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Laz Ayala stands in front of Verde Village in Ashland, one of his developments. Ayala immigrated to the United States in 1981 from El Salvador. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]

Out of the Shadows

There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. As debate rages over Trump's policies to increase deportations of those with criminal histories, three local residents worry all immigrants are being vilified. Here they share their stories with Mail Tribune readers about coming to America illegally and making new lives for themselves here.

LAZ AYALA

El Salvador refugee now successful businessman

With death squads hunting down civilians and people disappearing without a trace in El Salvador, Laz Ayala, his brother and father crammed into the trunk of a car and crossed into America.

The year was 1981 and Ayala was a 14-year-old illegal immigrant to the United States.

A year later, he bought a fake Social Security card and got a job washing dishes. At 17, he dropped out of school, moved out on his own and worked three jobs to support himself and send money to relatives left behind in El Salvador, which was engulfed in a vicious civil war for more than a decade.

Realizing he needed more education, Ayala earned his GED and then enrolled in community college.

"In my second semester, I got a letter saying I could not continue attending because of my legal status. My Social Security number didn't match my name," he said. "I had to drop out of college."

Ayala had a burning desire to work for himself, but didn't know how to achieve his dream. Then he met a real estate broker.

"He must have seen something in me because he said, 'You should get a real estate broker's license.' I thought, 'Wow. What is real estate?'" Ayala said.

Ayala moved from California, settled in the Rogue Valley, enrolled in real estate school and then began working for a real estate company.

Months later, he earned a big commission from the sale of an Applegate Valley ranch. Over the years, he kept working hard, always expanding his knowledge of real estate, investing and financial analysis.

Ayala became a legal resident in 1989 during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. He received his Green Card, which authorized him to live and work in America permanently, through marriage, although Salvadoran refugees were also able to apply for political asylum. In 1993, he became a United States citizen.

Ayala eventually teamed with Mark Knox and Dave DeCarlow to form Ashland-based KDA Homes, a home development and building company with initials based on their last names.

"This community has been kind, generous and embracing," he said. "I can't say I haven't felt at times like an outsider, but it has been a great community."

Ayala has become a local philanthropist, providing major financial support for Kids Unlimited, which offers a Medford academy and after-school programs for children, many of whom come from financially struggling families. 

After being forced to drop out of college himself, Ayala has spent years providing scholarships for illegal immigrant Southern Oregon University students who are sheltered from deportation by the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, instituted during former President Barack Obama's administration.

"Without that, I wouldn't be able to go to college," Linda Escot, a biology major who also works as a nanny, said of the scholarship she receives from Ayala. "I'm able to focus more on learning."

Escot plans to become a science researcher or pediatrician — and find a way to help students herself someday.

Ricardo Lujan, who will graduate in June with a business degree, said he's grateful for the scholarship Ayala has provided and also wants to help other students in the future.

"It truly has made a difference," Lujan said. "I no longer worry like I did in my first years, 'Will I be able to afford next term's tuition?' With Laz's scholarship and other scholarships, I've been able to concentrate on my studies. It's hard to concentrate if you're always worried. I don't know how to repay Laz and other people who have supported me. As an undocumented immigrant, I cherish education more than anything."

Because they are not in the country legally, Lujan and Escot cannot take out federal student loans and don't qualify for Pell Grants that go to students with financial need.

"All those things are off the table," said Lujan, who has held various jobs while in college, including as a paralegal.

Ayala said when he heard many DACA students apply to SOU but can't attend because they can't get financial aid, he felt compelled to step in and help.

"These are extremely smart students," he said. "They have jobs. Some have multiple jobs to cover expenses. I want to use what I've been given to help people in hardship. I have compassion for people because of my experience."

Ayala said he now wants to use his success to not only help others financially, but to speak out about the plight of illegal immigrants. As a business owner and United States citizen, he doesn't have to fear losing his job or being deported.

"I want to use my story in this conversation to provide a voice for those who are not in a position to have a voice," he said. "I want to humanize the conversation, shed some light and provide a different perspective."

Ayala said he was especially troubled by President Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric about illegal immigrants. Research shows immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans.

"When a person who looks like me is walking down the street, is he seen as an illegal immigrant? A criminal? A rapist? A 'bad hombre' walking by?" he asked, echoing terms Trump used to describe illegal immigrants.

Trump has said he wants to deport illegal immigrants who commit crimes. That stance differs little from the position taken by Obama, who targeted criminals and recent arrivals — earning the nickname "deporter-in-chief" from immigration rights activists. More people were forcibly removed during Obama's presidency than during the presidencies of either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.

But Ayala said rhetoric about illegal immigration has taken on a racial angle lately, with all Latinos cast in a bad light.

"This is not a Hispanic thing or an immigrant thing. This is an American thing," he said. "A certain group is being targeted. That's not right and it should be pointed out. This is about what marginalizing a group does to our country. Are we in the process of creating another sub-class in our country like we did with African-Americans? Have we not learned from that?"

Ayala said stigmatizing a whole group because of ethnicity is not only morally wrong, but damaging to the country socially and economically.

"It's an incredible amount of talent and potential we're losing," he said.

Ayala said if America had the political will, it could cut illegal immigration by fining businesses that hire workers who lack real documents and identification. But industries know they need the workforce, and illegal immigrants are easy to exploit.

Meanwhile, Ayala said illegal immigrants are paying taxes and contributing to the Social Security system, without any guarantees they can ever receive benefits back.

According to a Social Security Administration 2014 report, unauthorized workers — who often use fake or expired Social Security numbers — pay an estimated $13 billion per year in Social Security payroll taxes but get only about $1 billion back. The SSA estimated unauthorized workers paid $100 billion into the Social Security Trust Fund over the past decade. 

Ayala said he would like America to make an honest determination of the number of immigrant workers it needs, then issue visas so immigrant-dependent industries can legally hire employees. As it stands now, millions of immigrant workers are living in fear on the margins of society. Labeling them as criminals, rapists and drug dealers further divides the country.

Ayala said creating racial tensions across communities for political gain is putting the country on a dangerous path.

"I'm concerned about where this is headed. I'm concerned as an American citizen and as someone who values and appreciates our freedom and who came here looking for that," Ayala said. "I've lived in a repressive country. I understand what it's like not to live in a democracy. To me, it's very personal."

RICARDO LUJAN

Immigration forced Lujan to grow up quickly

Eight-year-old Ricardo Lujan hadn't seen his father in three years.

His family was divided, with his dad working in America and Lujan, his mom and sister living in Mexico. When his dad called one day, it seemed like a dream come true.

"My dad said, 'How would you like to see me for your ninth birthday?'" Lujan recalled.

His father paid human smugglers to bring the family members across the border. But the smugglers wanted more money. They separated Lujan from his mother and sister. A woman threw him into a dark basement.

"She said, 'You might as well forget about your family because they forgot about you,'" Lujan said. "She would come in three times a day to give me food. She played a horror movie on a loop about a tooth fairy that killed children. I realized at 8 years old the world wasn't perfect. I had to keep calm. I had to grow up and be an adult."

After Lujan spent a week in the basement, his captors drove him to a gas station, where his father was waiting.

"I ran and gave him a big hug," Lujan said.

The family was reunited on Sept. 8, 2003 — two days before his ninth birthday.

Lujan believes his parents made a good decision to escape violence and economic hardship in Mexico, but adjusting to his new life as an illegal immigrant in America wasn't easy. At school in California, he was bullied and beaten up by other kids because of the way he talked.

"I had to go into society without a drop of English. I went through a tough identity crisis. I tried so hard to get rid of my accent. I was ashamed of my history and where I'm from," he said.

As a student, he joined the Army's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps to be as American as possible and prove his patriotism.

In 2007, his older sister graduated from high school, but could not go to college because of her status as an illegal immigrant.

In 2010, his family relocated to Southern Oregon and he began attending Ashland High School. When other students were getting their driver's licenses, he pretended he wasn't interested in learning to drive — rather than reveal he was in the country illegally.

Eventually, Lujan got tired of hiding. He met an activist and told his story to a faith group in Ashland.

"It was just a political issue to them. It wasn't about the human side. I shared my story to give a human face to the story. I became more comfortable with my roots, my origins and my family," he said.

In 2012, President Barack Obama's administration founded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Under DACA, certain illegal immigrants who came to America as minors are able to apply for a renewable two-year period of protection from deportation. They also can receive renewable work permits. DACA students are often referred to as Dreamers.

The program came just in time for Lujan. He became a Southern Oregon University student and is now on track to graduate this June with a bachelor's degree in business administration with a certificate in nonprofit organization management.

"As an undocumented immigrant, I cherish education more than anything," he said.

Donald Trump vowed to rescind the DACA program during his campaign. As president, Trump has said his administration will deport illegal immigrants who commit crimes, but will generally leave the Dreamers alone.

Along the way to his business degree, Lujan has worked in various jobs, including as a paralegal and as a Unite Oregon activist. His mother, who was a teacher in Mexico, made sure he learned to read and write in Spanish. One of his key duties as a paralegal was translating documents back and forth between Spanish and English.

Lujan testified before the Oregon Legislature in support of a bill that allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities as long as they attended an Oregon high school for at least three years. The bill passed, saving cash-strapped students thousands of dollars in higher out-of-state or international tuition fees. 

When Lujan testified at the state Capitol, opponents of the bill were also in the room.

"One lady from the other side walked out with me. She took off her anti-immigration pin and said, 'I'm very proud of you and your willingness to stand up for your community,'" he said.

With graduation now a month away, Lujan hopes to go to law school and become an attorney representing refugee children fleeing to the United States from Central America.

He is currently teaming with Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler to improve ties and communication between law enforcement and the local Latino community. With anti-immigrant talk on the rise nationally, some Latinos — especially those in the country illegally — are fearful of reaching out to the police if they witness a crime or are victimized themselves.

"The sheriff's department really wants the immigrant and Latino community to report crimes and call law enforcement," Lujan said. "We want to have safe communities. Relationships are crucial."

Ultimately, Lujan hopes for federal legislation that will create a path to citizenship for people who are in the country illegally. Many have been here for decades, aren't familiar anymore with their home countries and essentially consider themselves to be Americans.

In the meantime, he plans to keep sharing his story.

"I fear every day something could happen to me by speaking out. But I'd rather speak out. I remember asking myself, 'Why am I ashamed of my accent? Why am I ashamed of being from Mexico? Why am I ashamed that my parents have an accent?' I refuse to go back to those days and go back into the shadows. I'm willing to do anything for the community. I want to emphasize the human aspects of this issue. I hope individuals will take a moment and genuinely listen to stories of immigrants and realize we are not so different than you are," he said.

These days, Lujan — who is tall and sports a stylish beard — has so completely eradicated his accent that he is sometimes asked whether he's from the Middle East.

The questions are a reminder of how far he has traveled since he was a boy locked in a basement, wondering whether he would ever see his family again.

"It's been an experience I wouldn't wish on anyone, but it has shaped who I am," Lujan said.

LINDA ESCOT

Escot's illegal immigrant status surprises many

From the outside, life might look easy for Linda Escot.

The Southern Oregon University student with an outgoing personality and infectious smile earns good grades in her challenging science classes and is an active community volunteer. Although she's in her second year at SOU, she's already a junior academically because of college credits she earned by taking advanced high school classes.

But Escot is an illegal immigrant.

With anti-immigrant sentiment growing in the United States, she has begun to reveal her story about coming to America at age 7 with her parents and younger brother.

"Many of my peers thought I had it all because I'm an A-student. They didn't know how hard it was for me to be here," Escot said.

She is able to go to SOU legally because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program instituted during the Obama administration. Under DACA, people who came to America illegally as minors are able to apply for protection from deportation for renewable two-year blocks of time. They also can work legally.

When she first arrived in Medford from Mexico, Escot spoke no English. She started first grade and her brother began kindergarten.

"I cried every day when I went to school. I was in shock. Everything was different," she said. "But I was amazed at how quickly we adapted. We would watch cartoons to learn English. We helped each other with our homework."

Over time, the effort to hide her Mexican roots took a toll.

"I grew up here trying to be an American. I neglected who I was growing up. I felt like an outsider. I was living in the shadows," she said.

With her parents unfamiliar with the process, applying for college was especially challenging.

"I had so many obstacles. Going through the college application process was like being blindfolded," she said.

During her first term at SOU, college seemed overwhelming. But she eventually gained her footing. Escot originally intended to major in education, but switched to biology after a physics class ignited her interest in science.

She someday hopes to be a science researcher or go to medical school and become a pediatrician.

Escot now tries to be a role model for younger students and their families on multiple fronts — as a member of the Latino community in college, as a first-generation college student and as a woman in STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

"We need more women in STEM fields. It's about time as women that we turn it around," she said.

As a Latina woman, Escot said the expectation is that she should focus on getting married and raising a family. That might come at some point down the road, but she wants to focus first on her education and career.

"I want to become the best version of myself. I want to be the one making the decisions and the money, rather than having someone limit me," she said. "Education is the door to opportunity."

Escot is reaching out to other Latinos about the importance of education. Last year, she was a counselor for the summer Academia Latina program, when middle and high school students from across Southern Oregon stay on campus and get a taste of college life.

"I like to volunteer with youth. I see over and over with students they don't see college as attainable. I want to encourage and inspire them," she said.

Sometimes it's the parents who need a little hand-holding when they visit SOU, especially the protective parents of girls.

During Latino Family Day at SOU, Escot has led groups of parents as well as groups of students.

"In my first year at SOU, my parents limited me. They were afraid of the unknown. I tell the parents my experience as a first-generation college student. I'm able to listen to their worries about their kids going to college," she said.

Although she works to maintain a positive attitude, Escot said she was discouraged by Donald Trump's anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric, then felt a mix of hopelessness and shock when he was elected president. Despite living in Medford since elementary school, she felt unwanted in the United States.

At first her reaction was to focus on school and pour even more of her heart into science. Eventually she decided she had to speak out about her own experience as an illegal immigrant and show she is one of many who can make a positive contribution to America. 

"I wasn't afraid. I saw it as an opportunity," Escot said. "I felt like coming out of the shadows. This year I've been more open with my peers and professors about my status. It's definitely because of what's going on with national politics. I felt like if I don't raise my voice, who would raise their voice for me?"

Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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