THE STORY OF 50 UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS IN NEW YORK CITY: Staying Alive

September 25, 2007

"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


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