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Hiding in Plain Sight

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Sitting down for Saturday-night dinner in parkas to save on heat.  

“They live like ghost citizens,” says Kelly Fincham, executive director of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. “They’re here, but they’re not here.”

We met in a freshly swept kitchen where Luisa cooked pozole and tripe soup. It was also the dining room, the living room, the TV room, the computer room, and the study. For meals, a warped plastic table got unfolded, with glasses propped on napkins to keep from sliding. There were two small bedrooms, one with bunk beds for Berto and Alberto’s mother and a small foldout for Juliana, plus a cramped bath. “We’re fine here,” Alberto said. “Not the way we want it, but better than we were before.”

To avoid credit checks, the undocumented rely on the informal—and often illegal—housing market, ranging from cellar dungeons to wildly overcrowded studios. By these standards, the family had done well for their $500 rent, though the furnace was balky in cold weather. It was as close as Alberto could get to his grand obsession, the same goal that had driven Marcelo Lucero to Long Island: to some day own a spacious home. Alberto began building one in Puebla in the mid-nineties, but saw that he’d never finish on his policeman’s salary. In the summer of 1999, after his mother and married sister had settled in Brooklyn, he borrowed $2,800 for a coyote to guide him to Arizona, Los Angeles, and finally New York, where the minimum wage would triple his Mexican income.

While hundreds of migrants die each year in the hellish Sonoran Desert, Alberto’s crossing, by happenstance, was uneventful: five days in a cabin just south of the border, a short hike to a four-foot fence, a waiting van. But in that brief and furtive passage, he crossed a divide that has defined him ever since. He became, as Columbia historian Mae M. Ngai wrote, “a social reality and a legal impossibility … a person who cannot be and a problem that cannot be solved.”

A century ago, a migrant like Alberto could have crossed the open Southwest border as he pleased. Fifty years ago, with immigration still unrestricted within the Western Hemisphere, he might have gained admittance after a head tax and literacy test. Thirty years ago, he would have entered unlawfully and then been rescued by the amnesty of the late eighties. But Alberto joined a later cohort, the surge that followed passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. More than anything, NAFTA crystallized a neocolonial conceit: that the U.S. could foster a free flow of trade and capital while freezing Mexican labor in its tracks. The hitch was that people, unlike commodities, moved of their own accord. Unable to compete with subsidized American corn, Mexican farmers lost their livelihoods—and where else could they go? Though Alberto might seem like a classic “target earner,” he did not act in isolation. Millions of the poor have been pushed out of Mexico, and the Border Patrol has yet to build the barrier to stop them. They live outside the law because the jobs here outnumbered the legal pathways. And they formed the critical mass for Alberto’s decision to follow his relatives and try his luck in Brooklyn.

In fairness, there is no real “line” for people like Alberto to wait in: no diversity visas for high-sending countries; no slots for unskilled workers; little practical hope for relatives of U.S. citizens. (For Mexicans, the wait period for family-reunification green cards currently stretches up to 40 years.) Denied legal entry, the people came anyway, often to join legal relatives who came before. As Joseph Salvo of the Department of City Planning puts it, “The documented and the undocumented are sitting across the same table, having dinner every night.”

The government’s conundrum is deep-seated, and its rules schizophrenic. Under immigration law, the undocumented are virtual non-persons. And yet they are covered—in theory—by wage-and-hour laws. They are entitled to emergency Medicaid; their children may attend public schools. With an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, an “illegal” person in New York can satisfy the IRS, buy a condo, and own a restaurant, all with ICE none the wiser. “The systems are completely non-communicating,” observes Julia Jean-Francois, co-director of the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park. “It’s totally irrational.”

Still, there always lurks the threat of deportation. In the fiscal year ending September 30, ICE removed a record 349,041 people from the United States, many of them severed from jobs and families after a decade or more in this country. Detention centers are crammed with those awaiting ejection; the border bristles with troops and high-tech surveillance, like the old Berlin Wall. In July, a nine-months-pregnant Mexican woman in Nashville got stopped for a ticket and wound up chained to her hospital bed during labor. “We’ve become meaner and meaner on immigration,” says Robert Smith, a sociologist at Baruch and the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Mexican New York.


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