When Peruvian native Lisette — she asked not to use her last name — first arrived in North Carolina as an undocumented immigrant in 2001, she and her family had no trouble building a productive life in this country. The state was in the middle of a construction boom, and her husband easily found a well-paying job. They bought a house and received driver’s licenses without having to show Social Security numbers. Lisette, who already had a 3-year-old daughter, gave birth to three more children and enrolled them in U.S. elementary schools.
Then came a recession and a series of laws targeting undocumented immigrants. Suddenly, driver’s license applicants had to show proof of a Social Security number, and the state joined a federal program that encouraged local law enforcement authorities to question people about their immigration status. “You see the United States as the land of opportunity,” says Lisette, who was unable to renew her license or buy auto insurance. “You know that if you work hard, you can make your dreams come true. It’s true. Kind of.”
We do the right things because we know we don’t want to get into trouble. We want the best for everyone – not just for our own families.
One day in 2011, a police officer stopped Lisette while she driving back from dropping off her daughter at a friend’s house and warned that she needed to renew her driver’s license. Though she’d lived in North Carolina for a decade, she knew she needed to move her family to a more immigrant-friendly state. “Every time you took your kids to school or went to the grocery store, you could see this huge line of cars, and you knew it was a checkpoint,” says Lisette. “I was scared.” After extensive research, she settled on Washington, one of 10 states where undocumented immigrants could apply for driver’s licenses and her children could receive health insurance and qualify for in-state college tuition. “The worst part was telling my oldest daughter, who was in eighth grade, why we had to leave,” Lisette says. “I explained that she wouldn’t be able to drive a car or go to college with her friends if we stayed. But she was still crushed.”
The move required sacrifices. “Washington is more expensive, and we had to start from scratch. We couldn’t even bring our furniture across the country,” says Lisette. But the family built a new life. Lisette and her husband separated, so she went back to work. Unfortunately, her undocumented status prevented her from obtaining a job in her field — she holds a degree in accounting from the “Universidad Inca Garcilaso de la Vega” college in the Peruvian capital of Lima — but she found employment at a bilingual daycare center. She also began volunteering with OneAmerica, a nonprofit that encourages immigrant parents to become involved in their children’s education and demands representation in public schools.
So far, the move has paid off. Lisette’s oldest daughter is attending Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and is majoring in Hispanic studies. Her ambition is to work for a nonprofit as an advocate for undocumented immigrants and LGBTQ people. Lisette herself dreams of becoming a Spanish language interpreter in an organization that serves bilingual families, but that would require Congress to give legal status to the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
She believes doing so would be a smart economic choice for the country — not just a humanitarian one. “We are part of the community. We volunteer in the schools and churches. We pay taxes,” she says. In 2014, nearly 238,000 undocumented immigrants in Washington state paid more than $768 million in state, local, and federal taxes.. But with legal status, Lisette and others could give much more. About 92 percent of them are working age. They could apply for loans, earn higher salaries, and spend their money in local businesses. They could come out of the shadows as engaged, productive citizens. “We do the right things because we know we don’t want to get into trouble,” Lisette says.“ We want the best for everyone – not just for our own families.”