Maria Belen Ruiz Gonzalez was 5 when she arrived in the United States on the Fourth of July 18 years ago, and she thought the fireworks over Portland were a celebration of her arrival. The SOU business major will observe Independence Day as a newly-minted U.S. citizen this year, nearly closing the loop on a long cycle of immigration roadblocks and limited opportunities for her family and herself.
“There is nothing more frustrating to me than people who have a mindset that if you just come into the country legally, you should be fine,” Ruiz says. “My own family came to the states on a plane, with proper documentation.”
Her mother came first, to check out the possibilities, and Ruiz followed with her father and brother. All had visitor visas that allowed them to enter the U.S. from Paraguay, where her mother was a businesswoman and her father an accountant. They escaped a pervasive climate of violence in their hometown of Asuncion, Paraguay.
“On two separate occasions, armed men showed up at my home to attempt to kidnap my brother and I so they could hold us for ransom,” Ruiz says. “It’s a thing in Paraguay. On more than a few occasions, my mom was attacked in her own office by burglars demanding money.
“My parents were nice people – they didn’t have people who hated them or anything, but this is how people survive and get by in Paraguay.”
Her parents took what work they could find in the Portland area, settling in Tualatin and holding two or three under-the-table jobs each. They were overworked and underpaid, Ruiz says, because they didn’t have U.S. Social Security numbers.
Their visitor visas soon expired, driving the family deeper into the shadows of society. They couldn’t apply for Social Security cards, couldn’t file tax returns and, as immigration laws tightened, were unable to hold drivers licenses. They couldn’t leave and then re-enter the U.S., and because they had overstayed their visas it eventually became more difficult for their relatives to visit. Ruiz’s mother and aunt haven’t been able to see each other for more than 18 years.
“I refused to talk about my legal status for years due to fear instilled in me from a young age,” Ruiz says. “However, I’m here, I’m proud and I’m fearless.”
She turned a corner in her personal journey in October 2013, when she gained permanent resident status in the U.S. – a process that she describes as far more difficult and convoluted than her recent citizenship interview and test. As a permanent resident, she became eligible for a Social Security card and a driver’s license, and was able to work above-board.
She took another huge step – or a leap of faith – the following fall, when she enrolled at Portland Community College.
“I had no clue what I was doing, or what the collegiate system was like here,” Ruiz says. “Nobody in my family had ever attended college in the U.S. My dad was a CPA in Paraguay, but my mom was a self-made entrepreneur and she hadn’t even finished high school.
“So for me, my first full two years of college were guessing games.”
She initially applied for and was granted financial aid, but that was revoked when her grades plummeted during her freshman year. She paid for the entire second year out-of-pocket, working full-time at Nordstrom in Portland while attending classes and resuscitating her GPA.
Her boyfriend – defensive lineman James Aso’au Porter – was recruited to play football at SOU beginning in 2016, and a year later Ruiz decided to transfer and join him on the Ashland campus.
“I struggled a lot to fit in here,” she says. “I’m a very outgoing person, but I felt like I was out of my league at a university.
“What helped a lot was the football team – especially the defensive linemen. My boyfriend would take me to all the things they would do. I went to all the games. If I talked to other students within my classes, it was almost always the football players. They have been my go-to, my protectors, my friends here at SOU.”
Ruiz is on course to earn her bachelor’s degree next spring in business administration, with a concentration in marketing and a minor in communication. She plans to move back to Portland after graduation and would love to land a job with either Nike or Adidas – and to “wake up just as excited to learn and grow every day as I do from my classes.”
But her immigration history continues to raise obstacles for her, even though she’s been a permanent U.S. resident for five years and became a citizen in April.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process requires her to list at least one parent as a source of financial support. She can’t list her mother, who still has no reportable income and no Social Security number, and Ruiz had a falling out with her father when she was in high school and no longer communicates with him.
She got by while at PCC by using the college’s payment plan and saving money from her job. She now works at Dutch Bros. in Medford, but doesn’t earn enough to cover all school and living expenses, and has hasn’t applied for scholarships or other aid.
“I’m a barista and the tips are good, but aren’t that great,” Ruiz says. “I was granted subsidized and unsubsidized (college) loans. I now have almost $10,000 in school loans for the entire year and summer that’s coming up.”
But she has developed a sense of belonging at SOU, and credits small class sizes and caring professors for her academic success and growing confidence – specifically calling out business faculty members Dennis Slattery, Mark Siders and Jeremy Carlton.
“I’m a firm believer of fate,” she says. “I think we’re all where we’re supposed to be in this point in time. SOU is that for me.”
The admiration of her professors runs in both directions, with Slattery describing his student as “sweet and intelligent, and terribly hard-working.”
“Her story is one of courage and hard work, all in this wonderful personality and bright light of a person,” he says.
A high point in Ruiz’s journey was the U.S. citizenship process. She applied last Halloween – just a few days after she became eligible, following five years as a legal permanent resident. It meant a trip to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration office in Portland, a $725 application fee and a “biometric screening” – fingerprints, photograph and signature. She received a study packet of 100 U.S. civics questions, and was told she’d need to correctly answer six out of 10 randomly selected questions during her oral exam for citizenship six months later – in April.
“I got the first six questions correct, so I didn’t need to answer any more,” Ruiz says.
As proud as she is of her accomplishment, she is most excited about what it will mean for her mother. Because Ruiz is over 21 and now a citizen, her mother is eligible for a change in her own legal status. “All that has to be done is file paperwork and pay the fees,” she says.
That’s the catch – legal fees and application expenses will amount to almost $6,000. And because she received no financial aid this year, most of Ruiz’s earnings have gone toward her own expenses. She had been putting some money aside to buy her mother a round-trip airline ticket to Paraguay for Mothers Day, to be reunited with family members for the first time since 2001. But Ruiz and her mother have agreed those savings should instead go into their immigration fund.
“I will still buy her a round trip ticket, but after all the legalities are dealt with,” Ruiz says. “For me, I won’t consider this (citizenship process) successful until my mom is 100 percent protected from deportation.”