Portraits of the Undocumented in America, Part 1



In this series, we will take a look at the diversity of human beings living in our nation without legal papers.

Close your eyes for a minute, and conjure up an image of an undocumented person in America. If you are more familiar with the term “illegal immigrant,” go ahead and use that as your cue.

What did you see?  Maybe a farm worker? That works. A disproportionate percentage of farmworkers are immigrants, and many of them are undocumented. There is certainly food in your refrigerator right now that was picked or packaged by someone living in this country without papers. Lettuce. Tomatoes. Oranges. Potatoes. Melons. Blueberries. Food grown on American farms.

What would happen to that food if all undocumented workers were deported? Well, we can speculate. Or we can look at a state that cracked down on illegal labor. In 2011, Georgia passed HB 87, which was designed to “eliminate incentives for illegal aliens to cross into our state,” according to State Representative Matt Ramsey. The result was that 40% of the state’s farmworkers fled the state. Native born Georgians did not step in to take the jobs, and $140,0000,000 worth of crops were left to rot in the fields. The state was forced to retract the enforcement measures, and court the laborers back.

But our undocumented population are not just farm workers and laborers. They live in our cities, and in our suburbs, on both coasts, and in our heartland and in other agricultural communities. They are marginalized, and many work in jobs that American citizens would not take. They are the ones who cleaned up Ground Zero after the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the ones who restored New Orleans after Katrina. They work on major construction sites across our country, often without the protections afforded legal workers. Many work for less than minimum wage, and are frequent victims of wage theft. Many are entrepreneurs, and small business owners. They ring up your purchases at NYC bodegas, and give you a pedicure before your sister’s wedding. They wash the dishes and bus the tables at your favorite restaurant. They take care of your kids and your lawns and your housekeeping. They are survivors of torture or wars or discrimination or economic marginalization. They are individuals and families who dream of a better life for themselves and their children. Most of them live in mixed families.  The undocumented and green card holders and US citizens sit together for holiday meals, and their lives are intertwined.  They are Latinos and Asians and Africans and Europeans and folks from the Caribbean. About 10% of the undocumented living in NYC are Irish. Some were professionals in their countries of origin. Teachers or accountants or even scientists or political leaders. Some came to this country as young children, and know no other national home. And some can be counted as being among the most accomplished human beings living within our national borders.

Did you know that a 2007 winner of the coveted Pulitzer Prize was (and is) living in the United States illegally?   Jose Antonio Vargas came to California from the Philippines when he was 12 years old to live with his grandparents. He didn’t’ even know he was undocumented until he tried to apply for a drivers’ license at age 17. A network of teachers and friend supported him, through high school and college, and then through his career in journalism. Four years after winning the Pulitzer Prize, he decided to come out from the shadows, and in this piece for the NY Times, he told his amazing story as an undocumented immigrant living in America.  The article is really worth reading.  Go take a look at it.

[otw_shortcode_button href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/magazine/my-life-as-an-undocumented-immigrant.html?_r=0″ size=”medium” icon_position=”left” shape=”square” target=”_blank”]My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant[/otw_shortcode_button]

Another story of an outstanding human being is that of Cesar Vargas.  In 1989, he was six years old when walked across the desert from Mexico into the United States, holding his mother’s hand. Twenty-two years later, he passed the challenging NY State Bar Exam the first time he took it. But since he was living in the country without papers, he could not be admitted to the NYS Bar. In 2013, under President Obama’s DACA initiative, (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) Vargas was given temporary authorization to work in the US. As a result of DACA, he won his lawsuit, and was admitted to the NYS Bar last month. His status, however, is temporary. He knows that a Trump or Cruz presidency could result in his deportation to a land that he has never seen with adult eyes.

The way we face these immigration questions says volumes about us as a nation.

President Obama has repeatedly promised to address the situation facing the 11 million undocumented human beings living in our country. The Congress has repeatedly blocked any attempts to pass legislation that would change the lives of these 11 million people.

In 2012, President Obama signed the DACA Executive Order, which provided temporary relief to just under 600,000 individuals who arrived in the US as children. In 2014, he signed another Executive Order, which would have offered temporary relief to another several hundred thousand individuals, including Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas. A court challenge to this second DACA initiative, as well as a challenge to DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans), have blocked implementation of these Executive Orders. The Supreme Court will soon rule on implementation. Millions of lives are on hold as individuals and families wait to find out they, or their loved ones, will be eligible to receive temporary protection of deportation, and the opportunity to work legally and pay taxes in the United States.

In the meantime, JustNoMore.com will continue to explore who these undocumented people are, and how they impact on our lives, our culture, our communities, and our identity as a nation.

[otw_shortcode_button href=”https://justnomore.com/news/portraits-of-undocumented-inamerica-part2/” size=”medium” icon_position=”left” shape=”square”]Portraits of the Undocumented in America Part 2[/otw_shortcode_button]


Photo by Bruce Armstrong