Noemi Romero, a so-called “Dreamer” brought to the United States by her parents as a child, tried to work illegally to pay for a legal work permit. This is what happened.
There is a key to the land of the free and the home of the brave. It is nine digits long. Without it, spacious skies and amber waves of grain are reduced to the distant view from a cold, hard jail cell.
It is a social security number. And at age 15, Noemi Romero discovered she didn’t have one.
The teenagers at Ronald C. Bauer Medical Arts High School in Phoenix were psyched. They were about to get driver’s licenses. Noemi went home and asked her parents if she could get one too.
That’s when they told her: No, because she wasn’t American.
“It was shocking because I thought I was from here. I didn’t know I was any different,” says Noemi, now 23.
She was born in Villahermosa, Tabasco, at the bottom of the smile in southern Mexico that curves into the Yucatan. Uneducated and routinely unemployed, Noemi’s parents decided to risk secreting themselves, with then 3-year-old Noemi and her 1-year-old brother, into the Land of Opportunity. “Living over there was hard,” Noemi says. “They wanted to give me a better life, and for them to have a better life too.”
Noemi has no memory of Mexico. She didn’t come here by choice, but she identifies as American and speaks fluent English. She is a so-called Dreamer, and this is the story of her nightmare.
“There was nothing that would stop me from doing what I wanted to do,” Noemi says. Then she started filling out college applications.
At first, the news didn’t change Noemi’s life. She continued to dream the same dreams, skidding into the future in blissful ignorance. She was going to go to college and become a nurse. “There was nothing that would stop me from doing what I wanted to do,” she says.
Then she started filling out college applications. “The first thing I would see is ‘Social Security Number.’ And I would be like, ‘What is that?’ So I filled everything out, but I didn’t fill out that part.”
After numerous failed application attempts, a college counselor finally explained that without a social security number, Noemi couldn’t qualify for financial aid and would be charged out-of-state tuition – three times the cost of in-state. “That’s when I was like, ‘I give up.’”
She tried cosmetology school. They asked for a social security number. “What do I need it for?” she asked. “I just want to learn.” They said she couldn’t get licensed to work in a salon without it.
In a land where any kid can become president, she couldn’t become a hairdresser. What could she do? She couldn’t really go to Mexico – her parents didn’t want to return, so she’d have to leave everyone she’d ever known for a foreign place with its own grim prospects.
Then she heard about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Launched by the Obama administration in 2013, it allows undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to receive immunity from deportation and earn a renewable two-year work permit.
The good news: Noemi was one of the estimated 1.7 million Dreamers who potentially qualify for DACA. The bad news: It cost $465 to apply.
Her family didn’t have $465. So every day, Noemi approached businesses in her area, asking if they were hiring. One by one, doors closed in her face. She didn’t have the nine-digit key.
Finally, a Dreamer friend told Noemi that the grocery store where she worked, Lam’s Supermarket, was hiring a cashier. Just borrow a social security number, her friend advised.
That’s when it occurred to Noemi: Her mom had a social security number. It was temporary, issued by the government along with a work permit while she fought deportation in court.
Noemi asked her mom if she could borrow it. She agreed. So did the supermarket managers when Noemi informed them what she was doing. “They said it was OK, they just needed someone to work.”
The key fit. The door opened.
“And honestly,” Noemi says, “I never thought I was going to end up going to jail for that.”