Of late ICE has trumpeted Operation Endgame: the deportation of “all removable aliens” by 2012. Logistically improbable, it would be economically devastating. The country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants underpin agribusiness and home-building. They pay an estimated $7 billion in annual payroll taxes—with no prospect of any return—to the Social Security Trust Fund. Locally, they represent 10 percent of the resident labor force and the backbone of the low-skilled service sector—more than half of New York’s dishwashers, close to a third of its cooks and maids and construction workers, a fifth of its janitors. They wash tower windows and make the school pickups and pack the baby greens picked by unauthorized farm workers. In hard times they preserve our luxuries on the cheap: the $13 manicure, the $50 house cleaning. “They subsidize us in many, many ways,” says Smith. “Have you ever been to Europe and seen how much fruit costs?”
Three days after arriving in Brooklyn, Alberto found a factory job with a burly Israeli (whom we’ll call Jesse) in a dull brick building off the waterfront. Keeping the alias from his crossing, “Oscar” swept up for around $7 an hour. After a year, by watching the others, he learned to make and install custom kitchen cabinets.
Alberto did better than the scrabbling day laborers on Fort Hamilton Parkway, or the supermarket baggers subsisting on tips. He felt safer than those who teetered on off-brand scaffoldings. But he was still exploited in ways typical of undocumented labor. Jesse had seven workers, all unauthorized, all off the books: two Israelis, three Mexicans, one Argentine, one Ecuadoran. While the boss paid as little as he could, it pained him to pay them at all. “He’s very, very tight,’ Alberto said. On Fridays the cash might be a hundred dollars light or weeks late. When he lost patience, Alberto would stop coming to work—a move that backfired the first time, as he had no money and no safety net. Their children in tow, Alberto and his wife gathered cans and hawked tamales from a shopping cart. At their low point, Luisa stood in line, ashamed, at a church pantry.
“You live with that fear— you’re never sure. But you can’t stay home with your hands folded. If you’re going to live like that, why are you here?”
Since then, Alberto had quit and returned to Jesse at least half a dozen times. (“It’s like a bad marriage,” Luisa joked.) The boss was supposed to sponsor him for a green card, but he let it slide and soon the notion became moot as Congress phased out the program in 2001. When a co-worker discovered that Jesse had strung him along, he set his paperwork aflame on the factory floor. Alberto learned a hard lesson: “Nobody here is really going to help you.”
For a time he tried working for himself, picking up construction skills and a small network of contractors. A year ago, he was commissioned to create a home office in cherry wood, making $10,000 over three part-time months. “It’s all me,” he said proudly, leafing through a photo album of sleek panels and clean-shaped moldings. “All this work is my work.” But freelancing proved unreliable, and last January Jesse lured him back for $11 an hour, right around the poverty line, with no health insurance or time-and-a-half. “A temporary thing,” Alberto said, until he found a better offer.
Though he knew where $200 could buy a Social Security number and a forged green card—magic tickets into an aboveground economy—Alberto did not dare make the purchase. While “unlawful presence” is but a civil violation, a fake document can bring down a felony charge. “My children are small,” Alberto said. He was afraid to take the risk.
Immigration is part of the curriculum at P.S. 24, where 9-year-olds freely shared that a parent was mojado—“wet.” But Berto, who came here when he was 3, is so fair-skinned and assimilated that some classmates mistook him for native-born. During last spring’s Diversity Month, he rose with the other foreign-born students, “and my friends said, ‘Wow, I always thought you were Mexican-American.’ I told them I was only Mexican, and half my friends went away. Some kids think that people born outside the border are less important.” On the playground, “Mexican” might be yelled as a put-down, as code for illegal.
As her children edge into preadolescence, “they are realizing the magnitude of their situation,” Luisa said. For Juliana, the practical one, it struck home when her grandmother invited a younger cousin to go to Mexico. “My cousin could go back and forth because she was born here in the United States,” she explained, flicking her straight black hair off her face. “Me and my brother, if we go there, we’re going to have to stay there.”
When asked if she’d heard talk about undocumented immigrants, Juliana cut to the nub: “We probably are unlegal—we don’t have documents to stay here.” Was that a problem? “No and yes. It is a problem for me because I like it here, and my dad could go to jail.”