He’s successful — and undocumented

Stephen Smith Dec 17, 2008

He’s successful — and undocumented

Stephen Smith Dec 17, 2008


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.

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