Marina and Jose Aguilar know well the stereotypes that can cling to the immigrant community: That they flout federal laws and come here illegally. That they commit crimes and overwhelm public assistance programs. That they don’t pay taxes.
For the Aguilars, the antidote to such assumptions is to live life well.
“We have gotten nothing for free – everything we have we worked really hard for. We pay our taxes on time,” Marina said. “Literally, what some people say doesn’t make sense. I pay it no mind, because I know I’m not doing that. I’m not committing crimes. I’m just trying to make my life better so my kids’ lives can be easier.” Jose agreed: “People say: ‘you want to become a citizen to get benefits.’ But no – I never got benefits before, why would I start now?”
Marina was 16 in 2009 when she arrived in the United States from Colombia as a legal permanent resident (with a green card sponsored by her grandmother). She met Jose in Lakewood and soon welcomed baby Helen, who’s now 6, and later Mariana, 2. Jose was just a year older than Helen is now when his parents brought him, without papers, across the U.S-Mexico border in search of better opportunities.
Lisha Loo-Morgan, parish services coordinator for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, helped Jose apply to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which helps undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children defer deportation actions and become eligible for work permits. Marina hoped to become a citizen, but then someone stole her car, with her green card inside.
The couple reached out to an immigration attorney for help – only to be told that the bill for getting her a new card would top $10,000. So the couple returned to Loo-Morgan, who helped Marina navigate the complicated bureaucracy to get a new card and in 2015, become a naturalized citizen.
Marina, in turn, petitioned for her husband, who met the immigration requirements under immigration law, to get his green card too. Jose, a legal permanent resident, now is working with Loo-Morgan on paperwork for his citizenship.
“We went to Catholic Charities to apply for my DACA and met Lisha, and ever since then, she has been an angel to us,” Jose said, adding that Loo-Morgan also persuaded him to pursue his high school degree after he dropped out.
Their immigration and citizenship issues complicated everything from big purchases like a car and home to Marina’s plans to pursue higher education, to Jose’s efforts to start his own dry-walling company.
But the couple does whatever it takes to succeed. Marina, a trained phlebotomist, dreams of a career in nursing, so she recently took a new housekeeping job at a hospital, primarily because her new employer will help pay for her schooling.
The couple recently bought their first house, and in the process, Jose grew so well-versed in real estate financing that he plans to expand his business to handle that too. With each new accomplishment, Jose has never lost sight of his most important goal.
“I really want to become a citizen. Even without papers, I feel like I belong here. I grew up here. I met my wife here, I had my kids here, I bought my house here,” Jose said. “I really love this country, because this country gave me everything I have. This is my home.”
Loo-Morgan said she knew from the start that Jose, while troubled as a teenager, “was determined to get ahead and to do it right.”
“I’m proud of both of them for their accomplishments,” Loo-Morgan said. “They’ve come a long way and now have a beautiful family. I will always be there for them.”