Reaching for Legitimacy in the Immigrant Economy

Edy Diaz at his Beltsville home with his children, Edy Jose, 5, and Gabriela, 2. Diaz recently gained legal status after emigrating from Guatemala 11 years ago.
Edy Diaz at his Beltsville home with his children, Edy Jose, 5, and Gabriela, 2. Diaz recently gained legal status after emigrating from Guatemala 11 years ago. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006

Moments before stepping out of a shadowy illegal economy into the light of a more lawful existence, Edy Diaz practiced what he would say.

" Cambiar is 'to change,' right?" he asked, pausing outside his white delivery van. Then he walked into a Wachovia bank and showed his new Social Security card to the branch manager. Slowly and carefully, he explained: "The number you have is wrong."

For more than a decade, Diaz, who was born in Guatemala, had been using a bogus Social Security number, nine digits purchased on a corner in Columbia Heights. He had carried a hand-me-down cellphone, still in the original owner's name. He had "bought" a home in Beltsville by having a cousin put his name on the loan.

Now, on that sunny morning in July, he looked forward to making new financial footprints -- finally, his own.

An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States, creating what is described as an underground or illicit economy. Their finances elude easy classification. They deal with street criminals and with mortgage lenders. They pay taxes. Their vast yet intimate networks help them find jobs, housing, schools and shopper's discount cards.

Each has his own story, or her own system. As a national debate wages over the future of people like Edy Diaz, he and his family illustrate a strategy they have used to survive in the United States, one that allowed him to live in suburban Washington and work illegally for a decade.

A New Identity for $80

That young Edy would emigrate to the United States was something not so much discussed in the Diaz family as it was taken for granted. The third of 11 brothers and sisters, he saw little future on the family farm about 100 miles from Guatemala City. He left school after the sixth grade to work in the corn and coffee fields, and by his 17th birthday the family had saved the $3,500 needed to pay a human smuggler, called a coyote, for his journey to America. They made it clear that, once there, Edy should find work and keep it. "I don't want to hear you got fired because you were lazy," his father said.

Edy Diaz walked for 40 days in a group of 180 people, praying that his sneakers would last. When he arrived in Los Angeles in April 1995, Diaz called his brother, living in Hyattsville, to tell him he'd made it -- and to ask him to wire enough cash for his flight to Washington.

From a relative, Diaz got the name of a person who could take his picture and put it on a fake green card for about $80. They met on a corner in Columbia Heights in Northwest Washington, and the price included an equally fake Social Security card. Diaz took the first job he found: $5.50 an hour to pot plants at a nursery.

Three years into his job, a young Guatemalan at the nursery caught Diaz's eye. She turned to him with questions, like where to find carne asada and fresh produce, and would ask him for rides. She asked everyone to call her Rosie, even though she filled in a different name on her job application. Nobody asked why.

Like about half the illegal immigrants in the United States, Rosa Guzman arrived in the United States legally, on a tourist visa. Her parents were successful restaurateurs on an island off Guatemala's coast, and a friend of theirs pulled some strings to get her the visa, which would expire in six months. Overeducated for her job handing out maps at a tourism center, Guzman was eager for an adventure.

When she got to Washington, Guzman, like Diaz, bought fake papers -- delivered to her at a McDonald's in Adams Morgan. Not wanting to use her real name on phony documents, she picked one she knew she wouldn't forget -- her cousin's -- and she became her for $75.

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