Editor’s Note: The names in this story have been changed to protect the sources’ identities.
When Maria Perez was a child living near Mexico City, she dreamed of seeking justice for the innocent and worked to become a government prosecutor. But after experiencing threats to her life, she made the choice to leave her career and move to the U.S.
“My mother told me, ‘Don’t be a lawyer,’” Perez said. “There’s a lot of corruption. The drug cartels have connections everywhere and pay to have people killed.”
Despite her experience as a lawyer, she now holds a job as a kitchen staffer in an apartment dining hall in West Campus. Perez obtained her law degree from the University of Tlaxcala and worked as a paralegal in criminal law for three years before graduating. As a prosecutor from 2003 to 2005, Perez’s cases mainly involved human traffickers and drug cartels.
“The job I did was to demonstrate the things they were doing,” Perez said. “It was a business to lie to girls and bring them from places like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. When they had them in Mexico, they sold them.”
According to Perez, prosecutors are often pressured by criminals to purposefully lose a case, allowing lawbreakers to regain their freedom. On one case involving the cartel, defendants threatened Perez through phone calls and in-person encounters. Fearing for her safety, she quit her job, but continued to be harassed.
“A lot of people work for [the cartel],” Perez said. “At one point, I didn’t feel safe.” Perez then made the decision to leave Mexico. She applied for a visa to enter the U.S. but the waiting period was five months. With the cartel still harassing her, Perez didn’t have that sort of time.
“My brother-in-law told me how I could come here,” Perez said. “He said it would be very dangerous, but I didn’t have a choice.”
In 2005, Perez paid a little under $1,000 to be transported to Houston illegally. She stayed in a hotel along with 15 other immigrants with little food and water for several days before moving to Austin, where she got a job at a market. Two weeks later, Perez got into a car accident, hurting her back and losing her job and car.
“The first year [in the U.S.] was a horrible time in my life,” Perez said. “I tried to kill myself. I didn’t know the language and was very depressed, and then I got addicted to the medicine for the depression.”
Perez said she went through a vicious cycle of poverty because of her illegal status. Sociology graduate student Corey McZeal, who teaches a course involving socioeconomic status of immigrants in the U.S., said Perez’s experience isn’t uncommon.
“A large part of immigrating successfully is just knowledge,” McZeal said. “If you have a social connection established with someone who has already been in the U.S. for 10 years, that learning curve that they had to go through, you don’t necessarily have to go through.”
Eventually Perez found support with a local church, recovered and met her husband. A year and a half after she left Mexico, she heard one of her friends, who was also a lawyer, had been killed. Unlike Perez, the friend was a defendant for criminals and had failed to win a case.
“When she left the office that day, her clients killed her,” Perez said. “I just couldn’t believe it. That could have happened to me.”
She saw the event as a tragedy, but also as a validation of her decision to leave Mexico. Perez is now finishing up English classes at ACC and maintains a legal status, but she still faces obstacles in becoming a lawyer in the U.S., namely with expenses and credit transfer.
“I’ll be able to transfer my credits [to pursue a law degree in the U.S], but I need to do this at a university like UT,” Perez said.
Perez continues her education while working full-time and said she hopes her story will empower immigrants who find themselves alone in the U.S. Remaining anonymous on the internet gives her peace of mind, but Perez feels lost after being forced to quit her passion.
“In Mexico, and now, I am hiding,” Perez said. “I stay here in the kitchen working a job much different than the one I had in my country, only because I don’t have a choice.”