THE STORY OF 50 UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS IN NEW YORK CITY: Leaving Home

September 25, 2007

A series of assumptions, based on a tired
American notion of immigration from Latin
America, has lingered in the public mind to
explain who undocumented workers are and
why they come here. The American imagina-
tion goes to a young, male bracero, a barely-
literate peasant who possesses only obsolete
farming skills. This man is seen as the victim
of chronically stalled economic growth in his
home country, where the poor are relegated
to perpetual underemployment in backward
sectors not integrated with expanding in
dustry. This rural Latin American, from his
vantage point of destitution, admires the
bountiful United States. Finally, the attrac-
tion grows so strong he makes his move.
Our fifty interviews in New York City in-
validate this popular conception.
* To begin with, these people came to the
United States almost entirely from urban
areas. They had substantial wage labor exper-
ience under their belts and most held jobs im-
mediately before leaving. They were neither
the chronic unemployed nor the poorest in
their societies.
* The largest group came from the urban
working class. Among them were mechanics,
sewing machine operators and other factory
workers, as well as a printer, a welder, a truck
driver and a construction worker. Others were
self-employed artisans, small producers,
shopkeepers or social service workers. This
group included several tailors and school
teachers, a shoemaker, a dancer, a graphic
artist and a few students working at whatever
they could find to pay their way. Only one out
of 50 had been primarily engaged in agri-
cultural work.
* Twenty-six out of fifty immigrants in-
terveiwed were women. With such a small
group this figure tells nothing about the exact
ratio of men to women in the larger im-
migrant population but it does suggest that
immigration to New York City is far from
overwhelmingly male.
* Compared to the general population in
Latin American countries, these workers had
a relatively high level of education. The me-
dian level of school completed was 11th grade
for women and 10th grade for men. Not only
were all literate but nearly half of the women
and one-fourth of the men had completed 12
or more years of education.
* At the time of migration, the men were
in their prime working years (the average was
26 and two-thirds had come after age 24). On
the whole they had known the discipline of
wage labor for many years. All but one of the
women had some work experience outside the
home. Since women had more limited em-
ployment options, they emigrated at a
younger age (averaging 22 with three-fourths
8NovlDec 1979 9
arriving before the age of 25.)
All in all, these immigrants constituted a
young, healthy, literate, semi-skilled group of
experienced laborers, representing a loss of
resources to their own countries. Given these
characteristics, why would they leave?
MOTIVES FOR MIGRATING
The immigrants said they left because they
were trapped.
Those who were wage laborers were
trapped in a type of factory work character-
ized in most of Latin America by low pay;
fragmented, semi-skilled work; long hours
and poor working conditions. Very early on in
their working lives these workers recognized
they were stuck in bleak, dead-end jobs with
little chance for advancement.
Flora had studied in a vocational school in
Panama hoping to gain enough skill to land a
good job, but she ended up sewing underwear
in a large factory with two hundred other
women. Three years later the job was ex-
hausting her body and wearing down her
faculties. Moreover, she realized that her em-
ployable life was limited. "In Panama there is
one thing I don't like," she explained. "A girl
can work ten years in a factory but they prefer
young girls. If a women is thirty, they don't
want her to work any more. I saw this where I
worked. I began to think, 'What will happen
when I am thirty ... ?'" By the time Flora quit
she was an accomplished seamstress, deter-
mined to use that skill to create a better life.
Conrado's situation in Colombia had of-
fered more promise. As part of a government-
al program for the sons and daughters of
workers, he was given a scholarship to receive
vocational training at the plant where his
father worked. After two years of working at
the plant and studying to finish the training,
the company pulled the rug out from under
him. Not only was no job available at his new-
ly acquired skill level but they offered him a
job downgraded from the one he had held for
two years. At first he took the lower-level job
but eventually quit in frustration. For several
years he searched for better jobs, even travel-
ing to Venezuela to try his luck there. Finally
in Colombia he found employment as a me-
chanic but still his problems were not over.
He explained, "I was earning a skilled
worker's salary in Colombia (amounting to
Common washing hole in a small village? No, laundry workers in the basement of a hospital in Cuenca, Ecuador in
1972.
NovlDec 1979 910
about $26 a week), but seeing that the posi-
tion never went any higher . . and in reality
I knew they weren't going to pay more . . .
once again I decided I had to leave the country
to get more skills and to make more money.",
For both Flora and Conrado, roads to im-
proving their situations at home were
blocked. Simultaneously, like all others in
their countries, what they had achieved was
being undermined by the economic realities.
Max explains he had "what you could call a
good job in Colombia, working as a printer on
a large press. I had been there for seven years,
since I was 14, working my way up. By the
end I was earning $100 a month. Of course,
my economic situation was not very good be-
cause with what I was making I could barely
sustain myself and my sister." At age 21, Max
was exhausted and so were his alternatives:
The deteriorating economic conditions
equally affected those who were artisans and
small producers. Teresa and Jenaro, self-
employed tailors in Ecuador, were squeezed
by growing inflation, which in the early to
mid-70s fluctuated between 12% and 23%.1
Furthermore, operating on a small scale
prevented their competing effectively with
local factory production or foreign imports.
Keeping prices competitive meant that
though their shop had plenty of work, it yield-
ed only a small income. "Life was very expen-
sive. There was not enough to eat. After pay-
ing our costs we were left with only $16 a
month for food and clothing." They con-
sidered getting factory jobs but finally decid-
ed that if they had to work in a factory, it may
as well be one in the United States where they
could earn more.
For such small producers, competition with
factory production often also decreased the
demand for their goods. In the case of Jacin-
to, a Dominican who along with several others
ran a small shoe factory, the lack of steady
work became too much. When the work had
so shrunk that there was only enough to do for
two or three months of the year, he decided
he had to leave.
Even Eduardo, the only one from a rural
background, was not an exception. Although
he worked a small plot of rented land with
two oxen he owned, he had to work intermit-
tently as a wage laborer in coffee or cotton
plantations whenever it was available. Labor-
ers would congregate in the plantations
before sunrise waiting to be hired for the day.
Too many times Eduardo returned home
without having earned a cent. Landless and
barely surviving, he finally found a job in the
construction of a sugar mill, earning a grand
total of $6 for a 50-hour week. After eight
months, the work ended. Eduardo decided to
leave the mountains.
Clearly, the workers we interviewed were by
no means on the outside of industrialization
in their country. Rather, their histories sug-
gest that they were casualties of capitalist
development itself. The small urban artisans
among them were squeezed out of business by
competition from larger producers; the
workers in small manufacturing were incor-
porated into the labor force only to be
squeezed out of their jobs by the perpetuation
of exhausting working conditions.
We do not intend at this point to undertake
an analysis of these experiences- that will re-
quire another complete Report. Suffice it to
say that these stories invite such an analysis in
the context of the economic development
policies which held sway in Latin America
beginning in the 1950s. As NACLA has docu-
mented, these "import substitution" policies
accelerated the breakdown of traditional
small production both in agriculture and ur-
ban manufacturing. 2 In its place emerged a
process of industrialization which, by the ear-
ly 60s attracted the interest of foreign in-
vestors and transnational corporations. The
workers, peasants and artisans displaced by
this process were transformed into a vast ur-
ban reserve of labor, but the economic model
did not provide enough jobs to employ them
fully or offer them an acceptable standard of
living. Thus, workers like the fifty immigrants
became candidates for the massive migration
toward the industrial promised land, the
United States.
For the immigrants, oppressive economic
conditions were often fully entangled with the
political context in their countries. "The Sal-
vadorean government," states Eduardo, "does
not help the poor in any way. We don't have
land and the government only helps the rich."
The situation sounds quite similar to the
words of Armando, a skilled metal worker:
"In Colombia either one is rich or one is poor.
There is nothing in between. The country is
NACLA ReportNovIDec 1979
11
run by a handful of rich families.. They have
good health, good education, good work. The
poor have nothing."
The relationship between the political and
economic factors causing emigration was
clearly argued by the Haitians who talked
about repression as a way of life. As a Hai-
tian community organizer in New York ex-
pessed it, "If the police or someone from
government steals your land, what can a man
do? Speak out? Economically he is in a bad
situation but politically he is worse off. He
cannot say someone stole his land. There is no
government policy, just abuses."
Faced with a critical situation they were
economically and politically powerless to
overcome, the fifty chose to emigrate.
Alfredo, a Dominican who had just fin-
ished high school, recalled, "I got together
with my family, and they suggested the best
thing to do was to travel to the United States
and make my way there. That way I could not
only take care of myself but also send some
aid for my family."
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Emigrating was neither a new nor abstract
idea. Many friends and family members had
gone ahead, clearing the path for those
behind. Before coming to the United States,
some Colombians we interveiwed had first
gone to Venezuela, Dominicans had gone to
Puerto Rico and Haitians had gone to the
Bahamas. The presence of a community of
emigrants in these countries offered a
crucially needed support system to facilitate
the process of entry and integration. Along
the paths of migration extended the network
of "kin" who continually reinforced the route
and attracted new laborers.
The continent to the north could acquire a
special allure. "In my neighborhood," Ivan
recounted, "people would tell fairy tales
about the United States. I remember one
time, a woman who was living in the United
States returned to El Salvador and told every-
one that things were so good there you could
buy clothes in the afternoon, wear them once
and if you didn't like them you could throw
them away."
But despite such nurtured illusions, the
choice of New York ultimately was based
more on the fact that family and friends--
legal or not--were already living there.
Before making it to New York, however,
risks and difficulties loomed that the kin net-
work could often do nothing to alleviate.
Usually emigrants have little trouble obtain-
ing permission from their own governments to
leave,* but laying their hands on a visa for
permanent residence in the United States is
another story. Without a permanent resi-
dence "green card" a foreigner is punishable by
deportation for working in the United States.
Since 1965, the U.S. immigration code has
given preference to the close relatives of
American citizens and permanent residents,
and to exceptionally skilled professionals.
While maintaining a small contract labor
program to supply foreign workers to U.S.
agriculture, in effect the law leaves little berth
for low-wage laborers, precisely those people
pressing for access. 3 Even for those im-
migrants with some legal basis to petition for
residence, the complicated process now takes
about two years; and even then, because of
the glut of applicants, the limited quotas and
strict requirements concerning financial
sponsorship and guaranteed employment in
the United States, the outcome for the appli-
cant remains in doubt. The pressure of their
circumstances led many to seek other ways to
enter the country.
THE "TOURIST" TRADE
More than half of those we interviewed
entered the country with tourist visas which
allowed them to visit for only a few months
but not to work. (Immigrants from Caribbean
islands who fly directly to New York almost
always enter as tourists.) Once they overstay
the visa's deadline and remain in the country
they are considered here illegally.
Tourist visas are the most accessible means
of legal entry. The number of tourist visas
issued in each country fluctuates according to
*The one exception to this rule is Haiti. There a brutal
government has imposed both ubiquitous political repres-
sion and severe economic duress on the population, pro-
ducing a large number of people anxious to leave. But
the Haitian government has restricted out-migration. As
a result some emigrants have even resorted to clandestine
escapes by boat to Miami, Florida. Fearing reprisals if
forcibly returned to their country, thousands of Haitians
have attemped to gain some minimal security by applying
for political refugee status in the United States.
NovlDec 1979 11NACLA Report
the discretion of the U.S. consuls. (For exam-
ple, some Dominicans alleged that after the
U.S. invasion in 1965, resident visas were
readily issued by the consulates in an attempt
to rid the country of as many potential dis-
sidents as possible.) Today, to obtain a tourist
visa, the intention to return home must be sub-
stantiated. Sizable bank accounts, titles to a
house and a car, coupled with a round-trip
ticket, are generally required to demonstrate
sufficient motive to return.
Obviously the immigrants we spoke to did
not have such resources. To come up with the
documents necessary to get a visa, frequently
the immigrants were forced deeply into debt
to their families, friends or black marketeers.
For the Ecuadorean tailors, Teresa and
Jenaro, the total cost of securing documents
and financing the trip for them and their
daughter was $6000. To guarantee payment,
Teresa's elderly parents agreed to put up their
home as collateral. Should Teresa and Jenaro
be caught and deported, her parents could
lose their home after the first missed pay-
ment. For many of the immigrants, paying off
such debts compelled them to find a job
quickly after arriving. As long as large debts
hang over their heads, they are forced to stay
in the United States, locked into whatever
conditions they encounter.
More often than not, no family member or
friend is able to sign over property titles or
make a loan to establish a bank account. But
false papers can be purchased and bank ac-
counts "rented" in the highly organized black
market which exists in all of the immigrants'
home countries. In the Dominican Republic
established black marketeers are said to hawk
their services openly to visa applicants who
wait on long lines outside the consul's office
each morning. Aurelio, a Dominican welder,
paid $800 for a resident card and passport,
neither of which was in his own name. After
successfully entering the country, he returned
the documents at a prearranged meeting in
the airport. It is likely that many people have
entered the United States with the same visa
before and since.
In addition to the black market, im-
migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti
and Ecuador asserted that occasionally
employees in U.S. consulates would, for the
right price, guarantee both visas and safe
passage to the United States. For example,
Anamaria, an Ecuadorian who had once been
denied a visa, was successful with a subse-
quent application only after she paid a U.S.
consular staff worker $400 to remove the
records of the earlier denial from her files.
Paul, a Haitian truck driver, explained that
before a more expedient deal came through,
he paid a U.S. embassy employee part of an
agreed-on $800, the rest of which was to be
provided upon delivery. And in Colombia
travel agencies often seem to have "good con-
nections" in the consular offices and know
how to obtain tourist or residence visas for
travelers willing to pay extra for their tickets.
Overall, the cheapest part of the trip was
the plane ticket itself which, at today's prices
to New York, ranges from as little as $159
from the Dominican Republic to as much as
$304 from Ecuador. An additional $1000 was
required to insure entry in most cases. Besides
obtaining documents, genuine or false, im-
migrants had the alternative of "entry without
inspection," INS jargon for illegal border
crossings. By this time, there is a well-traveled
route proceeding north by air from Ecuador,
Colombia and Central America to Mexico Ci-
ty, then overland to the border, primarily to
Tijuana, and from there across to the United
States. This mode of entry is efficiently
organized between agents in the home coun-
tries, Mexico and the United States, and fully
exploits the vulnerability of the immigrants.
Max's story is a case in point.
After flying from Colombia to Mexico,
Max was stopped on his bus ride north by
Mexican police. They identified him as a
foreigner and threatened him with arbitrary
arrest unless he paid a $80 "fine" before con-
tinuing on. In Tijuana he found a taxi driver
to deliver him to the border where he ex-
pected to find a "coyote" (a smuggler) to take
him across. The driver, however, alerted
Mexican border guards by flashing his car
lights. For another $150, undoubtedly shared
with the driver, the officials not only let him
pass but also helped him find a coyote.
The coyote took Max across the border
through drainage tunnels. Emerging on the
other side, he was placed in the trunk of a car
and taken to Los Angeles where he was held
hostage for over two weeks. The coyote
threatened to turn him over to immigration
12Nov/Dec 1979
One of the more dangerous
methods. More commonly now
groups cross on foot together in
remote areas.
officials unless he paid $400. Relatives in New
York sent the money but the coyote de-
manded more. Max finally was let go when he
discovered that the coyote himself was an un-
documented immigrant. Max arrived by bus
in New York City, penniless. As he recalled,
"It never occured to me for a moment that I'd
arrive in this manner. I expected that my
cousin would greet me and the next day we'd
go out dancing and have a good time."
GREAT EXPECTATIONS
Much about life in the United States had
never occured to Max and the other im-
migrants. Although they had been able to ex-
press quite graphically the conditions which
had impelled their departure, their future
prospects were often only vague and
unrealistic dreams.
Some, like Lila, had hoped to study.
While in Ecuador, she had been led to believe
that her relatives in New York were well
enough off to support her while she studied.
The shock of reality hit quickly. "The worst
experience I had here was four or five days
after arriving, when they told me I had to
look for a job and that I had to learn to sur-
vive because no one supports anyone in
this country."
Some believed that, in a few years time,
they could save enough money to return and
start a business of their own, or develop more
skills to later land a better job back in their
country. At first the relative difference in
their wages reinforced these hopes. Felipe had
earned $14 a week in the Dominican
Republic, and after his first week in New
York he earned $80. It didn't take long to
realize that the higher costs of New York City
living ate away that difference dramatically.
Yet many like Anamaria did manage to send
money to their families, recognizing that by
sacrificing her standard of living while here,
she could put her sisters and brothers through
school at home.
And others, like Eduardo, had few plans
whatsoever, only the need to escape their
familiar and grim realities. When asked why
he didn't remain in California and look for
work, Eduardo replied, "It was too close to El
Salvador. I wanted to get away." Ironically,
they very quickly ended up in the type of job
they were trying to escape.
Nothing in their social and economic
backgrounds differentiated these workers
from other Latin Americans who now live
here legally. The United States had borne no
social cost to raise, train and integrate them
into the labor force, which, for a U.S. citizen
is figured to cost the government, as of 1977,
about $44,000.' Neither does their illegal
status set them apart. Voicing motivations
similar to previous immigrants, Adalgisa
asserted, "We must help our family, and in
our country there are no economic resources
to support us." She further explained, "com-
ing here without documents is simply a matter
of necessity."
LEAVING HOME
1. Instituto de Investigaciones Economicas, "El Costo
de Vida en el Ecuador" (Ecuador: Universidad de Guaya-
quil), 1979.
2. See NACLA's "Brazil: Controlled Decompression,"
NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. XIII, no. 3 (May-
June 1979).
3. See NACLA's "Caribbean Migration, op. cit.
4. Cited in Wayne Cornelius, "Mexican Migration to
the United States," Working Paper No. 2, (San
Diego; Center For United States-Mexican Studies,
University of California), May, 1979.

Tags: US immigration, INS, Undocumented, NYC, exploitation


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