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Hiding in Plain Sight

For an undocumented family, life in a sanctuary city is feeling less safe all the time.

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Juliana playing on the kitchen floor (with her pet bird, Sam) while her mother does the dishes.   

Sitting in his fluorescent-lit kitchen in Sunset Park, Alberto heard the bulletin over Univision: Four days after Barack Obama’s triumph, seven Suffolk County high-school students drove off on a ritual they called “beaner jumping.” Toward midnight by the Patchogue train station they found their man: Marcelo Lucero, 38, a soft-eyed Ecuadoran who worked at a dry cleaner’s, sent pay home to his sick mother, and draped an American flag around his TV set. The teenagers circled Lucero (“like a lynch mob,” a prosecutor said), punched him in the face, stabbed him in the chest, and left him to die in a driveway.

Sixty miles west, Alberto’s thick brows narrowed as he absorbed the news. “It’s like they’re taking target practice. Like they’re hunting an animal.” He winced at the thought of it. “You always think that this could happen to you,” he said. “It could happen anywhere.”

Alberto came to Brooklyn nine years ago from Puebla, followed soon after by his wife, Luisa, and their two children: Berto, a tall and stocky 11-year-old, and Juliana, a year younger and half her brother’s size. In their experience, New York had borne out its reputation as a so-called sanctuary city; diversity made it easy to blend in here. Mexicans accounted for only 21 percent of the half-million or so undocumented immigrants in New York (as compared with 56 percent nationally), according to Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center, with the balance divided mainly among South and East Asians (23 percent), Caribbeans (22 percent), other Latin Americans (19 percent), and Europeans (8 percent). Embedded in multiethnic neighborhoods like Bushwick and Astoria, these newcomers paid taxes and joined church groups; they went out on their senior proms. And city officials recognized their value better than most. “Although they broke the law,” Mayor Bloomberg told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, “our city’s economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported.”

Of late, though, a storm surge has lapped at the sanctuary’s door. Within the last fourteen months, Eliot Spitzer’s plan to issue driver’s licenses to the undocumented unraveled in a frenzy of xenophobia. Eight miles north of Patchogue, in Farmingville, a hit-and-run driver hopped a sidewalk and struck a day laborer. In September, the sixth Guatemalan in eight years turned up dead in woodsy Mount Kisco—three of them confirmed homicides, and one involving a town cop acquitted of manslaughter. Meanwhile, Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly blame the “alien invasion” for a grab bag of crises: failing schools, fantasy crime waves, outbreaks of leprosy, looming terrorist attacks. Hard-line politicians—like Suffolk County executive Steve Levy—match them stride for stride.

Raids have spiked in suburb and city alike since Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) launched Operation Return to Sender two years ago. In October 2007, in a sting involving the Queens D.A.’s office and the NYPD, a dragnet was thrown over Roosevelt Avenue in polyglot Jackson Heights. Witnesses saw ICE agents scoop up dozens of fenced-in bystanders who looked Latino. Two months later, a unionization vote failed at the Fresh Direct warehouse in Long Island City after a suspiciously timed ICE audit drove hundreds from their jobs.

New York suddenly seemed more like Providence, where nervous Latinos steer clear of the Wal-Mart, or Phoenix, where the sheriff sweeps Hispanic districts into panic. And a recession bodes worse still. Economic crises are doubly cruel to the undocumented. On the one hand, they become more expendable as companies large and small founder; on the other, they serve as handy scapegoats when anxiety runs high.

“New York at one point was impenetrable,” says Marisol Ramos of the New York Immigration Coalition’s youth council, “but now the fear has become very real.” It is stoked by each mass arrest across the country. After ICE swarmed an Iowa meatpacking plant out of Upton Sinclair and handcuffed hundreds of illiterate Guatemalan and Mexican workers, Alberto told me, “You live with that fear—you’re never sure.” It’s why he asked that this story use his family’s middle names. “But you can’t stay home with your hands folded. If you’re going to live like that, why are you here?”

The tension is subterranean, but unremitting. By mayoral executive order, the police are banned from casual questioning about immigration status—but who knows, as Alberto said, “when we’ll bump into a racist cop and he’ll ask for our papers?” And so you’ll see certain dark-skinned people move to the next car when they spot a blue uniform on the subway. They steer clear of hospitals until they are too sick to stand. The undocumented are muted when landlords withhold heat, or bosses refuse to pay, or Feds search their bedrooms without warrants. When you are “out of status,” you learn to keep quiet. To dodge exposure. To stay to work another day.


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