LOGAN — The state's top economic development officials were gathered at a local eatery for a business presentation by a small group of Utah State University graduate students.
When the day's events concluded and Oscar Marquina's classmates left the restaurant, he stripped off his suit and tie and put on a work shirt. He was due in the kitchen for his shift washing dishes.
When you're undocumented, you become adept at moving between worlds, all the while attempting to stay below the radar, Marquina said in a recent interview.
That came to an end earlier this year when he was approved for an Obama administration initiative that grants qualifying undocumented teens and young adults who came to the United States as children legal authorization to work.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, does not confer legal immigration status but it means authorities will defer any removal actions for a two-year period. Applications can be renewed without limit under current guidelines.
It means Marquina can fully pursue the dreams that lured his family to the United States from Venezuela 15 years ago, "opportunity and being able to give your family something better," he said.
It means he can finally put his two university degrees — a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master of business administration degree — to work.
"It's more relief than excitement. Now I can move forward. Let's see what happens," he said.
Marge Seeholzer, who with her husband, Ted, owns Beaver Mountain ski resort, has known Marquina since he was an undergraduate student at USU. This winter, he's worked a couple of days a week teaching snowboarding.
She said she's pleased that Marquina finally has authorization to put his education to work in a business career.
Over the decade that the Smithfield couple has known Marquina, he's occasionally expressed his frustration about the roadblocks he's encountered with respect to his immigration status, she said.
"You could see he was a person trying to do everything right. It was such a long, endless process, and he wasn't getting anywhere. Why do they make it so hard when they're trying to do the right thing?" Seeholzer said.
Seeholzer said she hopes the deferred action program will be the turning point for Marquina. "He's got good people skills. He knows how to work, which I can't say for all young people," Seeholzer said. "He's had the initiative to take whatever job was available."
These days, Marquina's full-time job is hunting for a position that will utilize his background in financial trading and operation management. His passion is building and growing businesses.
Marquina has real-world experience running businesses, which includes owning and operating an ice cream truck in Logan for nine years.
"It worked out really well. I wouldn't have been able to afford college if not for that business," he said.
He has also owned and operated a business that sold handbags and women's accessories.
Success in Utah
Marquina, who graduated from high school in New Jersey, paid out-of-state tuition to attend USU until he could establish residency. Because he was an undocumened immigrant, he was not eligible for financial aid or scholarships so he worked odd jobs throughout college. He also maintained a B-average during his undergraduate years and a 3.6 grade-point average in graduate school.
Attending college in Utah was a financial decision. In-state tuition in New Jersey, where he, his mother and brother were living with his uncle, was higher than out-of-state tuition at USU. He knew nothing about Utah except that he had some relatives in Salt Lake City.
The first time he visited the campus was the day he moved into the dorms as a freshman. "It was like culture shock," he recalls.
Marquina, now 30, was one of the early applicants in Utah for deferred action. He's older than most applicants and differs from most because he has an advanced college degree.
He was perfectly suited for President Obama's program, according to Alyssa Williams, immigration attorney for Catholic Community Services, who helped him apply.
"The deferred action program, it was his magical savior. He totally qualified for it. It's exactly what they intended by sweeping him in because they really wanted someone who had gone to school and didn't have any sort of record that would make him ineligible for the program.
"He was going to be able to legalize at some point some way but he didn't have it right now. He obviously was brought to the United States by his mom when he was a young guy," Williams said.
Living with uncertainty
Marquina said last year he was reasonably sure that Obama would be re-elected, which meant the program would remain in effect for the duration of the president's second term. While Marquina could continue to support himself with odd jobs, he needed a work-authorization card to launch his career and, hopefully, normalize his immigration status.
"With the political uncertainty, you had to think twice (about applying). What could happen if the executive order expired?" Marquina said.
"At the same time, I had been given no other choice. It was the only road forward. You take whatever opportunity is given to you. You take what is given to you now."
Marquina takes satisfaction in meeting his educational goals, running profitable businesses and excelling in graduate school to the point he was recruited by three companies, including one Fortune 500 company. Those opportunities slipped through his fingers because he was not authorized to work.
This past week Marquina had a job interview with a national retail chain for a position in its corporate accounting department. Next week, he will travel to New Mexico for a conference, and hopefully more job interviews.
"I'm hoping to get that break," he said.
Debbie Tarboton, director of Beaver Mountain's ski school, who is from South Africa and has endured the grind of the legal immigration process herself, acknowledged, "It's been a long wait for him."
But she's optimistic for Marquina because he's industrious and entrepreneurial.
"The thing about Oscar is, he's a doer." One day, while driving around Logan, she caught a glimpse of an ice cream truck. "Oscar was in the ice cream van working. Another time, I took my child to play soccer, and Oscar was reffing the game," she said.
Catholic Community Services attorneys are likewise hoping that a prospective employer would consider sponsoring Marquina for a visa. "Now that he's legally employable, he's more attractive to an employer that might need his particular skill set and could sponsor him," Williams said.
Having a work authorization card, Marquina said, "feels great."
"I'm excited and relieved. At the same time there is anxiety. I wonder if I will get these types of opportunities again," he said.
On the other hand, Marquina said he has the confidence of knowing he can make the best of whatever comes his way.
It's why he marshaled on with his education when the end game was uncertain. It's why he's helping to organize a Utah chapter of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs, noting their underrepresentation in industry and higher education.
Everyone faces uncertainty in life, Marquina said.
"The only thing you can do is prepare yourself now for whatever opportunity comes," he said.
"Yes, it is very hard, hard emotionally, financially and hard with the family issues. At the same time, if you can make it, it is worthwhile. You learn to make the best of each opportunity."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company