Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Undocumented Worker Pays Price for Immigration Policy

Teresa Figueroa still has the laminated posters from the two times she was named employee of the month at Micron Industries in Elmhurst. In the center of each poster is a photo of a smiling Figueroa being congratulated by Micron President Don Clark for her exemplary work gluing together electrical transformers on an assembly line.

Figueroa proudly showed me the awards Friday in the living room of the Melrose Park home she and her husband bought three years ago for $184,000. A Sharp color TV stands against one wall of the room, a shelf of DVDs below, a Compaq computer in one corner and an aquarium in the other, a typical American home in most every respect.

But the 50-year-old mother of four sitting before me in a pink sweatsuit and flower-print blouse, offering me cookies and telling me she's sleepy from staying up late to watch the pope's funeral, has another distinction earned from her 2-1/2-year tenure at Micron. She's a convicted felon awaiting probable deportation.

The employee of the month posters help explain that, too. Instead of naming Figueroa, the posters give the recognition to Lucia Peraida -- the name on the false identification documents that Figueroa, a Mexican immigrant, presented to obtain her job.

Two years ago, the real Lucia Peraida complained to Elmhurst Police that somebody at Micron was using her name and Social Security number. Peraida, of Chicago, had learned this when the Internal Revenue Service accused her of failing to report income from Micron that left her with a $3,566 tax liability.

An Elmhurst detective went to the factory and confronted Figueroa, who confessed on the spot. She told him she had purchased a Social Security card and resident alien card for $200 from a guy named Alfredo who she met at a temporary employment agency in Melrose Park.

Convicted of ID theft

Figueroa, who came here in 1999 on a tourist visa that has since expired, says she was assured by a supervisor at Micron that her false identity wouldn't be a problem. The supervisor knew her real name, she says, because her son and a close family friend were already working there. The company denies it.

While it's difficult to believe Figueroa didn't know she was breaking the law, the part that rings true is that she didn't know it would be much of a problem, such false employment documents being commonplace and resulting so rarely in criminal prosecution. She says most Micron employees share her undocumented status.

But with a complaining victim, Figueroa was in big trouble.

DuPage County prosecuted her for financial identity theft and using fraudulent ID cards. A jury convicted her in August, and a judge sentenced her to 90 days in the DuPage County Jail. She served 45 days, then spent another two weeks in an immigration holding cell awaiting deportation before her family could post bond.

Figueroa might already be back in Mexico -- or still in jail -- if not for the Rev. Claudio Holzer, priest at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Melrose Park, where Figueroa has been an active parishioner since coming here from Tilzapotla, Mexico.

Support from the Church

Figueroa teaches a catechism class for teenagers and runs a seniors group at the church, where Holzer said half the 2,000 parishioners who attend Sunday service are without proper documents. Holzer enlisted parishioners to attend Figueroa's trial to show support and asked the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, on whose board he serves, to take up her long-shot cause.

The coalition is trying to find a member of Congress to sponsor a private immigration bill to allow her to remain here. Figueroa could be ordered deported as early as April 29, when she next goes before an immigration judge.

Figueroa originally came here to join her husband, who entered the country two years earlier (also illegally) and took a job as a landscape worker. She later snuck their four children across the Texas border through El Paso. Their oldest son is now married. Another son attends junior college, while two daughters are high school honor students.

Figueroa's crime is not insignificant. I would not want anyone complicating my life by appropriating my Social Security number.

Yet, at the same time, I can't help but think that we contributed to Figueroa's entering this life of crime -- a life now being led by perhaps 10 million undocumented workers in America -- by our national failure to come up with sensible, comprehensive immigration policies that recognize the economic and social realities.

The New York Times reported last week that illegal immigrants workers are providing a subsidy of up to $7 billion a year to our Social Security system -- money they are paying in through false Social Security numbers for which they will never receive benefits, just one measure of how such "criminals" contribute to our society.

Teresa Figueroa would have made a good American, if only we had given her a chance.

Column by Mark Brown of the Sun-Times supporting comprehensive immigration reform.


At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So does anyone know what happened in this case? Does she still need the support of the Latino/a and community at large?


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