained in the northern San Diego suburb of San Marcos. Yet they live in legal limbo. They’re still undocumented, with little hope of becoming permanent residents.
It’s not fair to my kids to be worried about me all the time
Solache would like to see immigration reform that provides a pathway to residency for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are now living in legal limbo. “We brought my daughter here when she was a year old,” says Solache. “It’s the only country she knows.” Solache offers a glimpse of what life is like in the shadows: Although she was trained as a tax lawyer in Mexico, she can’t apply for law jobs without a valid Social Security number. So she takes odd jobs cleaning houses, babysitting, or filling in for an accountant, while her husband works for an automotive oil change business. Because she can’t apply for health insurance, she must depend on local community centers for health care. Until a 2015 California law made it possible for undocumented illegal immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, she had to drive without one.
With a legal residency, Solache would be able to pay for her own health insurance, and she wouldn’t have been forced to drive without a license. She did not want to put a strain on her community or flout local laws, but if she wanted to work and pay taxes, she had no other options.
Legal status would also allow her to live without fear of deportation. “My brother was deported a few years ago. So was my close friend’s husband. It can be for something as small as a traffic violation,” she says. “It’s not fair to my kids to be worried about me all the time.”
A patchwork of recent California laws has made life easier for her school-age children. In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation providing healthcare benefits to some 170,000 undocumented immigrant children. And in 2011, the California Dream Act made it possible for undocumented youth who meet certain criteria to qualify for college financial aid.
In the meantime, Solache helps her fellow immigrants realize the dream that’s out of reach for her: She teaches a citizenship class at the nearby public library and volunteers to register American citizens to vote. In 2016, the television station Univision San Diego recognized her public service by naming her a local hero.
Solache dreams of reform that would allow her to realize her potential: She wants to be able to apply for loans so she can return to law school and take the bar exam to become an immigration lawyer. This, in turn, would allow her to pay even more in federal and state taxes and would increase her spending power in the local economy. “The system is broken,” says Solache. “Still, being here with no documentation is better than being a citizen in Mexico. I feel more safe here. We need to survive here and wait for a solution.”