The Dreamers step out of the shadows


Maria Contreras dreams about opening up her own restaurant someday. The 19-year-old from East Moline knows that she has some stiff competition.

Finding a way to beat the Chile Negro at El Mariachi in Moline, one of her favorite places, won’t be easy. She is confident and will soon complete her associate degree in business management and marketing from Black Hawk College. She’s not so confident about her legal status.

“I was born in Durango City; it’s in Mexico,” says Contreras.


Her parents brought Maria and her brother and sister to the United States with a tourist visa in 2002. They moved from Chicago to Moline and never looked back. The future is still full of questions for the family, but President Obama’s June 15 announcement on immigration policy, known as deferred action, brings a glimmer of hope. Contreras will likely qualify for temporary legal status open to undocumented youth meeting specific criteria and could be eligible for a work permit.

She started to realize the implications of her undocumented status as she was graduating from United Township High School in 2010. “The opportunities and scholarships and all that stuff were being a problem,” says Contreras. “I couldn’t sign up for them.”

“It is scary [not having legal status] because you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she continues. “… Or if next year you’re still going to be here or if you go to school what you’re going to do with it, or if everything’s just going to be a waste.”


The deferred action announcement will only provide a temporary fix for Contreras’ legal status, but she recognizes that it’s a step in the right direction. She looks forward to being able to work and get a driver’s license.

“Even though we’re not getting the green card or the papers or what we always wanted… we’re still getting some hope,” she explains. “I saw it as an opportunity for me to actually be someone in life and be able to make my dream come true.”


If Contreras hopes to open up a restaurant one day, she’ll need a more permanent solution to her undocumented legal status. She hopes that some version of the perennial DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act will pass. She’d like to get on with the rest of her life.

Another bonus of full citizenship that Contreras would love to take advantage of, is the ability to travel back to Mexico to visit relatives there.


“I haven’t been to Mexico since we moved here,” says Contreras. “I haven’t been able to see my Grandma. My grandpa died before I could see him. So, that would be a big thing too… It would mean everything.”

For the time being, Contreras will focus on finishing school and hopes to take advantage of the opportunities that her deferred action status will allow.

“Now we can have faith in something,” she says about temporary legal status. “It’s something that we can get started with.”

At least for now, the Chile Negro at El Mariachi is safe from any more competition. ■

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