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He's a success, but not yet a citizen

He worked hard and has his own business. He lifted his family to the middle class. But he dreams of getting his papers.

Published May 14, 2006

TAMPA - At the immigration rally that day, thousands of people chanted, horns blared and drums pounded.

Ignacio's three children leaned against the barricade along N Dale Mabry Highway, waving American flags.

He had closed his business for the day and was laughing with his family when his son stopped him cold.

Daddy, what is this all about?

It's about a piece of paper, Ignacio told him. All these people can lose their jobs because they don't have a piece of paper. Not me, Ignacio said, reassuring his 10-year-old son. I own my business.

What he didn't tell his son, or his clients, or his neighbors is that he is just like many others at the rally. Years ago, before the nice house and growing business, he crossed into the United States from Mexico and stayed.

Ignacio leads a double life, like a lot of illegal immigrant workers hiding in plain view in the middle class. They buy homes, start businesses, pay taxes with a federal tax number.

Ignacio is one of an estimated 1.2-million such immigrants helped along by banks, schools, churches and the same federal government that is trying to decide what to do about them. Their faces get lost in the debate about illegal immigration, which focuses on farm workers and low-wage laborers.

For these middle-class immigrants, the cost of being discovered can be great. Not only do they stand to lose small fortunes. They'll lose the respect they worked hard to build.

"They look at me like I'm strong,'' Ignacio says of his three kids.

As he talks about them, he crumbles. Tears stream down his face.

On the outside, Ignacio is the guy cracking jokes, running the business, brushing off questions from American peers about what to do with all those illegal immigrants.

On the inside, he lives in fear and self-doubt. Everything he has accomplished could be lost because of that slip of paper. The one he doesn't have.

* * *

Before this life, years before Ignacio started his own business in Pinellas County, he was a teaching assistant at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico City. The son of a schoolteacher and rancher, Ignacio graded papers by day and studied at night for his teaching degree.

In 1990, he traveled to Los Angeles to learn English on a student visa. When his girlfriend got pregnant, he decided to stay. He worked at a gas station to save money, using a false Social Security number that a friend got him.

Within a year, he was promoted to manager, earning $400 a week - more than his brother, a doctor, made in a month in Mexico, he said. He found a better job at a factory that manufactured screws and bolts.

After the factory closed in 1998, Ignacio, by then married with three children, borrowed a truck and moved to the Tampa Bay area. A friend told Ignacio he could find work there.

At first, no one would hire him.

Living in a mobile home, Ignacio fretted that he had made a huge mistake. His brother told him if he returned to Mexico, it would be difficult to find a job to provide for three children.

To his kids, who asked why they kept moving from one family's house to another, he said they were trying out homes until he found the best one for them.

At Christmas, he pulled in $50 on a day-labor job and went straight to the dollar store, filling his car with toys the children could open. Men on the job didn't care how much education he had. They didn't ask. They called out orders and snapped their fingers. Ignacio wondered what his brother, the doctor, would think of him.

Still, when his family called from Mexico, he told them, "Everything's fine.''

With a boyish grin and a quick humor, Ignacio made friends. He found a job as an auto mechanic. The steady paycheck eased the anxiety in his chest.

His boss' clients noticed how fast he worked, and soon he earned raises.

"We have to wake up and work 10 times harder,'' he said. "We might not have tomorrow.''

Ignacio got a better job with a repair business. Within a few months, he was a manager, making about $1,000 a week.

He bought a new minivan, financed through a dealership using the false Social Security number.

"I was feeling ready to buy a house,'' he said.

He entered into a lease-to-own agreement with the seller.

The day they moved into the three-bedroom home on a corner lot, Ignacio felt like he had almost made it in this new country.

"The job, the house and the car, give you something secure, something you can feel you have that's safe for your family,'' he said.

On vacations, he took his wife and children on road trips to see friends in Georgia and Miami. They drove to Walt Disney World and the Kennedy Space Center. The children played in basketball and soccer tournaments. Ignacio and his wife made friends with other parents and with families at church.

They never talked to people about their immigration status. No one questioned it. Ignacio and his wife never even discussed it at home.

* * *

After Sept. 11, 2001, rumors swirled of bosses checking Social Security numbers. With his management position, Ignacio dreaded being discovered. He felt like he was suffocating.

"I'm wasting my life,'' he thought.

At dusk, he looked at the horizon. It reminded him of his hometown, where the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.

But he couldn't go home. His children - all American born, all citizens - didn't know Mexico. The youngest spoke no Spanish.

Afraid that his employer would find his secret, he quit. Ignacio had helped many companies grow. So why couldn't he own one himself? He decided to start his own business.

A friend told Ignacio about something called the federal Individual Tax Identification Number. He could use the ITIN to pay his taxes, and help open his own repair business.

The ITIN, issued by the IRS to collect taxes from immigrants who can't get Social Security numbers, is just one way illegal families are moving into the middle class.

Banks help them climb up the economic ladder too - legally. Major institutions such as Bank of America and Fifth Third Bank offer savings and checking accounts and mortgages to illegal immigrants who have a combination of a foreign ID, a local utility bill and tax payment history with the ITIN.

Banks, mortgage lenders and credit card companies see the money to be made.

"We have the responsibility to work with all taxpayers,'' said Jadira Hoptry, senior community affairs officer in South Florida for Fifth Third Bank, which covers the Tampa area. "We don't check immigration status.''

Ignacio registered his company with the state, printed business cards and bought a uniform. He worked out of his van, visiting customers.

"The first year, I was ready to quit,'' he said.

But the phone kept ringing. With more calls, he hired employees. Now he employs five people plus his wife. They pay business taxes using the ITIN, he said.

His client list is now more than 2,000 names long, he said. It never feels like it's enough.

"I know whatever work I did yesterday, I have to do more tomorrow,'' he said. "When I'm going to stop this, I don't know. When they're going to stop me, I don't know."

Most times he's too busy at work to think about it. Then he'll turn on the news, or an American friend will ask him what he thinks about all these illegal immigrants.

Sometimes, he jokes to avoid the topic. Or he says, "Hey, they're not bad people."

He never says he's one of them.

Ignacio attends his son's awards ceremonies at his public school and talks with his daughter about college.

Last year, his teenage daughter confronted him. Ignacio had planned a trip for her to visit his family in Mexico.

Why did she have to go alone, she asked him.

He sat her down, explained he lacked the proper papers, but he was working on making everything right. He couldn't go just yet. He asked her to visit the grave site of one of his other brothers, whose funeral he missed for fear he wouldn't make it back over the border to his children in Florida.

A few months ago, Ignacio and his wife pulled their parish priest aside after Mass.

The priest had been to their home for their son's baptism. They told him their secret. They asked him to write to members of Congress, explaining that families like them are not criminals, that they contribute, they pay taxes. The priest sent the letters.

A few years ago, Ignacio hired an immigration attorney, who is working to change his status.

Their attorney, Ramon Carrion, said he has at least a dozen illegal immigrant clients who have worked their way up the economic ladder like Ignacio.

According to Jeffrey Passel, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center, there are about 1.2-million illegal immigrants in the United States who are in the middle class.

"It really highlights the problem that we're not dealing with numbers, we're dealing with people," said Carrion, the lawyer. "That's what people do: They follow the paths of ambition.''

* * *

On a recent night, the blast of mariachi trumpets filled a Pinellas restaurant. Ignacio bought rounds of beers for his friends. He danced with his wife, whirling her around. His daughter eyed the blue-suited mariachis. His sons played games.

An American man who used to work under Ignacio came over to the table. He kissed Ignacio's wife, slapped Ignacio on the back and shook his hand. They seemed to be equals. Yet, so much separates them.

"I'm still looking for the American dream,'' Ignacio says. "Maybe if I had the papers that everyone's looking for. I don't feel it yet. I never had that paper in my hand."

For now, he's building his own retirement. Maybe some day, when the children are grown and married, when they don't need him anymore, he'll return to Mexico, he says, back to that town where the mountains scallop toward the sea. He'll buy some land, build a house and live out his final years overlooking the ocean.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at or 813 661-2441.

[Last modified May 14, 2006, 05:37:41]

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