Undocumented: 3 Ways Latinos Live in Fear

Next to my divorce, being undocumented was the most stressful experience of my life. Looking back, if I had a choice to go back and do it again, I would have 100% chosen to stay home in Toronto. My "alternate time line" would have me running away from home and sleeping on the floor of my brother's shared apartment. "You really don't want to live here, it's… disgusting," My brother told me at the time. "It's not like living at home." My family life was the epitome of dysfunction, complete with endless days of tense silences, tip-toeing around anger, mutual mistrust, and manipulation. It was on the heels of my step-mother's promotion and career shift that led my dad and me to drive across the border to live forever in the United States, the summer of 1991. Fate intervened, and I've made it. It was my destiny to stay, go through various traumas and turmoil. I love my life now, but the sacrifices to my spiritual self took an enormous toll, and a 30-year journey to get here. And I had it easy compared to millions of others.

1. When Your Student Visa Expires:

Like many immigrants who had a chance at privilege like me, I floated between what to do about being educated in a country you're not allowed to live in. My parents were allowed to live in the United States, but I arrived on an F-1 Student Visa. You're told that you "take the skills you learn in America and take them back to where you live." Easy, right? I suppose that works for a lot of people, but for me and thousands like me, my education did not translate back home where making connections within the community was significant to my livelihood. While I was finishing my education in Boston, I met my future husband. We were together about a year when I was forced to go back home. My student visa had run out, and my job couldn't sponsor me. The precious H1B Visa that the few were able to receive, eluded me. My talents were not considered a "special skill" and I was determined to be "taking away work that an average American could do." My degree and my five years of "practical training" skills failed to also apply to just about anything back home in Toronto. Everyone said to simply apply for jobs in my related field--some admin job just to get my foot in the door. I was staying at my brother's condo, where he and my sister-in-law tried to help a somehow "skill-less" person, a University educated, Bachelor of Arts, cum laude graduate, get any kind of job. I had been gone for over five years, living in a different country, under different systems. A few months later, I lay depressed on my mattress staring at the ceiling most days. My brother's "tough love" didn't help. The whole time there I got one in-person interview. Toronto was cold, grim, lonely. After failing to get work back home, I returned to Boston. There, I had a loved one to support me as I hacked a life for myself for another year or two. My mental health, my spirit, was in the toilet. Nonetheless, two young people in love did their best and we decided to get married. I was able to use the connections made while I was in school to keep myself afloat, until my eventual big break which came through my husband. Although our marriage didn't last in the end, it became the path to eventual citizenship for me in 2016. I was one of the lucky ones. 2. Not Having Health Care:

Not having access to safe and clean health care, or never being able to take off when you are sick leads to a life rife with paranoia. You simply can't get sick. Harken back to the old recipes that your abuela used to make, and exchange wellness recipes with other undocumented. I spent a long time trying to "hear" my body so at the first sign of sickness, I would pop a remedy or drink a special tea. Women's health care was a huge obstacle. I wouldn't have survived had it not been for Planned Parenthood's sliding scale and word-of-mouth places where you "heard" a doctor would help you, no questions asked. Fellow Ecuadorian Karla Cornejo Villavicencio wrote in her award-winning book, The Undocumented Americans, about these "safe pharmacies" for the uninsured immigrant. Gaiutra Bahadur, reviewing the book this past June for the TheNation.com with her article "At Macondo Pharmacy: Telling the story of undocumented America" writes:

"The pharmacy she calls Macondo does a brisk bootleg trade in prescription drugs because undocumented workers don’t get health insurance from employers and aren’t allowed to buy it privately, even if they could afford to… A Nicaraguan mother gets migraine medication only because a neighbor with access to a doctor feigns headaches for a prescription by proxy. A US citizen gives her own blood pressure pills to an undocumented friend. Others rely on the medicinal herbs sold in botanicas or on vodou or Santería to cure everything from AIDS to pneumonia to diabetes… an Argentine construction worker developed brain cancer after working at a site near a chemical plant, and every hospital refused him treatment because he was uninsured... Since he couldn’t pay out of pocket, he was treated instead by a naturalist who instructed him to chew the juices of exotic fruits.. for 15 minutes every night before bed. This alternative remedy, of course, did not help."

Coming from a country where everyone has general healthcare, I can tell you from my personal experience the American system puts undue stresses on the poor and unemployed; being undocumented just escalates that fear. There were many times that I had to force myself to put fear into a box and move on, or face being paralyzed by its weight.

Luckily, I didn't have to worry about kids when I was undocumented. The people I knew who had kids, tried to keep them in their country of origin and just send money back home every week. Undocumented and with an American baby was different before 9/11, and definitely different before ICE. Nowadays, Americans can't even agree on DACA, and thousands of kids are forever displaced at the border from their families. (DACA is no walk around the park. Click the link above to learn more.)

3. Working Under the Table:

When you choose to work for cash as an American citizen, that's up to you. How you handle your taxes, that's on you, too. When you're undocumented, you work at the mercy of another person's daily whims, subjected to harassment, wage withholding (regardless of how many hours you've documented), verbal abuses, and whatever else your employer has in mind. You spend a lot of time learning how to stay under the radar, as invisible as possible. Your goal is to never make waves. You go to work. You go home. You only pay with cash if you can. And if you're brave, you find a way to get someone else's social security number. If you do, then you can get a legitimate ID, and file your taxes. You can get a legitimate job, through illegitimate means. Or one day you get married to someone. Maybe they made it through chain migration, or maybe you begin the agonizing process of filing for a green card through marriage. (I got 90% of my gray hair from that time period… no thanks.) Being undocumented is a life living in fear, ever watchful and vigilant. One day you might have been the regular pizza delivery guy to a Brooklyn Army base, where everyone knows your name, and they tip you well. Then one day you're taken away to be deported: "A military police officer on duty said Mr. [Pablo] Villavicencio needed a driver’s license, which he did not have; the officer then ran a background check — which Mr. Villavicencio has said he did not consent to — which revealed an open order of deportation from 2010," as reported by Liz Robbins in July, 2018 for the New York Times. A pizza guy losing over domestic terrorists. Even the federal district court Judge Paul A. Crotty had issues with the case:

“'Is he a threat to the country? A flight risk? Don’t they have to justify it?' he asked the government lawyer. "The lawyer, Joseph Cordaro, stammered, but said that the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, had made the decision."

Eyeroll. Please. As if people choose to live this way.

© Isabel Alvear, July 2021 For more information on this topic and more, please "click" on the highlighted links. Drop a comment below, like, and share. Photo credits: First Image by StockSnap from Pixabay; Adobe Photostock from Boundless.com

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