Undocumented – and indispensable

Harvest workers, nannies, craftspeople: Eleven million people live in the US without papers, nothing goes without them. Trump wants to deport them anyway. A life full of fear.

published in German by ZEIT ONLINE on February 28, 2017; translated in September 2017 >>

Gravel crunches under wheels, a dust cloud rises: Santos “el Tito”* squints into the rising sun. At the end of the road, where the city vanishes and the desert begins, a pick-up truck appears. Work, finally! But the car drives by. Santos looks at his fellow workers and shrugs his shoulders. Those gringos! Always sleeping in and we keep waiting and waiting!

Tucson, Arizona. At seven in the morning, the university town is in a state of deep slumber; except for 30 men at a street corner in the far south of the city. Some carry spades and welding equipment, work gloves and backpacks. Santos does not have any of those items; he has only been in the US for three months and is new at the Southside Worker Center. Unlike any other, he introduces himself upfront with his last name and his home village in Honduras. Santos didn’t get used to the idea yet that he is not supposed to be here – not in the US and not in search of work.

Street corners like these exist in many US cities. About eleven million immigrants live in the country without a valid visa or green card; they either stayed in the US after their visa expired or crossed the desert like Santos. According to the Pew Research Institute, every 30th person in the US – and every fourth immigrant – does not have legal papers.

Don’t attract attention!

The undocumented have learnt not to attract attention and not to complain. Many have been living in the US for decades, started families, speak English, work and pay taxes – they provide the same performances as US citizens, but do not have the same rights. As they need to avoid any passport control, they cannot leave the US and re-enter, apply for social benefits, turn to the police if they witness or become victim of a crime and they may not vote. But most of all, they cannot work with a Social Security Card and they are not covered by health insurance. The sociologist Cecilia Menjívar refers to these obstacles as the “internalization” of borders; according to her, bureaucratic borders are in place to make life more difficult for people without papers, so that they finally leave voluntarily.

Literally everyone could be among the eleven million: your neighbor, your babysitter, the investment banker. When the renowned journalist José Antonio Vargas “outed” himself as undocumented in a New York Times article in 2011, he opened the eyes of many readers. “We’re not always who you think we are,” he wrote. “Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. (…) Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.” When Vargas had his photo taken for a Time cover together with other undocumented people, one of them was man from Germany.

Salinas, California: Trucks are jamming up the highway between the valley of harvest workers and the Silicon Valley. “4,000 trucks drive into our city every day,” says City Council member Steve McShane. “When they leave, they are loaded with fresh vegetables for the whole country.” Billboards left and right of the highway all show the same line: “Workers Wanted!”

Farmers in Salinas are facing a problem, says McShane. “Our soil is so fertile and we have so many harvest cycles per year, that farmers just do not find enough workers to tend all the fields.” When he thinks about the core argument against undocumented immigration of many Republicans – “They are taking our jobs away” – the Council members starts laughing. “Please show me the US Americans who are willing to bend their backs eight to ten hours a day out in the fields for a minimum wage. They would get the jobs right away. But no one shows up!” As a result, he says, farmers in need of harvest workers resort to undocumented immigrants.

Without undocumented immigrants, the US economy comes to a standstill

The “Day Without Immigrants” two weeks ago made clear what happens if migrants – legal or illegalized – do not show up for work: The nanny won’t arrive, the tram won’t be running, the supermarket checkouts won’t be occupied. Restaurants will remain closed for lack of employees, houses won’t be cleaned and nobody will mow the lawn. In short: The American lifestyle of the middle class falls apart. “In earlier times, Native Americans would take over the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs,” says Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan who is with the Migrant Policy Institute, a moderate think tank in Washington D.C. “Since Native Americans are no longer willing to do this, undocumented workers from other countries are filling the gap.”

“Getting organized was the best we could do”

People without papers are not entitled to unemployment benefits; as a result, they represent a disproportionately large group of the working population in the US. One in four farm workers and one in seven construction workers has no residence permit. Since many of them work with fake Social Security Cards, they even pay taxes and pensions – more than eleven billion US dollars every year. However, according to the current legislation they will never benefit from this money themselves.

Santos is still waiting at his street corner. The 36-year-old just started his career as an undocumented worker, but he is overjoyed. “Just imagine, I can send 150 dollars to my family every week,” Santos says in broken Spanish. Since he left his family in Honduras, he uses his indigenous mother tongue only on the phone. “When I left last fall, my children cried. But they are better off now: With the money I send, they have enough to eat, go to school and we are now building our own house there. My eldest son is getting trained as an electrician; one day he will be better off than I am.”

Born in the wrong place at the wrong time

Santos’ story resembles that of many migrants: He was born at the wrong time in the wrong place, into a family of twelve children in Honduras. Without money no high school diploma, no college, no reliable job – and again no money in the next generation… “Last year, Jesus appeared in my dream,” says Santos. “He promised to show me the way to the US.” Jesus didn’t tell him though what he would be going through on the way: nothing about the ride on top of the Bestia train with hundreds of other migrants, nothing about the desert, the hunger, the thirst.

Santos walked into the desert of Sonora between Mexico and the US alone; he didn’t have money to pay a smuggler (coyote). For days he simply walked straight and fed on the leaves of the Nopales cacti. The first human he met was dressed in a military uniform. Santos was too weak to run away. “You’re already in the US,” the stranger told him in Spanish. “But you will die if you continue to walk through the desert.“ Santos replied: “I’d rather die than turn around like a coward.” Thereupon the man handed him his own backpack and urged him to walk on.

In the backpack Santos found biscuits, water, and a burrito – enough to keep walking. After twelve days, he reached the first city in the US, Tucson. Shortly thereafter, he got his first assignment: a repair job in a private home, for twelve dollars an hour – more than he had earned in Honduras in two days. Inside the house, he saw a Border Patrol uniform on a hanger. His client’s job is to keep people like him from entering the country. However, if they manage to escape him at the border, he jumps at the opportunity to employ them.

Once again, a pick-up truck drives by – and this time, it stops. The coordinator of the Worker Center, Eleazar Castellanos, hurries to greet the driver and beckons Santos over. They negotiate a price and Santos gets into the truck.

“Organizing us as a group was the best we could do,” Castellanos says. “This is how we protect ourselves from exploitation, prevent unhealthy competition and demand fair wages.” Every morning, at six o’clock, the workers draw lots to establish the order in which they will receive assignments. If somebody didn’t get a client at ten o’clock, he goes home again. But that rarely happens. Home owners do not find any other craftsmen who are as inexpensive and non-committal elsewhere in Tucson; therefore, many are willing to risk clandestine employment.

“Of course, we are afraid”

But what happens, if the next truck does not belong to a customer, but to the US Department of Homeland Security? A street corner with 30 undocumented migrants might be the dream of every investigator – an easy way to Donald Trump’s goal of deporting several million migrants. “Until last year, we felt relatively safe here,” says Castellanos. “But since the election, we are of course afraid.”

Barack Obama already deported more undocumented people than any US president before him, but Trump wants to break this record: During his election campaign he vowed to deport only “criminals”, but he has since extended this group to all undocumented migrants who are only as much as suspected of a criminal offense – such as working with a fake Social Security Card. Immigration agents have raided hundreds of places since. Deportation can hit almost anyone.

Castellanos’ group in Tucson is represented by the national network of day laborer (NDLON), together with 41 other groups between Washington, D.C. and the San Francisco Bay Area. The network is alarmed about Trump’s migration policy: “These raids are supposed to sow chaos and unsettle our communities,” says NDLON spokesman David Abud. According to him, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tries to establish raids as something normal. Therefore, illegal migrants should defend and organize themselves, he says: “We will fight against every single deportation.”

Castellanos’ “coming out”

It is unusual that the workers’ leader Eleazar Castellanos goes public with his full name. So far, the only undocumented people who can afford to become a public voice are so-called Dreamers – young immigrants who, due to a presidential order signed by Barack Obama, are protected from deportation and enjoy the rights to study and work.

Meanwhile, most other people without papers do not speak out for fear of deportations. “The election of Donald Trump has Salinas in a state of emergency,” says City Councilor Tony Barrera, who represents the working-class neighborhood of Alisal. “Our inhabitants are in panic, some even took their children out of school.” They do not even talk to journalists, if they are guaranteed anonymity, Barrera says.

Down in Tucson, Castellano feels a growing urgency to speak out for himself and his muchachos (boys). “Who will listen to us if we remain anonymous?” When he lost his job due to a tightened immigration law, Castellanos decided to be upright about his status and go on the offensive. His hope to see a comprehensive immigration reform in the future has moved into a far distance under Trump’s presidency. Instead, Castellanos started demanding local policies that reduce everyday barriers and dangers for undocumented people: Such as Sanctuary Cities and Campuses that protect their people from deportations, city or driving licenses open to undocumented people and a ban on racial profiling. “The sheriff of Tucson has just signaled his support in a meeting,” Castellanos asserts.

No papers, no problems – in California

As much as the implementation of the US law varies from one state to another, the chances for undocumented people to get a permanent job also differ: States under Republican rule like Arizona require that employers check whether employees have a work permit and match the document with data from the Department of Homeland Security – an insurmountable obstacle for undocumented people. In liberal California, this so-called “E-Verify” control is only mandatory for state employees. All other workers only need a Social Security Card.

“The card is no problem,” says Kevin*. “I got mine for 120 bucks.” His siblings too. Although the five young adults and their mother are undocumented, they can handle most situations with their California driving license and their fake Social Security Card. As on most weekends, they meet at their mother’s apartment in a residential container park in northern California; during the week, they all work and study in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Given where we started, we have made it,” says the 29-year-old.

The family came to California from Guatemala ten years ago. If they had landed in Arizona, Kevin would offer his work in a street corner and risk deportation just like Santos. Instead, he works as a district supervisor for a cleaning company, earning – and paying taxes for – nearly $ 40,000 a year.

It is only now that Kevin hits the immigration glass ceiling: When his boss recently offered him a promotion to operations manager, he had to refuse; it would mean to submit to the E-Verify control. “Thanks, but I do not want to have a career,” he told his boss. “My current job is great!” They could be bitter. But instead, the siblings burst out laughing. They are all too familiar with white lies.

* The family name was omitted to protect the protagonist.

Photo: In a soup kitchen in the Mexican border town Heroica Nogales, José dreams of a life in Los Angeles. He already has the proper base cap.