Immigrants in the U.S. illegally have prosperous careers

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) – The world of undocumented immigrants includes maids and farmworkers, several families under one roof and people living in the shadows.

But it’s also the world of a North Miami couple that owns a successful remodeling business, an elegant condo and a Mercedes-Benz.

It includes Kelsey Burke, a lawyer practicing personal-injury law in West Palm Beach.

And Wilfredo Noguera, an accountant at a Miramar firm.

All four embody the American Dream. Yet none has a green card, a path to legal U.S. residency, or a guarantee they won’t be deported.

How is this lifestyle possible?

It’s not easy to deport undocumented immigrants who don’t have a criminal record or a removal order. The process can take up to six years or more because of backlog in immigration courts, federal officials say.

But while the chance of deportation doesn’t necessarily preclude an undocumented immigrant from holding a high-profile job or live in a nice home, it does require planning that most Americans never have to think about.

Mauro Kennedy and Maria Bilbao, the Argentine couple who own the remodeling business in Miami, have learned to navigate a system that allows them to own a business and pay taxes but denies them benefits like driver’s licenses and medical insurance.

They pay state and local fees to keep their business in good standing. But they make the payments online; websites do not ask about their immigration status.

Kennedy and Bilbao obtained Florida driver’s licenses when they arrived as tourists in 2001. They insured their cars and have been making payments online and on time ever since, they said.

But when their driver’s licenses expired in 2007 and 2008, they were unable to renew them. Because they’re undocumented, they don’t have the required identification – a green card or Social Security number – to get a new license.

Citing public safety concerns, about a dozen states have enacted laws to allow the undocumented to apply for driver’s licenses, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Florida is not one of them.

U.S. laws offer few opportunities for workers who want to come to the U.S. legally. Since 1965, immigration policy has focused on family reunification, refugees and certain high-skilled workers.

Over the years, the Kennedys have pinned hopes on proposals never approved by Congress and on presidential actions stalled in court.

In 2014, President Obama announced plans to temporarily shield from deportation as many as 5 million unauthorized immigrants and to offer them work permits. The plan included the undocumented parents of legal residents and U.S. citizens, and expanded protection to those who entered the country illegally as children.

Twenty-six states, including Florida, say the president overreached his executive powers on immigration policy. The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in the case and a decision is expected by June.

Kelsey Burke was 10 years old when her mother returned from the U.S. to Honduras, determined to lead her children to a better life.

Seventeen years later, Burke, now 28, crossed another threshold – into the legal profession. In September 2015, Burke was sworn in as a lawyer.

Burke came to Lake Worth in 1998, as a sixth-grader who didn’t speak English. By eighth grade, she was fluent and taking honors classes, she said.

She signed up for her high school’s criminal justice program and also took advanced-level classes to prepare for college.

After graduating from high school, she ended up with a job embroidering hats at a shopping mall kiosk.

At 19, her fortune changed.

A lawyer helped Burke obtain Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a federal law that shields immigrants from deportation to countries affected by civil strife or natural disaster. Since the 1990s, more than 350,000 Central Americans have obtained relief under that program. TPS, however, doesn’t lead to legal U.S. residency or citizenship and can be terminated at any time by Congress.

With her protected status, Burke got a driver’s license and a Social Security number and qualified for in-state tuition. She enrolled at Florida Atlantic University and was awarded a scholarship to cover the cost.

The prospect of a law degree, however, didn’t guarantee her a career.

Burke worried that new legislation might apply only to “Dreamers” who came to the U.S. as minors and are protected from deportation under Obama’s 2012 deferred action program.

She went to Tallahassee to lobby lawmakers, shared her story on Spanish-language television and was featured in a newspaper column.

In 2014, Florida lawmakers enacted legislation allowing students like Burke to be admitted to the Bar. She passed and is now a personal-injury lawyer for Murray & Guari in West Palm Beach.

In 2013, Wilfredo Noguera, his wife and two young daughters came to the U.S. to visit family. But the accountant was considering a bigger plan: to build new lives in the United States.

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