This is part two of my interview with Daniella P, a woman living and working in the United States without proper legal documentation, in the Shadows of The American Dream.
MI: How did the events of 9/11 affect your chances of obtaining legal authorization to live and work in the U.S?
DP: My family and I were in line for ten years, our petition for residency was done June of 1995. We were patiently waiting as we moved through the process, with my Mom as our sponsor. When the attacks happened, we were so close to having our interview with the INS! But after 9/11 our category was pushed back; it was as if we had experienced a setback that put us at the end of the line instead of the place we had patiently waited years to get to. However, we did not give up hope. We fully intended to pursue legalizing our status. We continued to work and lived a law-abiding life in every way — except our immigration status.
MI: I know that 9/11 changed a lot of the way business as usual was conducted in the U.S. I was in the Mortgage Business at the time. The Department of Homeland Security even made our jobs more complicated; it required so much additional verification for everyone who wanted to buy a home. So how were you able to continue working?
DP: Because both my husband and I were still working at the same nursing home, we didn’t have to go through the process they call “e-verify” which would have immediately exposed us. That is the way they screen new hires, since 9/11 happened.
MI: You have shared with me that you were forced to leave the country at one point. Why?
DP: It was weird the way it happened. We sold one of our cars to a man who was struggling. He was a recent immigrant, with a wife and small children. I sold the car for $600, with the agreement that he would make payments of as much as he could until it was paid off. When he finished paying us, we gave him the title. He wanted to trade the car in at a dealership for another car. In the process of trying to buy the newer car, he used us as a reference. He had a license, but his wife did not. The car salesman told him where he could go and obtain a fake license.
MI: Did you know this is what he was planning to do?
DP: Oh no, no, no, no! We knew they probably didn’t have proper documentation either, but we had no idea they would do something so foolish! As it turns out, we didn’t find out all of these details until much later, through our attorney. To make a long story short, the guy we sold the car to was busted for the illegal license. They then began to investigate all the people he used as references on the application. That included us and everyone else with a Hispanic last name. They lumped us all together and charged us under “Organized Crime.”
DP: Yes! That was it. I had nothing to do with him obtaining a license illegally. I didn’t even know he was going to do it. I would have advised him not to — most definitely would not have allowed him to use us as a reference.
MI: So you and your husband both were arrested and charged with conspiracy?
DP: Yes. Eventually, those charges were dropped. But I was still charged with a felony. My license was real. I used my real name on my job, but I had a fake Social Security number that I made up. The Feds came to my home at 5:30 in the morning on the day after Father’s Day in 2005. It was awful — like something out of a movie, only it was more like a nightmare for me. There were 10 agents in vests with guns loaded and pointed at me. My husband had already gone to work, my kids were in the house asleep. They handcuffed me, told me to call my husband and tell him to come home or they would go to his job and arrest him there. They searched the house, made sure no one was hiding out – and I guess to be sure I didn’t have any weapons or anything else illegal. They let me call my sister to come and stay with my kids. (She pauses and takes a deep breath to steady herself, tears begin to roll down her cheek.) It was the beginning of my descent into a hellish world that I never knew existed.
MI: Take your time. Tell us what happened next.
DP: They put me in a cell that was very, very dark. The walls were a dark color, there was very little light. No window to the outside. A toilet with a sink on top. A concrete bench with no mattress or pillow. They provided no blankets either and it was cold as hell in there! They left me alone for 7 days. No outside contact. I had no way of knowing what was going on. They didn’t even allow me to talk to a lawyer. No one in my family could come to see me. It was like some sort of purgatory. After 7 days, I was transferred to the county jail. I can’t recall how many more days passed before they allowed me to speak with someone. There I was allowed to set up an account so that I could talk with my family. The first person I called was my sister to check on my children.
My family wanted me to use money I had saved to hire a lawyer. I did, but in the end it didn’t matter. I had broken the law. That’s all the system cares about. They don’t care about your circumstances, they don’t see you as an individual, they see you as a criminal and they treat you like one. My whole life was shattered. My family, went through hell. My kids, who were barely in their teens, were losing their parents, their home, my husband and I were losing our dreams. There were people in the county jail who seemed to take it all in stride. For me, it was a mental and physical prison. What I couldn’t do out loud was what my soul longed to do: to scream, to cry out. I kept it locked inside. In my soul I was suffering the pain of loss, but no one could see it. Everyone in jail is wrapped up in their own problems. Some of them have been in and out so many times, it’s like nothing to them. The waiting without knowing what to expect was the hardest part. I thought about ending it all, the pain and grief were so great. But I had my kids to think about. That is what gave me strength to go on. This was bad enough; what was yet to come was beyond my imagination…
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More to follow.