Undocumented Youth Blocked from Entering the U.S. Workforce Are Starting Their Own Businesses to Survive
Lilly Romo runs an English school blocks from the Arizona Capitol. Classes are held in a white adobe building with nothing on its façade but a sign advertising Escuela de Inglés. Its walls are thin and bare except for a series of certificates praising student achievement and a list of basic English phrases beside the academy's mission statement:
"To provide the best ESL program to all our students in order to enable them to reach their full potential and achieve their American dream."
The parking lot fills in the evening with work trucks and beaters, the fleet of the working poor.
"I am tired, but I am here," an older man declares as he enters the building, baseball cap over his eyes.
The school has three classrooms, a receptionist's office that doubles as Romo's workspace, and a small washroom. A counter in the main hallway holds graded papers and information on birth control. Lesson plans are posted at the back of each classroom, underneath a clock. Romo's curriculum is divided into five sections, starting with the basics of language and ending with advanced English.
Each room is filled with short tables, worn chairs, and white boards, all donated to the school. Four middle-aged brown men sit at their desks, book-ended by a pair of midlife madres. Open binders lie in front of the students, color-coded subsections and course materials packed inside. Even Romo, 23, a tiny woman with fair skin, long hair, and the ghosts of teenage acne on her cheeks, is cramped at her desk in the small space.
Today's lesson is dedicated to verbs, past-progressives, and gerunds. Romo leads a discussion of the difference between "was" and "were," then has the students read aloud a complicated passage about the Earth's atmosphere.
"Did you learn the 20 vocabulary words?" Romo asks her students.
"Yes," answers one of the women, with sheepish pride and a Mexican accent. "I practiced all morning!"
Romo reviews the lesson at the end of class before assigning reading questions for the students' homework.
Most of the class sticks around afterward for tutoring.
"I do everything," Romo says of her role at the school. "Sometimes, students will say, 'Teacher, I failed a test. I need you to tutor me,' and then, two minutes later, they'll say, 'Teacher, there's no toilet paper in the bathroom.' I'm a janitor and the head tutor."
She also is undocumented.
At 2 years old, Romo was brought to America from Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point) by her mother, who was on the run from an alcoholic husband. Romo wants to be a nurse but, lacking a Social Security number, can't pass a background check.
In need of work, Romo started teaching at a different language school in downtown Phoenix. She struggled initially. Students laughed at her nervousness and complained about her Spanish grammar, but she began researching English as a second language and developed her own curriculum. Once she realized her students were learning the material, Romo asked her bosses to incorporate her course strategy at their school, but they refused.
"Lilly, you think too much. You're an overachiever. Just go teach it," she remembers them saying. "If you want to follow it, go ahead."
So she did.
In summer 2009, at 21, Romo decided to quit working for someone else and became her own boss. She borrowed $5,000 from a high school friend who was deported two weeks later, rented a building, filed paperwork to register her business with the state of Arizona, and started her escuela.
Romo came close to losing her business in the heat of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, when many of her students quit rather than attend classes near the state Capitol for fear of running into the wave of police officers patrolling the area. Today, the school survives to teach 60 students a day, most of whom come to class right after work, dirty, hungry, and tired.
She guesses that some of her students have papers and some don't, but Romo doesn't ask about their statuses. She only wants to know why they're interested in attending her school.
"Some have children they want to help with their homework; others want a better job or a promotion," she says. "They'll say, 'I hate it when the cop stops me, and I have no idea what he's saying. I don't understand my doctor.'"
Others tell her another reason, one she laughs about: "'I want to talk to people at the club.' Mostly, young guys say that."
The school is Romo's sole source of income, and she supports her mother and younger brother, a U.S. citizen and high school football player, with her profits.
Romo charges each student $160 for enrollment, which includes books. Then she charges full-time students $95 for tuition each month, $85 for part-time students, and $65 for anyone who wants to attend once a week.
Romo was bitter when she began her career as an educator and a businesswoman, upset that she wasn't pursuing that career in medicine. But the havoc wrought on immigrants in Arizona by SB 1070 and other anti-immigrant measures has helped Romo appreciate the difference her school can make in people's lives.
Not only does she want to help her students navigate American life, she wants them to stand up for themselves and say, "I am not a criminal because I am undocumented."
Now, she relishes her status as a member of an emerging class of young undocumented entrepreneurs in America who, despite being prohibited from entering the traditional U.S. workforce or continuing their educations, are creating businesses of their own to survive.
Juan Esparza sits in front of an American flag, pictures of his wife and children atop the computer behind him, humming iPhone to the side. He wears a gray businessman's suit on his thick frame, hair neatly combed, an anxious smile. Esparza is a business consultant at his own firm, Regio Asesores, which advises people, including illegal immigrants, on how to create their own businesses.
Operating out of a dusty office building off 27th Avenue and Thomas Road in West Phoenix, Esparza greets a steady stream of Latino clients. He has a simple message for everyone he sees: You can be a success in the United States, whether you are here legally or not.
All you need, he says, is ambition and the know-how to go into business "correctly," which is a fairly simple process in Arizona.
Anyone, he says, can go to the Arizona Corporation Commission, fill out a form to register a limited-liability corporation, and own a business.
Once the form has been approved, the business owner applies with the IRS for an employer-identification number, completing the process.
Some of his clients create sole proprietorships with the state of Arizona, pursuing a similar process through the Secretary of State's office to register trade names.
Esparza works with his clients to develop business plans. He helps his customers conceptualize their companies, advises them on marketing their services, teaches them how to file taxes, and gives general guidance on how to keep their businesses profitable. He even advises them on trademarks and copyright law to make sure no one steals their intellectual property.
Lilly Romo is an Esparza success story. But Esparza has helped many other Latinos start businesses in recent years, more than 200 by his estimate, about half of whom are undocumented. His customers have opened tire and car-repair shops; construction businesses; landscaping, janitorial, and housekeeping services; and carnicerías.
Esparza can relate to the people he advises. He was born and raised in Monterrey, known as the business capital of Mexico before drug cartels gained control of the city. He studied business administration there before moving to Arizona, where he started a tax-consulting agency before founding Regio's.
"I feel like any immigrant," he says, declining to discuss his own status.
Many of Esparza's clients are recently unemployed, victims of the rotten economy and the state employer-sanctions law. For every 10 people he talks with who are unemployed, he says, eight decide to go into business for themselves.
Not everyone who comes into his office decides to create a sole proprietorship or an LLC. Some decide to continue working under the table, afraid of drawing attention to their businesses or immigration situations. He believes they would be better off creating companies, paying taxes, and putting down roots.
Then, at the same time, they would be flying in the face of conservative criticisms that immigrants steal American jobs and don't pay taxes. By starting businesses, entrepreneurs (documented or not) add jobs to the economy.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States.
There is evidence that a significant number of illegal immigrants are, in fact, paying taxes on their businesses and income.
The IRS allows illegal immigrants to pay taxes using individual taxpayer-identification numbers. IRS officials tell New Times that more than 3.8 million income-tax returns were filed with ITIN numbers for 2009.
In 2005, the Hispanic Research Center at Arizona State University released a study concluding that a third of businesses in Arizona are created by Latinos. Esparza thinks that figure has grown as the Latino population has expanded in Arizona and work opportunities have shrunk.
James Garcia, spokesman for the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, agrees, mostly because immigrants have business in their blood.
"You see people who pick up and leave a village 1,200 miles away and get here to the United States," he says. "They are entrepreneurial people."
Garcia says he believes it's legal for undocumented people to start businesses, assuming they pay taxes and don't hire other undocumented workers.
There are, however, restrictions that challenge illegal immigrants who attempt professional success. Many state licensing agencies ask for proof of legal residence, in accordance with state law forbidding "public benefits" from going to illegal immigrants.
Esparza says he believes he has found a way into the system through business registration, and so do his clients.
But does he worry that his clients could be charged with crimes under the employer-sanctions law for employing themselves?
No, he says, arguing that businesses don't have anything to do with immigration.
California business attorney Dana Schultz agrees that undocumented immigrants have the legal ability to create their own companies.
"The fact that an individual may not have the appropriate immigration status to be here and working doesn't mean that the individual lacks the capacity to form an LLC or to enter into contracts," he says. "When it comes down to it, they're doing the same thing everybody else does. They just happen to be undocumented."
To Esparza's clients, self-employment simply is a matter of survival. Illegal immigrants need to work, and he helps them do it.
"There's something wrong with the system," Lilly Romo says. "I can't get a job, but I can create a job."
Barack Obama walked onto the stage at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium on May 13, 2009, to deliver the commencement address before 70,000 ASU graduates, their friends, and families.
He stepped up to the lectern, shook ASU President Michael Crow's hand, cocked his head to observe the glowing mass of maroon and gold, and boldly declared "opening the doors of higher education to students from every background" to be the core of his presidency.
For undocumented children of illegal immigrants, it isn't the classroom doors that need opening. It's society after they graduate.
Undocumented youth are granted the right to a public education by a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, Plyler v. Doe. The court held that education is a basic civil right not to be denied anyone in the United States; the Justice Department recently mailed notice to school districts across the country that undocumented students are not to be harassed when their parents enroll them.
Students interested in higher education need to scrape together private-scholarship money, since they are forbidden from receiving federal financial aid. In many states, including Arizona, they are charged out-of-state tuition at public universities, multiplying their challenge.
This began in 2006, when Arizona voters passed Proposition 300, which also forbade public colleges from giving any state dollars to undocumented students.
ASU worked hard to raise private money for its undocumented enrollees, as did groups such as Chicanos por la Causa, but the funds are dwindling for future generations.
There are critics of even allowing undocumented youth to attend college, no matter how they pay for it. A bill banning undocumented students from attending public universities was introduced in the Arizona Legislature last year but failed to pass.
The argument is that education rewards illegal immigrants for breaking the law — and that immigrants can't work legally anyway.
A number of graduates who attended Obama's commencement address refuse to accept that notion.
Silvia Rodriguez earned degrees in political science and Chicano studies the year Obama came to Tempe. Life as an undocumented student has aged her, giving her canas (gray hairs) from worrying about her status.
After graduation, she was exhausted and concerned about her future. Realizing no one would hire her, she decided to create her own arts-and-crafts business, Dignified by Silk.
Registering her company with the state allowed her to open a business bank account so she could set up a booth and accept credit cards at First Fridays in downtown Phoenix.
"I felt frustrated," she says. "Making art and selling it provided income and something to do."
Rodriguez ran her business for more than a year, from spring 2009 to fall 2010, when she left Arizona for Harvard University to earn a master's degree in education, paid for in large part by private donors. She obtained legal residency recently.
Several friends and classmates who remain undocumented have begun following in her footsteps.
Celso Mireles graduated alongside her. Born in Juárez, Mexico, he has lived in Arizona since he was 2. He dreamed of joining the Marine Corps in high school before attending ASU and earning a degree in business.
He remembers feeling frustrated as Obama talked about opportunities for college graduates, knowing that most of his classmates would go on to bigger and better things while he would face serious challenges because of his immigration status.
"Here [Obama] was, saying we would change the world with this education we had received, and at the same time, I was being [kept down]," Mireles says. "Five days later, I was in Colorado farming an alfalfa field. That was pretty demoralizing."
After that, Mireles kept busy hustling for side jobs and volunteering as an activist on immigration issues. But he needed steady employment, so he decided to create Computer Dude Services several months ago.
Mireles travels around the Valley in a car with his logo on the side, fixing computers and performing routine tasks to make them run faster or rid them of viruses. Mireles also designs websites.
He is getting certified in more complicated computer coding and programming operating systems. He's learning how to install wireless computer networks for homes and small businesses.
He currently works out of his apartment, but he hopes to grow his business in the next year. He would like to have an American assistant by then.
Mireles was afraid to register his company at first, thinking the idea was too good to be true, but he worked up the courage to do it. He figured, "What's the worst they can say? 'No'?"
A Mexican national who has lived almost all his life in the United States, Mireles has been plagued by identity issues.
Although he enjoys rock music, Family Guy and The Office on TV, and has studied in American schools, he has spent much of his life dealing with anti-immigrant laws aimed at restricting and, recently, intimidating him. Having a business allows him to make money, but it holds a deeper meaning.
It helps him identify as an American.
A peer, Daniel Rodriguez, graduated from ASU in 2008, then enrolled at ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law the following year. He has since taken a leave of absence because he cannot afford to pay $30,000 per year in out-of-state tuition.
Rodriguez worked for an attorney, under the table, until January, when the lawyer terminated their agreement. That's when he began to seriously consider starting a small business. He decided to create a company a few months ago in which he translates legal documents and other paperwork for Spanish speakers.
Mireles tries to persuade every undocumented young person he knows to create his or her own business and says he has taught several people how to register LLCs.
Ultimately, he wants to establish an association of undocumented business owners who will speak on behalf of immigrants.
"We can prove through more legitimate means that we are contributing to this country," Mireles says. "If there is an actual association of businesses run by [undocumented entrepreneurs], I think it would have a bigger impact on the immigration debate."
Illegal immigrants make a choice to leave their home countries and risk serious legal problems for the opportunity to find work in America. Many arrive in the United States and give birth to American citizens.
The Pew Hispanic Center reports that 73 percent of illegal immigrants' children are born in the United States, which makes them U.S. citizens. This means that more than a quarter of illegal immigrants' kids — those born in Mexico or another foreign country — are illegal aliens in this country, just like their parents, even though they have been here most of their lives.
After leaving school, the vast majority are forced to work under the table for scraps.
Lorenzo Santillan became famous in 2004 as an undocumented high school student on the Carl Hayden Robotics Team that defeated a group of MIT students in a robotics competition. Instead of pursuing engineering, he attended Phoenix College, where he studied culinary arts and earned an associate degree in applied sciences in 2008.
Santillan, who has lived in the United States since he was 10 months old, has been catering events since graduating. Sometimes he also lays tile or works on cars, but his main gig is cooking. Santillan has been interested in food preparation since eighth grade. He loves the variety that catering affords him.
"Every event is different," he says.
In April, he catered a graduation party for 150 people, but 300 showed up. He was proud he could feed them all. In May, he catered a Kentucky Derby party for six people. His price ranges anywhere from $10 to $30 a plate, depending on the needs of his customers. Santillan specializes in food from the Mexican state of Michoacán.
He is meticulous about his business. He performs pre-site inspections at the locations he's catering to guarantee he will be able to cook there properly. He uses lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and cilantro from his own garden to ensure freshness.
Santillan says he won't live his life in fear of la migra. Despite the emphasis that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, in particular, has put on rounding up illegal immigrants, he believes arresting him would be more trouble than he's worth.
But he is deeply frustrated by the limits of his status, which he continually is reminded of at home.
The second-oldest of five children, Santillan's younger siblings all are U.S. citizens — and none has gone to college.
"Take advantage of it, because I couldn't," he admonishes them. When the arguments get heated, they mock the college graduate who cannot work here legally.
The reason he hasn't registered his catering business, he says, is that it's too expensive at this point in his career to own and operate a commercial kitchen, a requirement for caterers. Instead, he is saving money, possibly to talk with an immigration attorney about his options.
Santillan understands that working without papers could get him into trouble. But not working isn't an option for him or others in his situation, and neither is returning to Mexico, since he is from the most dangerous non-border state, Michoacán, and has lived here since before he was 1 year old.
"As an undocumented person, you need to take risks," Santillan says. "You have to make money somehow."
His principal risk, of course, is deportation — something Barack Obama's administration has done more of than any other administration in recent history, despite the president's encouraging words to ASU students.
Indeed, the liberal president's administration has broken the record for annual deportations in each of his first two years in office. It has deported 800,000 illegal immigrants during Obama's presidency — and worked very hard to reach that plateau.
Last September, before the end of the fiscal year, the administration realized its final figure for deportations could be lower than its first year, so it pushed immigration officers to step up the pace, the Washington Post wrote last December.
To reach its totals, the Post reported, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement got creative and encouraged detainees to sign "voluntary returns," which allow illegal immigrants to leave the country without having an immigration mark on their records.
"Once the agency closed the books for fiscal 2010 and the record was broken, agents say they were told to stop widely offering the voluntary return option and revert to business as usual," the Post wrote, showing how much of a numbers game deportation is to the Obama administration.
Deportation is a sensitive topic for many Latinos, who note that the president hasn't delivered on a campaign promise to reform the immigration process.
Obama insists that his administration only is targeting criminal aliens for deportation. But undocumented students are getting caught in ICE's crosshairs.
Prerna Lal, the founder of a major website for undocumented students who was profiled by New Times' sister paper SF Weekly ("The Education Trap," July 21, 2010), is the most prominent example of a student thrust into deportation proceedings by ICE — but there are others.
In March, Obama was confronted at a community forum in Washington by an undocumented student getting deported.
The president was taking questions when the female student showed him her Notice to Appear. Such letters are sent by ICE advising illegal immigrants that deportation proceedings against them have begun. She wanted to know why students like her were getting hassled by the federal government.
Obama reiterated his mantra that his administration focuses on criminals, claiming "criminal deportations" are up 70 percent. Then he said he does not want people like her to be deported.
"For a young person like that young woman that we just spoke to who's going to school, doing all the right things, we want them to succeed," Obama said.
But not enough to change the process for legalization.
It's a difficult, generally lengthy, and sometimes impossible process for a student who has been brought here illegally by parents to become a legal resident. And after almost a lifetime in the United States, what young person wants to return to a country that is foreign to her or him?
One of Santillan's Carl Hayden classmates, Oscar Vazquez, an honors engineering graduate at ASU, left the United States for Mexico in 2009 to apply for re-entry "the right way," which requires adult aliens who have lived illegally here for more than a year to go out of the country and apply for re-entry ("Return to Sender," January 14, 2010).
The catch is that they are banned from returning for 10 years unless they can prove "extreme hardship" to a relative who is a U.S. citizen.
Vazquez was in that very situation: His wife and child both are American citizens, so he took the risk that he might be denied re-entry and left the country.
Separation from his American wife and child for 10 years or more did not constitute an "extreme hardship" to immigration officials reviewing his case, who denied it. He appealed the denial, and Democratic U.S. Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois intervened on his behalf.
With Durbin's help, the government reviewed his application, granted him a green card, and allowed him to return to his family.
On May 19, he became a U.S. citizen after he joined the Army.
He was lucky. Were it not for his achievements and fame on the Carl Hayden Robotics team, on which Santillan also excelled, he would not have had the support of a U.S. senator pushing for immigration reform or press coverage of his case.
The government was prepared to make him wait at least a decade because of a backlog in visa processing, to return to the United States.
A young businesswoman, who holds a graduate degree but doesn't want to be identified beyond that for fear of retribution, has made a living for years as an ordained minister, a wedding planner, a premarital counselor, and an actress in small productions around the Valley. She has not applied for an LLC, preferring instead to wait for her legal status to be approved by the federal government.
"It's beautiful work that I do," she says. "It's beyond documentation."
A relative sponsored her for legal residency almost 10 years ago, through a process where U.S citizens can petition legal status for relatives. The government is backed up to 1996 in reviewing visas for Mexican relatives. Hers was filed in 2001, and so she hopes to hear back in about five years.
Michael Bander, an immigration attorney in Miami, says the "extreme hardship" rule for re-entry is "ridiculous."
"That's why all these people decide to stay here [illegally]," he says. "Because it's far too difficult to leave and return."
DJ Skoolboi, whose first name is Manuel, just graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a degree in architecture.
Skoolboi was brought to the United States by his parents from Zacatecas, Mexico, when he was 3 years old. He has been DJing in his spare time for nine years, professionally for five.
He worked every weekend and, sometimes, three to four times a week. But, recently, he hit a barrier: He says he has had trouble getting gigs because of his illegal status, even though he has an individual taxpayer-identification number and pays taxes.
To expand his business opportunities, he's working on creating an LLC for his DJ work with his younger brother, a U.S. citizen.
He first learned about the option while interning with an architecture firm in Austin. He learned about business structures there, then took a course in business and legal issues to find out more about the process for starting a company.
Edilsa Lopez, also from the University of Texas, too, is working on getting an LLC for her business, as well. Lopez was kidnapped at 12 and came to the United States from Guatemala as a victim of human trafficking, according to testimony she presented before a Texas legislative committee on tuition reform and an interview with New Times.
She runs a photography business with her partner, a U.S. citizen. They met at UT as members of the Small Business Organization and decided to join forces and offer photography and graphic-design services.
"Since I'm undocumented, I can't work, so that's why I started my business," she says.
Other undocumented students go through different legal loopholes.
Dulce Matuz is a licensed real estate agent in Arizona. She graduated from ASU in 2009 with an engineering degree. She has been in the United States since she was a young teenager, when her mother brought her here on visas they subsequently overstayed.
While attending college, she heard that she could become a real estate agent without a Social Security number. At first, the licensing test administrators wouldn't give her the exam without an SSN, but after three months of nagging, they allowed her to take it with a random number and she passed.
She has sold more than 50 homes.
Real estate agents are required to take 24 credit hours in real estate law every two years to keep their licenses, usually over the Internet. Matuz complies with the requirement. In 2007, the state Department of Real Estate began asking for proof of legal status from agents renewing their licenses. They asked everyone to send in proof of residency, but not everyone did.
"Those [who] didn't, well, we'll catch them when they renew," Mary Utley, the Department of Real Estate's assistant commissioner, says the organization figured.
So when her license is up for renewal later this year, Matuz knows she will lose it.
To prepare for life after real estate, Matuz attended a national conference for undocumented students last March in Memphis, where a couple of activists held an entrepreneurship seminar.
More than 200 such students attended the conference that revolved around the DREAM Act, a bill before Congress that would allow undocumented young people meeting certain requirements to become legal residents.
Applicants for residency under the legislation must be 30 or younger, with no criminal background, who can prove they plan to enlist in the military or have graduated from at least a two-year college, and who have been in the United States for at least five years.
It's meant to keep talented young immigrants in the country.
The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives last fall and received 55 votes in the Senate but failed to overcome a December Republican filibuster. It was first introduced in 2001 but has failed in every Congress since.
United We Dream is an umbrella organization for undocumented students advocating passage of the DREAM Act. It is waging a campaign to persuade Barack Obama to halt deportation proceedings for undocumented youth who would be eligible for the DREAM Act if it were to pass.
Twenty-two U.S. Senators have signed a letter to Obama to that effect.
"We realize the DREAM Act has been [pushed] for 10 years," says Carlos Rojas, a former Dreamer who has obtained legal status but continues to fight for the cause. The legislation has been pending for so long that many of the students it originally was supposed to benefit have "aged out," he says
Rojas says he is committed to helping them and other young immigrants start businesses in America.
Rojas, an agent with New York Life Insurance, co-hosted the seminar on undocumented entrepreneurship at the United We Dream Congress with his partner, a south Floridian named Jose Diaz, who owns a karaoke and video-game-rental company.
In advance of the conference, Rojas and Diaz circulated a survey for people interested in starting businesses. It asked what state they were in and what sort of businesses they're considering.
Rojas and Diaz went over the basics of business creation for the youth explaining, in Diaz's words, how they can "control their own destiny."
Diaz has since gone a step further, setting up a Facebook page and company called DREAM Consulting, where prospective businesspeople can go for advice.
Although they have been individually successful, the two decline to discuss the students they have helped, as they are afraid government authorities will make examples of them by removing them from the country.
Creating a business is "allowed by the law," whether a person is undocumented, or not, Rojas says. "We all know this country benefits from businesses starting up."
Dulce Matuz, the real estate agent who's also president of the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition, wants to counter the public perception of undocumented people as criminal welfare recipients who are stealing American jobs.
"I haven't asked government for anything, and I [haven't needed] to ask for anything," she says. "That's the American dream."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.