UF student spent portion of her life as an illegal immigrant


Candy Herrera

Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 6:59 p.m.

Candy Herrera came to the United States from Chile with her mother, Teresa, when she was 4 years old. They were both on six-month visas as tourists. They’ve never gone back.

Thanks to help from her grandfather, who was already an American citizen, eventually Candy and Teresa were able to shed their illegal status and become permanent U.S. residents.

Now, Candy is 27 and working toward a master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of Florida. She is in the process of becoming an American citizen.

“When you grow up here, you’re more than likely to stay here as an immigrant,” she said. “My family’s here, and my friends are here, so I’m going to stay here.”

But for more than half of her life, she was an illegal immigrant for whom higher education seemed an unreachable dream.

“I couldn’t go to college, so I just got these crappy, under-the-table jobs,” Herrera said. “I would take jobs where I strongly suspected that my employers were keeping wages from me.”

As an illegal immigrant who needed to earn a living, she was in a vulnerable position that made it difficult to contest possible exploitation by her bosses.

While she worked as a restaurant server, one employer refused to give Herrera a raise along with the other employees when the minimum wage increased because her boss told her she wasn’t paying taxes.

She spent three hours on the bus each way as she headed to both of her jobs in Palm Beach County, where she grew up, because she couldn’t get a driver’s license.

Despite those hardships, Herrera said she has been more fortunate than other illegal immigrants. For that, she thanks her family.

Entering the U.S. on a visa and staying after it expired was the only option Herrera’s mother could see to get a better life.

She had gotten a divorce and brought her daughter to the United States to be with her parents.

Herrera’s grandfather, Hernan, had earned his U.S. citizenship after more than two decades of living as an illegal immigrant. He had arrived through a legal port of entry and faced multiple dead-ends in his attempts to become a citizen, including a run-in with an attorney who took $5,000 and then reneged on his promise to secure his citizenship.

Millions of other illegal immigrants, however, don’t have family in the United States to rely on as a path to citizenship.

Two plans — one proposed by President Barack Obama and the other by a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators — seek to provide a better road map for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in America today.

Herrera sees some problems with both plans — she cited a weak focus on reunifying families torn apart by a parent’s deportation — but she is hopeful this push will result in long-needed reforms.

While the support of congressional Republicans is uncertain, she said she thinks the GOP could back the reforms because the party must adapt if it wants to survive. That means showing support for immigrants and their struggles, especially given the growing power of Hispanic voters nationwide.

While Herrera said she is bothered by the sense that Republican support for this attempt at immigration reform could be motivated by a “thinly veiled pandering to the Latinos of the United States,” she said it could be key to finally improving the system and benefiting millions of illegal immigrants.

Establishing a way for these people to become citizens would be a radical shift to their benefit, giving them the freedom to leave jobs where they’re being taken advantage of without fear of retribution or deportation, she said.

“You can imagine how these folks would feel disenfranchised and not want to go to the police because they have been the victims of racism while in the United States,” she said.

Herrera also pointed out that immigration reform would give them the chance to improve their lot and gain some upward social mobility, which in turn would allow them to pump more money into the economy as consumers.

One of her main concerns about the so-called Gang of Eight’s proposal in the Senate is the high priority it places on border security. It would establish a commission to evaluate U.S. border security and require the completion of enforcement measures before allowing illegal immigrants to begin the process of earning their citizenship.

But the majority of illegal immigrants didn’t come here because the border was easy to cross, she insisted. They came here to work, and she considers pouring billions of dollars into border enforcement a “massive waste” of taxpayer money.

“The strongest pull factor for people to come to the United States is jobs — and so when the jobs aren’t there, they don’t come,” she said. “All they want to do is work.”

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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