Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Adriana Ortiz has always been highly motivated, especially when it comes to education, and a life of self-reliance has taught her that the only way to insure something gets done is to do it yourself.
So, when Ortiz, who once resided in the United States illegally but now is a citizen, saw how her half-sister was stymied from work and education because she was not a legal resident, Ortiz could not help but speak out.
After President Barack Obama announced his administration would defer deportations of noncriminal, young immigrants who are residing in the country illegally and are pursuing their education, Ortiz took her half-sister, Alicia Flores, to an informational meeting.
At the meeting, organized by the Democratic Party, Ortiz defended deferred action against critics. She did not know at the time, but her vocal support for Obama’s decision put Ortiz on the radar of local campaign officials.
A few months later, Ortiz stood in front of a crowd of 8,000 people at the Cashman Center and introduced Obama.
Ortiz relayed her life story in a few sentences and then brought up Alicia.
“She’s what you might call a Dreamer. She’s been in this country since she was 3 years old,” Ortiz told the crowd. “She grew up here, went to school here – she’s American in every way but on paper, and she wants to go to college and contribute to our society. And our president has her back. As he fights to pass the Dream Act, he’s also lifting the shadow of deportation for people like my sister.”
Flores, who shares a father with Ortiz, was born in Tijuana but moved to Southern California with her mother when she was 3 years old.
Ortiz, on the other hand, grew up in west central Mexico, shuttling between the homes of both sets of grandparents. Her parents were divorced. Her father moved to Washington, while her mother stayed in Mexico but was unable to financially support Ortiz. In her family, she said, there had never been much support for females to get an education.
When Ortiz was 15 and finished the Mexican equivalent of middle school, her grandparents said she had to find work to help pay for school expenses (there are significant fees for books and materials in Mexican public schools). Ortiz could not find work at such a young age and she finally convinced her grandparents to force her father to take her to Washington, where she could learn English, get a better education and improve her job prospects.
Ortiz thought, when her father agreed to the plan, he would apply for a student visa for her. After all, Ortiz’s father had become a U.S. permanent resident in 1987 under an amnesty program instituted by President Ronald Reagan. Ortiz’s father, arguing the plan was for Ortiz to stay in the United States for a short time and it wasn’t worth it to pay for a student visa, instead paid to smuggle his daughter across the border at Nogales, Ariz.
Ortiz ended up finishing high school in Washington. She says she was awarded scholarships to attend Easter Washington University, but when she took it upon herself to apply for a student visa (and pay the filing fee with earnings from the apple orchard where she and her father worked) she was denied because the annual visa cap had been met. The university found out she was not a legal resident and revoked her scholarship.
Ortiz, now 37 years old, moved to Las Vegas when she was 20 and eventually married a U.S. citizen, She became a permanent resident shortly thereafter and a U.S. citizen in 2008, when she voted in her first election. Today Ortiz and her husband run their own trucking business. Ortiz coordinates the jobs for her husband and a few other self-employed drivers. Almost 20 years after her student visa was denied, Ortiz still holds on to aspirations of college and is considering nursing school.
Because of her own experiences, Ortiz is especially passionate about the Dream Act and what it would accomplish for immigrants like her sister, who has already applied for deferred action. The Sun sat down with Ortiz to ask how she got involved with the campaign and why this subject is so important to her.
You came to the United States because you were a highly motivated teenager who saw education as a path forward, but your sister’s circumstances were quite different. How was her upbringing in Southern California?
Because she has no papers, and the other children have their papers, Alicia’s mom kept her at home the last two years of high school. Her mom said, “Oh, you can baby-sit.” Well when you tell a child that nothing is expected of you because you don’t have papers, of course they won’t be motivated. What’s the point of going to school? What’s the point of getting a high school diploma? You aren’t going to be able to do anything. Alicia got the short end of the stick big time. My other sister got all of the privileges because she was a U.S. citizen.”
Alicia came to Las Vegas to live with you when she was 18, and you convinced her to finish school. How did that go?
Alicia is so smart. She didn’t finish her last two years of high school, but she went and took a course at College of Southern Nevada to study for her GED (General Educational Development test). After one month she said, “I can take the test now.” She took the exam, she passed and I think she was in the 90th percentile. ... Now she had her GED, she is feeling good about herself and she says, “I want to be in the Air Force.” So we went to the Air Force recruiting office, and they said, “No, if you don’t have papers we can’t do anything for you.”
What do you think it would be like for Alicia if she were to live in Mexico?
My U.S. high school diploma in Mexico was worthless; they don’t recognize it. Her Spanish is awful, she doesn’t know how write or read the language and she would not make it in Mexico. This is a kid who is American in every way you can think of, behavior, looks, etc. She’s American except on a piece of paper. ... You are supposed to swim upstream, that’s life. You should work for what you get. But how are you supposed to swim when your feet and hands are bound? Forget swimming, how can Alicia even stay afloat when her feet and hands are bound? Now I’ve got my papers and I can swim upstream as fast as I want to go, because I have a piece of paper. The sky’s the limit. Whatever I want to do I can accomplish.”
You first met some Democratic Party organizers at a meeting on deferred action. What happened there?
Some people started bad-mouthing deferred action, and I couldn’t take it. I said: “Look at me and look at my sister, which is illegal?’ And he said I looked illegal, so I told him he had it backwards. I said it’s not her fault. She has been here since she was 3 years old. How is she supposed to make a living? How is she supposed to take care of herself? I went off on the guy. ... If you want to call someone names, go at her parents, they are the ones who made the decision. Now she has to live with the consequence. ... I wanted to go to college but because I didn’t have a piece of paper, no matter how capable I was, how smart I was or how hard I worked, it made no difference.”
How did your meeting with Obama go?
He asked about Alicia, he knew I had a sister who was a Dreamer. I said, ‘Sir, I want to personally thank you for (instituting deferred action), you have no idea what a difference that has made in my sister’s life and many young kids in America.’ I was so nervous that I was happy to get it all out when meeting the president. He hugged me and shook my hand, and he asked about our business. When I went on stage to introduce him, it was like an out-of-body experience. I should have been more nervous standing in front of thousands of people, but you feel the warmth of the people up there. You can feel that positive energy.