"I'm not just undocumented. I have had to negate my whole identity in order to stay alive." Luciana (Colombia) As far as anyone can deduce from the un- satisfactory figures, illegality has now become the principal mode of immigration into the United States, with estimated annual illegal entries outnumbering new legal residents by at least four to one. The mounting influx of undocumented laborers, and the resulting erosion of U.S. legal codes, have been decried by both the government and the press as a dangerously intractable problem. However, the countless legislative initiatives introduced in recent years to deter illegal immigration by penalizing employers hiring the undocu- mented or by beefing up border enforce- ment-including the 1977 proposals of Presi- dent Carter himself- have died unceremoni- ously on congressional tables. This suggests that "problem" illegal immi- gration can be viewed as a de facto solution for U.S. industry, providing a large, disen- franchised pool of low-skilled labor. Thus, it is precisely the fact that the immigration laws are unenforceable which makes them func- tional, and the incompetence of the enforcing agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which makes it effective. To an American citizen the INS appears to be the archetypal, underfunded, overloaded, bumbling bureaucracy. In the New York region, in addition to processing chronically backlogged applications for residency, the INS must round up violators of the immigra- tion laws with only 200 enforcement agents. In 1978, these agents found 10,067 "deportable NACLA ReportNovlDec 1979 aliens." As one forlorn INS official said, "At that rate, it would take us 80 years just to catch the illegals we believe are here now." The INS freely admits that its operations, whether at East Coast ports or at the border with Mexico, do little to block unauthorized entry or to prevent illegal stay in the United States. However, in New York City, the INS is eminently effective in controlling illegal im- migrants once they settle in. And to the un- documented it is the very randomness of the INS surveillance that makes it awesome. INS records are far too chaotic to permit agents to pursue the thousands of individuals with over- stayed tourist visas on file, much less those immigrants running the southern border who have no record of entry at all. Instead, in New York the INS resorts to surprise raids on homes and workplaces. Agents follow up anonymous telephone tips- denuncias-- and pick up any illegal immigrant they come across. In routine practice, INS agents enter any premises, without warning, through any door, window- or fire escape; they search private homes when no one is there; they question any person at any time for immigra- tion papers purely on the basis of physical ap- pearance. Once arrested, immigrants may be held for anywhere from a few days to several months in an INS detention facility in Brooklyn, described as a "calamitous prison" by one immigrant, which lacks even the minimal amenities of a jail. "MENTALLY IN JAIL" Primarily, these practices serve to dis- seminate fear in immigrant neighborhoods. The impact of a single factory raid, for in- stance, is extended by percolating rumors to maintain a permanent state of apprehension. Moreover, in spite of their poor English, the undocumented follow press stories blaming them for everything from unemployment to the bankruptcy of the municipal hospitals, which only increases their foreboding. Though only a handful of the fifty immi- grants we interviewed had ever had a run-in with the INS, every one of them had known the fear of the hunted. "I don't know how long I will be here," said a Haitian, Emile. "There is no fixed time. They may come to- day or tomorrow. Meanwhile, I am always mentally in jail, waiting for that occasion." Anxious to escape from fear into legality many immigrants became embroiled in costly strategems to obtain green cards. Today, one important way an undocumented immigrant may become eligible for a permanent visa is through marriage to an American citizen or a legal resident. Thus, a thriving business is done in New York in arranged marriages, or arreglos. These can cost from $600 to $1500, plus a possible $1500 more in lawyer's fees to complete the paper work. Arreglos thrust the undocumented even further into the shadow of the INS, which conducts intimate inter- views to verify the couple's mutual familiarity, and visits their address unannounced to make sure both sleep there. A crazy juggling of identities is involved in false marriages to circumvent laws which function as expensive obstacles but not as in- surmountable barriers. An absurd variation of this theme came out when NACLA spoke with a married couple from Colombia. After running the U.S.-Mexican border in 1974, they succeeded in purchasing one Puerto Rican man's birth certificate in New York. Under the Puerto Rican name, the man re- married his wife in the United States, and through that marriage she became a legal resident. She then divorced him as a Puerto Rican and married him, for the third time, under his own Colombian identity. After five years and thousands of dollars in lawyer's fees, both were residents. For those with no possibility of obtaining a visa, their illegal status and its onus of fear brought a twofold disenfranchisement. First, they were personally and politically isolated. "What bothers me most is that with all the people I've met, at work and in the communi- ty, I can't be open," said Luciana, a Colom- bian. "I have to deny the facts of my history, even my name." This solitude was haunted with the guilt of having lied to friends and co- workers, and the shame of living beyond the law, misgivings which could explode into a full emotional collapse. One undocumented immigrant became obsessed after unknown tourists took a casual snapshot of him in Times Square one day. He was convinced the INS would track him through the photo. Finally he burst in on a wedding in his church 29NACLA Report INS agent leads two undocumented women away after raid on their workplace. to throw himself against the altar, begging forgiveness from the priest for being deceitful. Second, the undocumented were vulner- able. Though working at the center of manufacturing production, they were on the periphery of the law and repressed from exer- cising their civil rights. They would think twice about calling the police if robbed, or registering a protest against a negligent landlord. Fear, isolation and vulnerabilty shaped these workers' participation in the workplace. The undocumented discovered that the way to live with illegality was by establishing an unbroken rhythm in their lives, centering around work, to minimize their exposure to unfamiliar places and situations. "I have no enjoyment," said Eduardo. "I don't know what it is to go for a walk, or sit in the park. I go from home to work. I work ten hours, then I go home. On Sunday, I go shopping for food, then I go home. On Monday, to work again. In this country, I'm dedicated to work." To avoid drawing attention to themselves, the un- documented hung onto their work. INS factory raids undercut job security for the undocumented. Even if the INS did not ac- tually sweep undocumented workers from a shop, a nearby INS action could cause uncer- tain immigrants to quietly go home and never return to the plant, but simply to seek another job. Thus, the undocumented were discour- aged, but as we have seen, not prevented from organizing to defend their rights as workers and to struggle over wage rates and working conditions. While official INS policy is to avoid interfering where a strike or labor dispute is underway, any boss can make an anonymous denuncia against undocumented workers attempting to organize. STATE SAVES, WORKER PAYS While blending into their communities, the undocumented were denied any real integra- tion into American society, and were also forced to stand apart from the agencies of 30NovlDec 1979 government which normally provide critical subsidies to workers in the lowest wage, seasonal sectors of New York manufacturing. As Pedro, the Nicaraguan garment cutter, pointed out, "Illegals never see benefits they pay for. The boss deducts disability, social security and state taxes. But when you go to collect they ask you for your residence papers. It would be one thing if we weren't paying taxes. This way, the state gets the benefits in- stead of us." Out of the fifty immigrants, only six had collected unemployment insurance while they were undocumented, following lay-offs from nine jobs. However, the immigrants provided information on this point for a total of 89 jobs, for which standard income tax deduc- tions were taken out in 85. Five out of the six who collected unemployment were experi- enced garment workers who over the years caught on to the fact that it is a regular, vital supplement to seasonal work and who were willing to risk detention by applying for it. One worker out of fifty was on welfare once. The social costs which the government nor- mally bears in aid to low-wage workers were, in the case of the undocumented, shifted to the individual worker or the worker's family. In lieu of collecting unemployment in- surance, "When production went slack and they told me to go home and rest for a few weeks, what I did was to go out looking for another job," explained Oscar, a Salva- dorean. "Since I was illegal, and my situation was also very tight, I couldn't sit around 'resting.' " In the garment industry, a common pat- tern was for undocumented women sewing machine operators to work regular jobs in stable, primarily unionized shops for eight or nine months a year. Then, in slack seasons, they picked up work in smaller subcontract- ing shops which produce standardized, cheap blouses and skirts year-round, where they worked off the books and took conditions as they came. Other women worked odd jobs as maids and nurses' aides. In the worst in- stance, the undocumented relied on their relatives to carry them through a lay-off. The one service the undocumented were most likely to use was emergency medical facilitites. Max, from Colombia, was taken to a city hospital by police after two assailants in a subway station broke a bottle over his head, irreparably lacerating one of his eyes. Similar- ly, Anamaria, the Ecuadorean garment work- er, was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer. Max's medical costs were covered by disability Check cashing storefronts such as this mediate between undocumented workers and the financial demands of the city. insurance for which he had paid. Anamaria, with some help from her aunt, is still, as of this writing, paying $50 a month against the $800 bill for four days of treatment. For less acute medical needs, the undocumented simply rely on cut-rate private physicians, neighborhood pharmacists and herb sellers. To adjust to living at low wages with no state assistance, the undocumented dwelt in a reduced environment, the costs of which were extensively shared among other workers. Four or five people squeezed into small two bed- room apartments, none of which were state- subsidized, reducing rent to $50 or $60 a month. Young couples lived with parents, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles. Some of the undocumented also had to This 6' x 12' room includes three more bunks, a stove and a sink. reduce their costs by leaving dependent non- working members of their families in their home countries, where the value of dollar remittances was magnified by favorable ex- change rates. Young parents left their infant children for several years in the care of older relatives, while working in the United States to save enough to go home or to bring the children here. Nine of the immigrants were making regular payments abroad ranging from a low of $25 a month, to a high of $300 monthly sent by a Haitian who was support- ing ten children at home on a U.S. weekly salary of $135. GOING HOME The bleakness of undocumented existence in New York raises one recurring question: why didn't they go home? For the immigrants we interviewed, while it wasn't getting easier to put down roots in New York, it wasn't get- ting easier to leave either. Five of the people interviewed- including two who had recently become legal resi- dents-stated categorically that they had decided to remain in the United States. One married couple from Ecuador had gone, on the day of the interview, from undocumented workers to undocumented employers. Patricio and Balbina were purchasing a small garment shop in Brooklyn, through a loan from the former owner. Patricio said, "We learned to adjust to life here simply because there is ab- solutely nothing for us in Ecuador." A mini- mally stable set-up in the United States com- bined with frank pessimism about the possibilities for economic and political change at home transformed temporary workers into permanent immigrants. The remaining immigrants were in limbo. Around them was gradually closing a vise, with the U.S. economy on one side and the immigration laws on the other. As the high cost of living in New York, combined with 11.3% inflation, ate away at their wages, they grew weary with the feverish pace of work they had to sustain for little reward in salary. Some were married and had children; others had different new responsibilities which made it increasingly difficult for them to reduce their expenses. They were also, ironically, trapped in the NACLA ReportNovlDec 1979 United States by the very laws which were sup- posed to have kept them out. Many, feeling estranged from their own cultures, felt an urge to return home at least to visit relatives and to take a new reading on life and work there. "This country is becoming a jail for me. I can't leave, because if I did I wouldn't be able to get back in," complained Luciana. The immigrants knew that on the basis of the record of their overstayed tourist visas, the INS would deny them another entry. The costs for a new round of false documents would be prohibitively high. Those from the more distant countries couldn't afford new debts to pay for the long trip back. Out of this trap an agonizing choice could arise. Trudy rejnembered, "My father was ill with cancer in Ecuador. His final dying lasted several months. I couldn't afford to go, and not get back in. It was the most terrible trauma of my life here as an illegal. I had nightmares about him. Finally, he died. I never saw him." Their testimonies end in insecurity and disillusionment. "If anyone writes me to say they're thinking of coming, well, I've had the experience," reflected Lila, an Ecuadorean. "Some cousins of mine wanted to come, and I had to tell them that the way I am really liv- ing is not the way people down there think. The fact that I send a nice blouse or a nice suit from time to time doesn't mean that that's all we have to do here. For everything you buy here you have to work hard--too hard. If they came here they'd have no choice but to go to work in a factory. They don't know the language and they wouldn't have papers. I told them it was better to live in their country than to come and suffer what I go through here." STAYING ALIVE 1. Chapman cited in Vernon Briggs, "Illegal Aliens: 'The Need for a More Restrictive Border Policy," Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 56 (December 1975), pp. 477-84. 2. Reported in National Lawyer's Guild, Immigration Newsletter, Vol. 8, No. 3 (1979). 3. Los Angeles Times, Dec. 2, 1979. 4. Vernon Briggs, in "Immigration to the United States," Hearings Before the Select Committee on Population, April 4, 5, 6, 7, 1978, p. 468. 5. David North in Ibid., p. 350. 6. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1976 An- nual Report, p. 126. 7. See NACLA's "Caribbean Migration-Contract Labor in U.S. Agriculture," NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. X1, No. 8 (Nov.-Dec. 1977). 8. "U.S. Immigration Law and Policy," A Report Prepared Upon the Formation of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, May 1979, p. 65. 9. Immigration and Naturalization Service, op. cit. 10. See Julia Preston, "Stalking the Shadow People, Village Voice, Oct. 15, 1979, p. 1. 11. Washington Post, August 31, 1979. 12. Forbes, April 15, 1977; Michael Wachter, "Second Thoughts About Illegal Aliens," Fortune, May 22, 1978. 13. New York Times, March 18, 1979, p. 1 14. "The Job Future in New York City," BLS Regional Report, #60, Feb. 1979; Julia Vitullo-Martin, "The Real Sore Spot in New York's Economy," Fortune, Nov. 19, 1979. 15. New York City Council on Economic Education, 1980-81 Fact Book on the New York Metropolitan Region, p. 36. 16. New York Times, March 21, 1979.
Tags: US immigration, INS, Undocumented, NYC, exploitation