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What is it like being an undocumented immigrant in NYC?

Juan in Manhattan

"America is beautiful"

  The first thing I notice upon arriving in Jamaica, Queens to interview “Juan” (he declines to give his real name for reasons of immigration status) is that in the streets here one encounters more Spanish than English. Like many other neighborhoods in New York, this section of Queens has the distinct flavor and culture of the people who have come here seeking a better life. There are Dominican and Mexican grocery stores, restaurants, and a variety of the small neighborhood shops so typical to New York, all with signs in Spanish.


New York has always been a city of immigrants, and it strikes me as a success story in the successful integration of world cultures. The Empire State has as its cultural and economic capital, New York City- a world destination. And that cultural and economic success can be traced back to the contributions of immigrants throughout its history.

The United States has been the top destination in the world for immigrants since at least 1960, with fully one-fifth of the world’s immigrants living here as of 2017. They currently account for 17% of the total US population, according to the Migration Policy Institute or MPI.  And some 40% of New Yorkers can trace their roots to one port of entry to the United States, Ellis Island. And to a time when the restrictions on immigration were much laxer.

But there is something human that gets lost from any story when viewed solely through the lens of numbers. We tend to depersonalize situations as they grow in scale and abstraction. The author Paul Brodeur once wrote that “Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off”. As the current administration continues to use immigration as a talking point and the debate rages over whether this constitutes a positive or a negative trend for our society, I was looking for a more personal viewpoint, from someone who lives and works here in New York City. And Juan agreed to share his story.

He greets me in the garden of the house in which he rents a basement apartment in Jamaica, Queens.  He seems proud of how tidy and well-manicured he and his flatmates keep it. He is 39 and is an undocumented immigrant from Pueblo, Mexico. When I arrive, he and his girlfriend Maria are eating ribs from a Dominican restaurant nearby. They offer me a plate, a beer and a tour of his apartment, which is modest even by New York standards; three small rooms in total, a bathroom, a kitchen and a bedroom- all small and without windows. Juan works as a cook at a restaurant in Brooklyn six days a week. He does it under the table and without the protections or benefits that most American workers enjoy, such as overtime pay or access to health insurance. They give him the hours he wants, but refuse to give him overtime when he exceeds the 40-hour limit, which he does nearly every week.

"Inside, it’s like you are a toy doll. You can dress it up and make it look pretty on the outside, but inside, it’s empty"

He arrived here illegally 11 years ago, crossing the Sonora desert on foot. Leaving behind a wife and two daughters in Mexico, where he worked as a laborer in the fields and in construction. He comes from a family dedicated to agriculture, farmers all. His parents and his siblings, of which he has six, all still work in the fields of Pueblo. He says their lives have worsened since he left. “They all say the same thing.” He tells me in Spanish “Its difficult to live there because they earn so little. Because of the low price of the harvests. And lately, the security in Pueblo has worsened. It leaves one feeling powerless. Like you can’t do anything to change the situation.”

One of his brothers was shot by thieves attempting to rob him of his tractor. “There is a lot of corruption and the criminals have impunity. Out of the 100 cases that the court has, they only resolve 3 or 4 cases. And the other 95 or 96 simply remain open. There is absolutely no justice in Mexico.”

"I ask them why so many guns?"

Juan isn’t alone in citing insecurity in his native country as a reason for wanting to live in the United States. Although migration from Mexico has in general declined, there has been an uptick in refugees from Latin America seeking asylum in the United States in recent years. “Most don’t choose to flee the situation. They may have already fled their home or changed jobs. It just gets to a point where it is a last resort” according to Kay Andrade of Catholic Relief Services in San Salvador.

I ask Juan what he misses most about living in Mexico, and he tells me that without a doubt it is his family. He hasn’t seen them in 11 years. He has suffered from long bouts of depression due to their absence in his life. “I separated from my wife due to time. The passing of time makes you forget everything. Everything that you have with someone... And of course. you send them money, hoping that makes it ok for them. But it leaves you empty…And although I live better economically here. I still have that emptiness. You can wear nice clothes, but inside, it’s like you are a toy doll. You can dress it up and make it look pretty on the outside, but inside, it’s empty. Its empty systemically, the life of an immigrant here.”

Juan usually talks with a lot of bravado, displaying the typical macho attitude so common in Mexican men. It comes off as funny and charming. But when he talks about his family, he seems more subdued, more modest, and to be in a little bit of pain. It is a testament to how deeply he has been affected by this depression that it leaks through the mask of strength he usually wears for the world. He is clearly more at home talking about his journey across the Sonora desert. He clearly takes pride in the adventurous aspects of the dangerous crossing. “When we arrived at the house where we were supposed to cross you could only see people…well let’s say they looked dangerous. They were carrying drugs, weapons. They were exporting all of this. (Author’s note: I asked Juan later to clarify this, he told me he saw smugglers arriving to Mexico with firearms they had acquired in the US). They were always armed, everyone was armed. I asked them ‘Why so many guns?’ And they told me that the risk wasn’t from the authorities but from other places. At my first impression, this made me a little afraid.”

“And these men were part of your group?”

“They were the coyotes, or the guides. You have to hire someone because you aren’t familiar with the desert, nor the mountains. You have to hire them because you wouldn’t have any idea where you are walking otherwise, if you were walking north, or south, or simply in circles. And these men arrived armed, and loaded with cargo. But because it is very difficult to walk in the desert at night, we didn’t have any choice…But there was one aspect of the guides that I liked. I tried to pay them and they told me that I wasn’t going to have to pay them until they had us knocking on the door of whoever was going to be responsible for us. And it was two-thousand dollars.”

In 2007 the minimum monthly wage in Mexico was roughly $137.50 USD. Thus, when he made voyage to the United States, the coyotes charged Juan the equivalent of 14 months of work for the average Mexican citizen. It was a very considerable sum of money to risk.

“I liked this part because if you don’t pass, you don’t pay. They united you with your family or friend, and then you paid. They delivered you to your people, and you delivered the money. There are other stories where the coyote asks for 50% up front, but it turns out bad. They could abandon you in the desert or in the mountains and your %50 would be lost.  So, the guarantee that they would bring us to our people and we would give them the money in exchange, that’s the part I liked. It made me feel safer and that’s what convinced me.”

US border control data cites that 7,209 people have died crossing the border in the last 20 years as of January 2018. But many media sources and humanitarian organizations cite the number as far higher, from 25% to %300 more in some states. Due to a lack of tracking deaths for which the bodies are not recovered and the fact that federal agencies do not include in their statistics bodies recovered by local authorities, the true number is often under-reported.  Juan was right to be afraid. And the coyotes undoubtedly knew exactly how dangerous it was. It’s how they could charge such a high price for the crossing.

“They knew the risks.” He says. “Including that it’s very dangerous when you encounter people we called ‘bajadores’ or thieves. On the road (to the US) they know that one comes prepared and carrying money. You’re prepared for every detail. And every one of them (the thieves) is armed. And to take your money they don’t say ‘please’, but rather they intimidate you, beating your friend, or if you have bad luck, beating you. And they take your money. Those are the risks you run with the thieves.”

Juan talks about seeing Rattlesnakes and hearing the howls of coyotes. He speaks of living each day in fear, hiding- moving only by night. The immigrants feared not just the wilds of the desert, but also thirst, narco-traffickers and American Immigration officials. The coyotes scouted ahead for smugglers and Border Patrol, often making the immigrants wait for hours in terrified silence. 

It’s not a good sensation to see a young girl of maybe 15, or 16, or 17 prostituting herself for basically nothing. For fifty pesos, or we could say about 3 dollars

“And the other big risks are when you come across the lines of the drug smugglers...because they don’t want immigration officials watching their area. It’s like a trail. So, the drug smugglers watch the area closely, and don’t allow the immigrants to pass. And if you find yourself there, well, it could be that they kill you. Or has been seen in some cases they kill the guide. Or they could give you a beating that you will remember for the rest of your life.”

When asked what kind of people he encountered during the journey Juan told me “Well, regarding the guides, you meet brave men, who are dedicated to what they do. But they also do it out of necessity. The necessity to work and earn their money. So, they have to make themselves brave. And in the sense of immigrants, well I only met people who wanted to come out ahead, who wanted to work, who wanted a stable living. But they have to battle very hard. The crossing is very, very difficult. During the voyage you encounter women who have run out of money, or who maybe have run out of food. The guide has his posts in the desert or in the mountains. And one has to go to these posts to refill your water, or whatever you may be missing. Well, the women who have run out of money or food or whatever thing, they have to prostitute themselves on the road. To sleep with someone for a few pesos to be able to buy more…I don’t know. To buy more life I suppose we could say…It’s not a good sensation to see a young girl of maybe 15, or 16, or 17 prostituting herself for basically nothing. For fifty pesos, or we could say about 3 dollars- prostituting herself for three dollars. But sadly, for the women, it’s their quickest solution. It becomes a necessity to earn their money. There is no other option.”

Juan spent fifteen days crossing from the Mexican state of Sonora into Texas. They carried their own water and food for the journey. “It was recommended to us that you carry two gallons of water, and you have to drink the smallest amount possible, and if you encounter a period of rain, well that’s great because you can refill your gallon. Or when you find puddles to drink from. For food, its only dry stuff. Only crackers and tuna. You can’t carry other things because the heat is tremendous and because of that it will spoil. You don’t want to go carrying heavier things that you will have to throw in the trash after two or thee days. So they recommend crackers and tune, and maybe one or two chocolates to give you energy.”

“That’s when I began to force myself to be a little brave and to say “This is a bitch to pass!” he laughs. “And it’s a bitch because there were these crazy snakes and we travelled at night…So yes, each day was terrifying. It’s exhausting because one wants to arrive quickly. One might think that the path is easy, that it’s easy to cross. But no, 15 days of very hard living, it is difficult.”

Eventually his group arrived in Texas without further incident. They would be shuttled to their various destinations by a network of distributors here in the United States. When asked how he felt his first day in the United States, Juan responded “To arrive in the United States, to view the city for the first time and to know that the immigration officials are no longer around, that they are going to grab you and deport you? You release all the tension. For that sensation to no longer be there, to be free of the sensation that someone is following you, that the risk is gone- it makes one feel great. But with the passage of time comes the loneliness, the depression.” The bravado in his mannerisms as he told me his story of adventure fade as his thoughts return to his family.


Interior of Juan's apartment in Jaimaica, Queens

When asked if he feels like he is a part of the American culture, Juan responds simply “No.”

I ask Juan if he had the choice, would he do it all again? I wanted to know if he was happy enough in the United States that he would still pay such a high price to be here, the separation from his wife, the absence from his family, the long hours of work and the difficulties of starting from nothing in a new culture.

“I think I would make the same decision. Because a human being likes adventure and to know what it is to travel, to learn about new things and experience everything one can. It changes your mentality. The United States is beautiful, only it is also…well the depression I was talking about earlier. But yeah, I would do it again although I suffered at times. I would do it again to have the adventure and to learn so much.”

When asked if he feels like he is a part of the American culture Juan responds simply “No.”  He feels he encounters a lot of racism here, including from other people from Latin America. “One notices it when people treat you badly. When you arrive at your job and someone says to you ‘What are you doing here? You’re Mexican and I don’t like Mexicans. And from the Mexicans also, from my countrymen, there is a lot of racism. And for nothing more than they arrived at the job first. When in reality, they are no different from you.”

According to MIP, Mexicans make up just 26% of the population of immigrants to the United States yearly, and yet our media and current government remain very focused on presenting them as the primary immigration issue. Although self-declared white immigrants make up 47% of immigrants, for example, we don’t see constant media-coverage or twitter storms from our politicians about immigration from European or Slavic countries.


 I ask Juan if he feels the politics in America have changed since his arrival.

“Yes, the politics have changed. Although I think that it just brought into the light politics (that already existed). When we had Barrack Obama, all of these types of movements were more discrete.” He tells me. “Now that Donald Trump is president, they have all come out into the light. What everyone says, what is felt, the hatred, the anger. It has all come out. When Donald Trump refers to immigrants with racism, with a lot of anger, it changes the mentality of people towards immigrants. This strengthens their mentality against (us) and the racism grows.”

“The immigrant isn’t dangerous. He isn’t like Donald Trump likes to paint him. The immigrant only comes here to work, because he has to. It comes from fear I think more than anything else. It comes from what has been said (by President Trump). Trump brings out these ideas and says ‘This is bad!’ and all the people say ‘This is bad!’ but without analyzing or looking. Because it’s nothing more than a lie! How can I describe it? Let’s take the idea of a commercial. When you see a famous artist offering a perfume on television people have this mentality like “Ah! I like this perfume. I’m going to buy it!” Donald Trump brings out all his bullshit, and his crazy ideas to say that the immigrant is a bad thing, and the people without looking or analyzing for themselves say ‘Ah yeah, he’s right. The immigrants are terrible!’

Juan has a lot of company among Latinos who say they have experienced more racism since the election of Trump, the man who called Mexicans “most unwanted people” as well as “criminals, drug dealers and rapists”.

“So, I would say to these people” Juan continues “‘Look with your (own) eyes! Listen with (your own) ears!’ They say that the immigrant is bad, but listen, this is what it is: the immigrant comes to work. There is an incredible amount of really good people. To have desires isn’t bad. I would tell them to take another look at the immigrants here.

We finish our beers on the patio after the interview, trading jokes about our love lives and old friends. I can’t imagine anyone hating Juan for coming to this country. And maybe they don’t, really. As I mentioned earlier, we tend to be non-emotional and unsympathetic in our responses to abstract problems.  Maybe it’s just fear of the unknown, or as some have postulated, pushback by a white conservative culture terrified of losing power. But amid the numbers, amid all the stories about immigration, all the speeches, all the media attention, and all the outrage, and the gallons of ink spilled inciting passions on both sides of our political spectrum, something gets lost.


When we make immigration a partisan issue, our political tribalism sets in and we immediately lose the ability to convince half of our citizenry to approach the issue with an open mind. It’s important to keep in mind that these aren’t numbers, these are people, whom, to paraphrase the Bard, bleed like you, and feel pain just like you, in a way that numbers cannot. They deserve to be treated with dignity. Juan would like you to take a look at the issue honestly, with your own eyes.

Joshua Collins

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