In the Shadow of the American Dream, Part 1

The plight of undocumented workers is an issue that ebbs and flows with the political tide.  During election years, the issue comes to the forefront as many politicians vie for a platform that resonates with their base. As the Latino population continues to grow, some politicians paint the burgeoning Latino population as having a negative impact on the lives of the rest of Americans.

While the economy struggles to recover, there are still too few jobs for the many who remain under or unemployed. Immigration, both legal and not, becomes an easy smoke screen to distract inattentive and under-informed voters. In some states, the Hispanic population, especially those who are undocumented, have become easy scapegoats for conservative politicians looking to rile up their base and motivate them to vote in their favor. Just how will keeping undocumented workers out of this country create jobs? In many cases it really won’t ensure the protection of existing jobs either. The reality is that many of the positions filled by undocumented workers are not jobs the average American, employed or not, would ever pursue. We read and hear so much about how these people are a burden on the system. Yet, those who are working here illegally have federal, state and local taxes withdrawn from their pay. They cannot file for an income tax refund. They do not qualify for Social Security benefits. Where does all that money flow?

With so much rhetoric bandied about, it is important to shed light on the plight of the people who are living the reality of life in the United States without the protection of citizenship or legal authorization to work here. These are people living in a state of limbo.  Many have worked hard for years in pursuit of their piece of the American Dream, but without a path to citizenship, it remains a dream deferred. So until viable legislation passes that resolves this issue, they live and work in the shadows of the American Dream.

In this post I will be interviewing Daniella P. (not her real name), a woman who has been living and working in the United States for more than 20 years without proper legal documentation. It’s one thing to hear about cases from people you don’t know and will probably never meet. It’s quite another to befriend someone and grow close, only to learn this person lives with the fear of discovery and subsequent consequence of deportation every single day.

MI: Why did you come the United States?

DP:  I have a lot of extended family on my mother’s side who were born and live in the United States. I would come for visits when I was in my teens. Eventually, my mother remarried and emigrated here. Some of my sisters and brothers, there are 7 of us, followed.  I came in to live and work here the first time in 1985 when I was 20 years old.

MI:  How did you cross the border?

DP: I came across legally with a visitor’s visa at that time.

MI: Did you come with the  intention of not returning? In other words you used your Visa, which was legal, but overstayed — which is not.

DP: Yes. At that time, I was young and immature. I was recently divorced from an abusive husband, whom I had lost custody of my son to.  I was very poor, under-educated with very little prospect of gaining a foothold to any meaningful life in Mexico.

MI: Did you speak English fluently or at all?

DP:  Hardly any! I had to learn on the job.

MI: What kind of job were you able to find without being able to speak or understand much English?

DP: My first job was as a hotel maid cleaning rooms at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. It was 1986, back then they didn’t verify the documentation all that thoroughly. They were just happy to fill the position. I worked there for two years. I gradually began to pick up more English words listening to other people and from  those who spoke both English and Spanish fluently and would translate for me.

MI:  Was the job difficult?

DP: Oh yes. They worked us like slaves! Very long hours with poor pay, no benefits, and no prospects of moving up. Basically a dead end job. After two years as a maid, I went to work at a nursing home. My boyfriend, who later became my husband, got the job for me. I was living with my sister in a studio apartment. My boyfriend and I were both working to save money to get an apartment together. I remember not having enough money to buy food. He would bring home leftovers from the kitchen where he worked for us to eat. Those were very lean times, we started from scratch. We had less than nothing.

MI: What was it like working there, at the nursing home?

DP: This job was hard too, but one thing I experienced there that I didn’t have to put up with at the hotel where I had worked previously, was discrimination and humiliation from my own people.

MI:  By that you mean?

DP: Other people of Mexican descent, what you might call Chicanos, people born and raised here legally. They would introduce me to residents saying “This is Daniella, she’s a ‘wetback.’” By then I understood enough English to know that I was basically being insulted by my own people! In one case a resident replied: “Yes, you call her that — but she’s smarter than you are! She’s speaks her native language perfectly and is learning a new language too! You (meaning the person who called me the W-word) can barely speak Spanish!” I felt better but still, it stung! But I stayed because there were opportunities to learn more, and there was opportunity for promotion if I worked hard enough. Sometimes I had the responsibility of three positions, but I was still being paid for only one.

MI: Was there a way to become a legal resident, even though you overstayed your visa?

DP: At that time yes. I had gone back and forth using my visa. This was during the administration of the first President Bush. It was different than it is now. My mother, who had obtained her citizenship by then, could have sponsored me.

MI: Why didn’t she?

DP: There are different processes for married people with children than for individuals. By this time my boyfriend had become my husband. Soon after we married, we had to return to Mexico to help run the family business after his mother died. I was pregnant at the time and wanted my husband near for the birth of our first child together. We ended up staying for five years back in Mexico.  Within those five years, I gave birth to my son and a daughter. The relationship between my husband and his father was never good.  It became worse when they worked together. My father in law was very abusive. With my mother and most siblings living in the US, I had little support network in Mexico to fall back on. My own father was barely making it. Without the job in the family business, my husband and I struggled; we were barely able to make ends meet. I wanted a better life than the one we had, for our children.  So in 1995 we decided to return with our two children to the United States. I was still using my visa. My husband and children also had Visas.  We lived in a one bedroom apartment with a friend of his, the four of us sleeping on the living room floor while we both looked for work.  We both ended up working in the same nursing home I had worked in before. My mother petitioned for me and my family to become citizens.  But we needed money to hire a lawyer to complete the process. This was during the late 1990s. We worked and saved but had no way of knowing it would be in vain. September 11, 2001 changed everything.

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More to follow..