He's successful -- and undocumented


Tess Vigeland: Now let's meet a small businessman who actually does better in a recession. He has a car repair shop in Minneapolis, and a lot of his customers are trying to save money by extending the lives of their beaters. But there's another big trend working against him, as Stephen Smith from American RadioWorks reports.

Stephen Smith: Alfredo Flores started fixing flats in this Minneapolis tire shop 11 years ago. He moved here from Mexico and was hungry to learn English. Alfredo knew that was the way to get ahead.

Alfredo Flores: So I started watching movies, a lot of movies and listening to the radio and let's say I don't know what the word means, and I always ask how you say this in past, present and future. That's how I learned it.

He learned English well. Now, Alfredo not only manages the tire shop, he's getting ready to buy it. He feels at home in Minneapolis. He figures he's got at least 300 relatives around town. And a few of them work at the garage.

On Saturday afternoons, Alfredo closes the shop and fires up a gas grill in an empty car bay. He cooks pork ribs for employees and friends.

Flores: We put lime, salt and we put beer on top of it -- that's the secret.

There's another secret. Alfredo Flores is in the U.S. illegally. Days after he crossed the border from Mexico, he paid $100 for a fake social security number and a bogus green card.

Flores: You know, there's a lot of people they make documents and we buy them. That's the only way you can work. It's not legal, but what can you do?

Alfredo lives with his girlfriend Norma and their two kids. Norma is also in the U.S. illegally. But this couple doesn't fit the stereotype of undocumented workers. They own a 3-bedroom house in Minneapolis with a white picket fence. They remodeled their kitchen and built a master suite in the basement.

Flores: This is my -- our -- Jacuzzi. I got a Jacuzzi here.

For so long life in America seemed stable and promising. The tire business was good and Norma could stay home with the kids. But late last spring the police came.

Flores: She closed this door in here. She was in here.

When Minneapolis police broke down the front door, Norma hid in one of the bathroom closets.

Flores:They came with the gun like this. She was scared to death. She was hiding here.

The search warrant said Alfredo might be guilty of identity theft. Unlucky for him, the I.D. he bought belonged to an IRS agent. Like an estimated 11 million other immigrants, Alfredo used phony papers to work in the U.S. And under Minnesota law that makes him a criminal. But for now, no charges have been filed.

While they wait to see what happens, Norma and Alfredo still eat a big meal together almost every noon. Today it's hot peppers and pork. Alfredo says his healthy, productive family is an asset to the community -- that they're not criminals. To start with, he says, their renovated house is a plus for their neighborhood.

Flores: Inside it was about $55,000 -- and the outside, $30,000. So I'm kinda supporting the economy, I will say.

Alfredo is also helping support a couple of lawyers. He hired them in case he lands in immigration court.

Back at the tire shop, Alfredo says illegal immigrants should be allowed to work in the U.S. as long as they obey the laws and pay their taxes. He's given a lot of thought to how he would change immigration law to help the undocumented.

Flores: I will give them permission to the people. I will give them drivers license at least and maybe some kind of social security card to collect taxes -- I mean, we're willing to pay taxes.

In spite of his legal problems, Alfredo Flores remains optimistic. But he's in legal limbo -- either headed for a foothold in the American middle class, or headed for deportation back to Mexico.

In Minneapolis, I'm Stephen Smith for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Smith is the executive editor and host of American RadioWorks, the highly respected documentary series from American Public Media.
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Anyone who wants to become a U.S. citizen should number one be a net benefit to this country (we have enough uneducated and poor people already). And what's wrong with the requirements for legal immigration. Seems to me they are in place to ensure that a lot of poor and uneducated who will become a financial burden to this country don't get in. What's so bad about that? Why should any sovereign country want people coming into their country that will be a financial burden. And despite what all the pro-illegal activists say, low wage workers do not contribute more than they take out. Do you really think that person working at jobs that pay 7-12 dollars an hour pays enough in taxes to pay for the medical care of himself/herself. Let alone the medical care of their children and their educational expenses. Being poor is not a sin, but it is indeed a burden for those who have to subsidize their health, house and educational expenses. This is financial suicide to allow all these poor and uneducated to become citizens of this country. It is not racist, xenophobic or even self to not want to be responsible for these people. It's just blame common sense. By their sheer number, they will destroy the American Dream that they seek.

Mr. Flores has built his life in the United States based upon the criminal theft of identity. His efforts to live a law abiding, productive life here is poisoned by this one act. He should not get a pass or a break or a pat on the back for his ability to circumvent the system, no matter how difficult the system of legal immigration is. I agree reform is needed, but this is not a solution. Identity theft is treated my Mr. Florez and others like him as a victimless crime - it is not. Those of us who have dealt with identity theft deal with the fallout of the crime for years. I have no sympathy for Mr. Florez's situation, and feel he should be punished for his actions.

I was feeling pretty good about Mr. Flores. Good person, business man, contributing to the community. But I lost all empathy for him with his last line "I mean, we're willing to pay taxes." Does that mean he is not currently paying taxes? You should not share in the benefits of living in this country without fulfilling your obligations to this country. I could make a contribution to my community and spend $85,000 on home improvements if I didn't pay taxes for government services.

Let me point out, I bear no hatred towards Alfredo or anyone else who is here with or without documents. I have been an immigrant in countries other than the US too. I understand the need to provide for yourself and your family by seeking better opportunities. But, don't break the rules to do it. I have one parent who grew up in absolute abject poverty, who immigrated here legally, separately without any support from me or anyone else and is still extremely successful in the US today.

Breaking the rules reduces the support for the reforms we are all looking for. When you break a rule, it is seen as unfair by many others, and instead of supporting reform they will place more emphasis on enforcement. So the very changes and simplification that Alfredo, I and millions of others desire is hindered by these actions.

The economic conditions created overseas by US or other nations policies may be the cause of the immigration. But I personally do not think that in and of itself justifies entering the US or any other country by whatever means necessary.

In reply to Mr Hammond comment, Mexican's, both illegal & legal seem to be able to save and pay their own way without relying on the public dole. Refreshing idea.

Best of luck to Mr Flores. He's the type of immigrant this country needs.

I am the son of immigrants: my parents came to this country as political refugees fleeing Communist Cuba. and I will always be grateful to this country for welcoming them and allowing them and other immigrants to be successful and able to raise a family. I believe that the United States must have as open an immigration policy as national security, economic security , and social stability allow. After all, Immigration is what made the United States what it is today.
In many ways, Alfredo is a great example of what opportunities exist for all who live here. Yet his story disturbed me. Alfredo is quoted as saying that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay as long as they obey the law and pay taxes. The problem is that by coming to the US illegally, they have not obeyed the law: they have broken the law! This is indeed a paradox. And this is, I believe what has angered many Americans.
Immigration policy is truly the Gordian Knot of our times. We have tried many things over the years, including amnesty for illegals during the Reagan Aministration. All have failed. And all will fail unless we tackle the root causes of immigration, which oftentimes lie outside the United States in the countries where these immigrant come from. So long as there is poverty, oppression, and a lack of opportunity for improvement, men and women will risk there lives to come to the US to provide a better life for their families: legally if they can; illegally if they have to.

In the spirit of the Fairness Doctrine, I hope we'll next hear a story about the parents in Gilbert, AZ who lost their son after an "undocumented" visitor drove drunk and killed him in a car accident. Here’s the link: http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/story/130551. Let’s hear how their loss is affecting them economically and emotionally.

What "New Citizen" said. I was born here myself, have always had relatives in other countries, have some folks going through the system right now. The present system effectively prohibits economic migration, at the same time as US "free trade" agreements are making it seem the only option to an increasing number of our neighbors.

We need to concentrate on reforming the laws, not on ramping up enforcement of the dysfunctional ones that we have on the books now.

I too am a new citizen who chose the legal path to naturalization. Let me tell you, it was a nightmare. I'm not justifying Alfredo's decision: I just want to say that as someone who spent the time and money to "legally" immigrate, I bear NO hard feelings towards Alfredo or the millions of other undocumented people in this country.

NAFTA has destroyed segments of the Mexican economy, especially agriculture. People have to survive and many risk their lives to come to the US and become productive members of our society and contribute to our economic growth.

Our immigration policies today leave people with little option BUT to enter the country without papers. It's next to impossible for the average Latino to get a visa both because of the cost and the restrictive requirements (home ownership, thousands of dollars in the bank, a stable job, etc.) The people who have all these things in Mexico or El Salvador are the LEAST likely to WANT to come to work in the US. So the poorest of the poor come, and after they risk their lives and freedom to come here, they are vulnerable to exploitation and increasingly violence.

So I applaud Alfredo for being able to build a decent life for himself and his family DESPITE his lack of documents. Those who think they can earn as much money working in an auto repair shop should give up their jobs and open an auto repair shop of their own instead of trying to use US immigration law to level the playing field.

If you want to compete with Alfredo, do so on your own merit. Don't go crying to Uncle Sam. The odds are already overwhelmingly stacked against the Alfredos of the world.

A hard working, successful businessman. Sounds like the kinda guy i would want for my neighbor.


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