A young, undocumented woman tries to do the right thing and ends up a felon for absurd reasons.
Noemi wanted to live the American dream, only to have it taken away from her by a bureaucratic nightmare.
22-year-old Noemi Romero has lived in the United States since she was 3 years old.
Noemi is smart. She works hard. She wants to get a college education.
And she's now a felon — for working as a cashier with improper paperwork.
Why would that make her a felon?
Back when she was in high school, Noemi, like any other American teen, decided one day, after seeing all her friends do the same thing, that it was time to get a driver's license. Her friends told her she'd need a Social Security number.
When she asked her parents for hers, she learned a startling truth.
She discovered she had no Social Security number because she was undocumented.
She was 16, and her world was turned upside down as her parents explained that she was undocumented.
America was the only home she'd ever known. She wanted to make something of herself, become a contributing member to society, like most every other person who has grown up here. She wanted to go to college. She was hoping to become a nurse.
Without a Social Security number, she was trapped. She needed to make things right. And she found a way out.
There are many people like Noemi. They're called DREAMers.
Lots of kids grow up in America, not realizing they aren't here legally. So the government tried to pass a law that would help them become contributing members of society.
They called it the DREAM Act.
If you were a kid whose only home had ever been America, going back to your original country of birth would seem crazy. It's like being punished for existing. Getting these kids paying into the system seemed like a no brainer.
However, like most things in Congress, the DREAM Act has yet to pass.
To help DREAMers like Noemi, the White House created a program that allowed them to work and go to school.
What does that mean? Noemi could work legally, live legally, and most importantly for Noemi, it would allow her to go to college legally in America. She wouldn't be deported to a country she had never really lived in.
Noemi wanted to do things right. So she decided to apply for DACA.
There's a catch to DACA though. It costs $465 to apply. And if you are poor...
There's a bizarre, catch-22, darkly comic and horribly tragic reality to this. If you come from a poor family, $465 is a lot of money.
There are usually two ways to get that kind of money. You have two choices when you are poor and here illegally:
- Get a job.
- Break the law and steal the money.
Noemi, being a normal person, chose option 1. But to get a job, she needed a Social Security number. Which she could only get by applying for a DACA permit.
Which means Noemi had this conundrum:
You can't work without a Social Security number, and you can't get permission to work without paying $465, and you can't get $465 without working.
Essentially, she'd have to break the law in order to get into compliance with the law.
A friend suggested that she borrow someone else's Social Security number. Her mom suggested that she borrow hers.
So Noemi had two choices, being as she was poor and also undocumented.
- Remain undocumented and not set herself up on a legitimate legal path with the government.
- Break the law by borrowing her mother's legitimate Social Security number — at her mom's suggestion — and get a job.
So Noemi made the rational choice I think most of us would make. She chose option 2.
Noemi worked as a cashier for four months and saved up $465.
On Jan. 16, 2013, at the age of 19, she had saved up enough to apply for DACA so that she could work legally. She was planning on filing the next day.
On Jan. 17, 2013 — the next day — there was an immigration raid at the grocery store where she worked. The brothers who owned the grocery apparently had been evading taxes. They served no jail time.
Noemi, on the other hand, was arrested and charged with felonies.
She was charged with forgery, identity theft, and aggravated identity theft even though her mother's identity was the one being used and her mother totally consented to her doing it.
Every paycheck, she had Medicare and Social Security taken out and put into our tax system. She had committed the crime of paying into our system without taking anything out.
She spent 60 days in jail, awaiting trial, housed with real criminals.
Her court-appointed lawyer recommended taking a plea deal. He said it was her best shot. She pleaded to criminal impersonation, a felony.
She no longer can apply for DACA with the felony. All because she tried to get a legitimate job in a moment of desperation in the hopes of becoming legal.
Why is filing improper job paperwork a felony?
Arizona has been at the forefront of criminalizing undocumented immigrants. In 2007 and 2008, the state legislature changed the law to expand it to using false identification while applying for jobs in an attempt to make it harder for undocumented immigrants to stay in the country.
But there is potentially good news. Her case is being used as precedent.
There's an infamous sheriff named Joe Arpaio who has been instrumental in criminalizing people for working. His raids have been an attempt to ignore federal law. Noemi's case was key in helping to put a halt on workplace raids.
The University of California Irvine Law Immigrant Rights Clinic filed a lawsuit with an amazing organization called Puente against Arpaio. Reporter Nicole Knight Shine at the Daily Pilot reports that they've temporarily stopped the raids.
"In his ruling, U.S. District Judge David G. Campbell said the Arizona measures are probably unconstitutional and the lawsuit was likely to succeed on the merits.
Annie Lai, a law professor at UCI, said the Arizona measures 'terrorized immigrant workers and their families.'
Last October, Lai and other attorneys argued that a federal law, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, trumps Arizona law on immigration issues. The measures used in Arizona, Lai said, discouraged immigrant workers, who are especially vulnerable to workplace exploitation, from reporting employment abuses."
Elon James White and the folks at #AZDispatch are reporting Noemi's and other people's stories on the ground in Arizona. Listen to her story and learn more about what Arizona is doing to actively hurt immigrants who want to contribute to society.
And if you live in Arizona, there's another way you can help.
There's going to be a march to stand up for human rights in Phoenix, Arizona, on July 17, 2015. You can learn more about it here.
If you don't live there, you could always share her story so more people are aware of what's happening. And read a more in-depth version of her story at The Arizona Republic. To see more stories of others who have been affected, head over to #AZDispatch.