Making a Better Life for Herself: Quetzalli Pliego Omaña Realizes her Dreams
By Sean McCarthy / Omaha Magazine - Photography by Bill Sitzmann -
One month after the twin towers fell in New York City, Quetzalli Pliego '10 and her three younger siblings crossed the boarder of Mexico into the United States to reunite with their mother and father.
It took Quetzalli (now Quetzalli Pliego Omaña) and her siblings five tries on chilly October nights to finally meet up with her mother and father. Omaña said they were usually detained in the middle of the night by Immigration and Naturalization Services agents and sent back to the border. Finally, they were able to travel in a vehicle.
Omaña remembers leaving the vehicle, getting into a bus, and traveling to a town near the border where her mother and father were waiting for them. She hadn’t seen either of them in two years. Omaña said it took about 10 days from their first attempt to cross the border until they were finally reunited as a family.
Omaña now hears similar stories from other undocumented citizens as a bilingual paralegal at Blackford Law. She is also one of the 800,000 beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy, which was announced by former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, at the direction of former President Barack Obama. The policy allows Omaña to continue to work in the United States, and defers any deportation action for two years (provided the recipient is not convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanors).
In September 2017, President Donald Trump moved to end DACA. However, three U.S. district courts have challenged the Trump administration’s move to end the program. Under DACA, Omaña is able to both stay in the United States and obtain a work permit. Recipients need to renew their status every two years. While those under DACA’s protections will not face deportation, the program is not a path to citizenship. Those wanting to become citizens must first apply to become a lawful permanent resident and obtain a green card.
While DACA’s fate is in the courts, people who currently have protection under DACA can apply to renew its protections, says Jacob Huju, an immigration lawyer for the Immigrant Legal Center. Huju recommends applicants contact the Nebraska Immigration Legal Assistance Hotline if they are concerned about their DACA status.
“It’s important to seek advice as soon as possible,” Huju says.
Omaña’s father, Armando Pliego, moved to Omaha in 1998. Her mother, Micaela Dominguez, came to Omaha in 1999. Armando, who was a professor in agriculture in Mexico, started bussing tables at an Omaha mall before finding a job in construction. While Armando and Micaela were establishing their roots in Omaha, Omaña and her siblings were living with her uncles and cousins in Cuernavaca, which is about 60 miles south of Mexico City. While she was away from her mother and father, Omaña said she was physically abused by some extended family members.
Unlike many undocumented citizens who come to the United States for a better life, Omaña did not want to move to the United States when she was 12. She was already in middle school and had her own group of friends.
“At the time, my friends were everything to me,” Omaña says.
Things didn’t get much better during her first years in Omaha. At the beginning of middle school, she only knew some basic words. Her mother and father took night classes to learn English, leaving Omaña to not only learn a new language, but help her siblings with their homework.
“We were just alone,” Omaña says.
Things changed when she started at North High School. Soon, she was becoming active in community groups like Omaha Together One Community. Omaña started thinking about college, but her guidance counselor said she couldn’t secure scholarships or student loans because of her status as undocumented. Still, her community activism gained the attention of the College of Saint Mary, specifically Maria Luisa Gaston, who was the admissions counselor for Latinas in 2006.
Gaston thought College of Saint Mary needed to reach out to the Latina community. Specifically, she wanted to target undocumented high school graduates. Gaston began working on securing funding for the Misericordia scholarship, which provides tuition for high school graduates who are also undocumented. Omaña was one the scholarship’s recipients.
Gaston says at least 50 scholarships have been awarded since she began raising funds for it in 2007. According to Daniela Rojas, admissions adviser at the College of St. Mary, 36 students are currently on the scholarship. Gaston said Omaña’s leadership skills were one of the reasons why she was awarded the scholarship.
“She’s always been one of my shining stars,” Gaston says from her home in Miami, to where she retired in October 2014.
Omaña graduated from the College of Saint Mary in 2010 with a degree in paralegal studies. However, the degree couldn’t secure her a job because of her status. Without a Social Security card, she couldn’t find a traditional full-time job. Instead, she set up her own business, Pliego Translation Services. For a few years, she worked as a translator for a few law firms in Omaha. Then, in 2013, she applied for DACA, which grants recipients work permits.
In early 2014, she got a job as a paralegal at Peck Law Firm, where she met attorney Brian Blackford. Blackford established his own firm in October of that year, and he reached out to Omaña to take a paralegal position.
Even though Omaña still had several months left on her DACA eligibility, she applied for a renewal in May 2018. She was approved in August, and her status is now protected until August 2020. Omaña chose to proactively renew her status because she was uncertain of DACA’s fate in the courts.
“With our current president, anything could just end,” Omaña says.
Omaña’s other family members are now permanent residents—her parents are both citizens, sister Xochitl became a lawful permanent resident in November 2012, brother Armando in June 2014, and sister Citalli gained permanent resident status in July 2017 after she married a U.S. citizen.
Omaña wasn’t able to become a citizen after her parents obtained their citizenship because she was older than 21 at the time. She could have become a lawful permanent resident in the United States when her father and mother were applying for their green cards; however, while her parents were in the process of becoming permanent residents, an Omaha attorney, who Omaña refused to identify, said her father couldn’t put Omaña on his application. Omaña said the attorney later confided to her that he wished he knew the law better when he was advising her family.
“I think it was malpractice, honestly,” Omaña says. “I’ve talked to multiple attorneys now, and it’s pretty obvious what the law reads.”
Omaña has married, but the man she married is a lawful permanent resident (not a U.S. citizen). As a result, her application to obtain a visa is given a lower priority than people who marry U.S. citizens. While she waits for her resident status to improve, she plans to continue to help people in similar situations.
“I love what I do and where I work,” Omaña says.