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Borderline: Maria came to St. Louis to find opportunity, but her status often left her feeling lost

She sits in a small conference room at her lawyer's office. It's mid-morning, hours before she heads to a popular downtown St. Louis restaurant, where she buses tables. Maria isn't her real name, but what she's requested we call her for this story. She's 32, small, with short brown hair and big silver hoop earrings. She's a mother to four, an employee, a daughter and a sister.

And she's undocumented, meaning she has no legal status in this country, which is why we're calling her Maria instead of her real name.

Maria has lived in St. Louis for 13 years. Other members of her extended family who live in St. Louis all have legal status. Her children, all born here, are U.S. citizens.

Once, while busing tables at work last month, a customer asked Maria: "What do you think about our free country?"

"It's true, the American dream, what you say, it can come true if you work hard," Maria says.

But the stories she heard of life in the U.S. before leaving Mexico, that dream wasn't true.

"It's not that easy like everyone says."

Living in the shadows is a phrase used again and again to talk about the undocumented, some 10 million by the most recent estimates of the Department of Homeland Security, but thought to be much higher.

And there's a sentiment out there, says Jennifer Rafanan, executive director of the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, that those here without legal status are just here to take jobs, health care and benefits.

The irony, to her, is that often, people living in the shadows end up victims instead of perpetrators.

"It just compounds and compounds the issue, especially when you don't have legal status," Rafanan says. "It can be a case of living in the shadows, where you're just ripe for exploitation."

Out in the cold

Since leaving her home in Tijuana, Mexico, at age 19, Maria's life has been like a telenovela -- a soap opera, full of ups and downs that in many ways come down to the cost of building a life here without legal status.

Thirteen years ago, the upbeat and friendly young woman and her husband came to St. Louis at the suggestion of one of her brothers, who was living here. Maria and her husband had been in California, working in the fields. They had visas to visit, she says, but they expired.

Don't let America change you, she was told when she first came. And she'd seen it in California, how the Mexicans she knew stopped being friendly, stopped helping each other. She promised herself she wouldn't change.

After a few weeks in St. Louis, Maria's sister-in-law told Maria to find some place else to live. It was November, and snow already covered the ground.

"I remember that snow because she pushed me out, and my husband, he was working, and I remember I was walking in the snow with no jacket, and I was like, oh my goodness, what am I going to do?" she says.

She and her husband spent the night in their car. The next morning, she spent the day walking through the neighborhood in the cold. She stumbled upon a church.

"Bienvenidos," -- welcome -- the priest said to her in Spanish.

At the time, St. Francis De Sales was one of the first churches in St. Louis with a Hispanic ministry. The priest, an American, told Maria she could go inside. There, she sat in the pews, crying. A woman began speaking to her in Spanish -- what's wrong?

Maria told her her story, and soon the church offered help. They found an apartment for the couple, rundown, without heat or electricity, and Maria didn't know how to get it turned on. But it was better than their car, so the couple moved in.

Her husband kept working, and Maria walked through the alleys most days, searching the dumpsters for anything they could use.

One year later, her daughter was born, and all the bad didn't seem to matter.

But it wasn't over, either.

Speak English

The baby girl had kidney problems and began having seizures. One day, Maria took her to Cardinal Glennon, but she couldn't communicate very well with the woman at the front desk.

She took the woman's hand and put it on the baby's forehead. The woman turned away.

Maria didn't know what to do, but she knew her daughter needed help. She started screaming and people gathered. Finally, a doctor took the baby to the emergency room.

As best she could, Maria told the doctor what was happening with the baby.

She had a kidney problem, the doctor found, she needed surgery, and she needed a way to pay for it.

"I didn't know she was a citizen and to apply for Medicaid," Maria says. Someone explained it to her, though, and Maria went to the Medicaid office. There, again, she said she was yelled at because she had no papers.

Another woman approached to see what was happening. Maria explained it was for her daughter, who was a citizen.

The surgery went on as planned.

While her little girl was in the hospital, Maria watched TV one day. Pope John Paul II had come to St. Louis, and she made a promise to him then.

"I said, I promise, all this I know is a hard moment for me, but it's not gonna change who I am."

Please take care of my child, she said. After the surgery, her daughter fully recovered.

Six months after her daughter's surgery, her husband left them for a woman he met online. Now on her own, Maria began working while her mother, who came from Mexico, cared for her daughter.

Maria wanted to give her child everything she could -- experiences, education, travel.

Years later, through a friend, she met a man from Mexico who played the guitar and sang for her daughter. They have been together for eight years and have three children. In 2004, they bought a home in St. Louis, and again, the price of being undocumented turned out to be costly.

House and home

Maria and her family were looking for housing when a friend they'd met at church approached them with an offer. He was friendly, seemed like a good guy, but also persistent. Don't worry, he told them, I'll do everything for you.

And he did, including forging their signatures, selling the couple an overvalued house, falsifying their employment and W2s, all without them knowing it, Maria says.

And they weren't the only ones. The alleged mortgage fraud was written about widely in the past few years and largely targeted Hispanic immigrants. The Realtors represented both the sellers and the buyers and were alleged to have falsified signatures and sold houses for much more money than the buyers could afford. In 2006, the case was filed as a class action law suit, seeking to protect the identity of those who were undocumented. The judge denied that motion, says Sara Bollinger, office manager and director of outreach with U.S. Legal Solutions LLC,, where both Maria's legal case and immigration case are being handled. About half of those involved in the case dropped out. Currently, there are eight plaintiffs, including Maria.

In January, the Missouri Real Estate Commission took away the agents' licenses, Bollinger says, and federal criminal charges were filed in June.

Now, Maria and her family live in the house, with several other family members, whose help is essential to make the monthly payments.

To survive

Like generations of immigrants before her, Maria came from a different country with a different culture, where people have different rights and relationships with authority.

"It's been an issue continually," Rafanan says. "And I think it happens with different waves of immigrants."

Not knowing the language makes calling to get the electricity turned on a challenge, not to mention applying for benefits, a system even Americans have trouble navigating, she points out.

And often, some immigrants who learn to speak English quickly then take advantage of others in the community, she adds.

So why didn't Maria just go home? She thought of it.

But reality isn't quite so black and white, Rafanan says.

"In a lot of cases, it's so much better than the desperation and the situation that they had to leave in their home country. It's just a fact of life that this is what they have to do to survive."

Many groups in the community offer know-your-rights workshops, which focus on everything from workplace rights to what a person's rights are when approached by the police. The ACLU also offers programs for Muslims and Arabs.

In 2000, one of Maria's brothers, who is a citizen, applied for her to get status in the country. That case is still pending.

Bollinger figures it will take about four more years before anything happens.

Through it all, Maria believes that things happen for a reason. After finding themselves homeless, she found people who were willing to help strangers. After her daughter's surgery, she realized how essential it was to learn English, which she has on her own, with friends and family and through the jobs she's held. When her husband left, she learned she could provide for her family on her own.

"I've known (Maria) for four and a half years now," says Bollinger, "and she's a fighter. This is a woman that has more courage and more faith than myself and most women I know."

Today, Maria works, cares for her family and has become a voice among those in the housing case.

"I know a lot of people who can help," she says. "And I know my rights now."

She is scared of being deported, of leaving her children, of starting with nothing in Mexico. But she's proud, too, that she's remained true to the person she's always been.

It hasn't been easy, but she's kept her promise.

Beacon intern Rachel Heidenry assisted with translation during the interview with Maria. 

Contact Beacon reporter Kristen Hare.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Kristen Hare