Under the Radar: Living in America without Papers

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Practically every Trinbagonian knows of, or is related to, someone who left the tropical shores to go to the United States (US) on a valid visa, and is yet to return, although said paperwork has long expired.
Contrary to what some unenlightened Americans may think, the approximately 12 million undocumented/illegal people (a governmental guess) are not all Mexican criminals who want to take back the land that the US stole many moons ago. They are people of various nations who are here to make a better life for themselves and their families. They live here voluntarily, and are not the unfortunate ones who have been kidnapped, coerced or duped by malicious and advantageous individuals. They have become part of the semi-invisible masses that live here.
Becoming undocumented is not an easy choice to make because of the huge risk involved. Right now (at least for Trinbagonians), if you are caught and deported or leave the States without a valid visa to return, you can be denied entry for ten years – not to mention the actual detainee experience (another article for another time). But the thing is that in most cases, the hustle is more lucrative and profitable than life back in the home country. The ‘Yankee dollar’, when sent home and converted to local currency, can mean the difference between starvation and your children being able to go to school with books in their bag and food in their belly. Money transfer companies have made millions of dollars from people wiring money to international destinations. So has the lucrative phone card business.
I was once one of those people. An undocumented soul. An illegal alien (cue either Sting or Shinehead). After dropping out of grad school, I went to New York to regroup and spend time with my mother who was doing chemo at the time. After she died, I spent some months in a great depression, and during that period my student visa expired, as I was no longer attending school. Since I had already been in the country six years, and had a bachelor’s degree and three quarters of a master’s degree under my belt, I thought it would have been easy to get a job and a work visa, and my life would be back on track. No such luck.
So I spent almost four years roaming the streets of Brooklyn, riding the buses and subway, and rubbing shoulders with people who had no idea of my status. To them, I looked like another Black man… until I opened my mouth. Then I became another Black man from Trinidad. Still, I could blend in because of the environment. I chose not to become involved in anything illegal, because I did not want to hurt my chances of getting back to documented status. During this period, hopes were raised… and dashed as the Immigration Reform Bill was killed by the Government.
After literally many trials and tribulations, I now have my green card, and I am now on the other side. This experience and that of others has given me great insight into the underbelly of US society. Being one of the semi-invisible has only reinforced for me what some people know, and others chose to ignore. And it is this: the undocumented are the support system of the US because they do many of the jobs that Americans are not willing to (though the present economy gives rise to a debate on this). Many janitors, night attendants, re-stockers and whatever menial task-workers you can think of are undocumented, and are proud of the job that they are doing because of the good they can do for their families. To them, it is just the beginning of the ‘American dream’. These are the people who eventually pay for houses in cash, and elevate themselves because of a particular mindset.
In my opinion, it is easier for a woman to survive undocumented than a man. Women have more options in jobs like babysitters, home attendants, live-in nurses and the like because suburban families are aware of the benefits of hiring someone ‘under the table’ because the person will do a better job (and I’m guessing) because of the fear of being reported hanging over their head – not that the individual is not paid well, and, in many cases, she’s a welcome addition to the family, becoming closer to the children than the actual parents.
There are undocumented women who have two and three bedroom apartments with cable, the latest phones and many other amenities that ‘normal’ Americans do not. It is also easier for a woman to get married and thereafter file for papers without it being a business deal or pregnancy trap. Last time I checked, the going rate for ‘an arrangement’ was around US$15,000 to $20,000 – $10,000 if you’re lucky.
There are some who say that all the stress and constant looking over shoulders is not worth it, and that it would be easier to return to your home country to be with friends and family. Numerous people who come here and overstay for months or even years in order to quickly build up funds, and when the goal is achieved return home and continue life on the good track it was already on. For some people that is not an option because they have either a barely-there existence or nothing to go back to.
Some cannot return home because they would be killed for various reasons like drugs, civil war, sexuality or any excuse that the killers come up with. In some countries, there is a lack of options or opportunities for self-improvement and upward mobility. For others, they simply convince themselves that they have a better shot abroad. It all boils down to making a choice about who and what you want to be.
I am a born and bred Arimian, and I miss my country and people terribly, but I made a choice in the 90s to go to school in the US, and put myself in a position to take advantage of a system that is in place to help those who want to help themselves. There are things in the US (at least then) that did not exist in Trinidad and Tobago, and to be honest my life would have been limited had I stayed home. To this day, when I tell people that I studied English in school their response is “So yuh want to be a teacher?”… as though that is the best and only thing you could do with my degree.
You could argue that without proper documentation you are still limited in what you could do, so why did I stay and suffer instead of going back to the islands? Why do multitudes of people still fight to get into the US every day by any means necessary? The Mexicans and South Americans by crossing deserts and rivers on foot or paying exorbitant fees to ‘coyotes’ (human smugglers) to be taken across the border, the Asians who are packed into cargo containers like sardines for weeks on end going across the ocean, the Europeans, many of whom who don’t need a visa to enter the US, and disappear into the woodworks first chance they get, and the Haitians and Cubans who float on barrels and pieces of wood to reach the ‘promised land’? I think it is because of this simple fact; the worst day in the US for some them is in many cases better than their best day in their home country.
For Trinbagonians that is not the case. All that has to be done is get a visa and hop on a plane. There is no dictator in power (at least outside of that politician’s head), religious freedom exists, racism is at a tolerable (but still not right) level, and the unemployment rate is not that bad. I have friends and family who are doing very well for themselves, doctors, lawyers, and policemen, among other professions, who are driving nice cars and living in nice houses, so I know that it is possible to have a ‘good’ life in T&T.
People make the ‘no papers’ choice for their own reasons, not always because of poor conditions in their home country or a less than perfect life. Whatever the motivation is for migrating, most likely it’s because people think that the grass is greener on the other side. It isn’t necessarily so. However, most will tell you that it’s definitely better, when your status is no longer up for scrutiny.
{DISCLAIMER: This article is based on personal experience and/or several words of mouths. I am in no way selling out or trying to set up anyone. To any I.C.E. agents reading this article, I have no names to give and MY papers are in order.}

greencardPractically every Trinbagonian knows of, or is related to, someone who left the tropical shores to go to the United States (US) on a valid visa, and is yet to return, although said paperwork has long expired. 

Contrary to what some unenlightened Americans may think, the approximately 12 million undocumented/illegal people (a governmental guess) are not all Mexican criminals who want to take back the land that the US stole many moons ago. They are people of various nations who are here to make a better life for themselves and their families. They live here voluntarily, and are not the unfortunate ones who have been kidnapped, coerced or duped by malicious and advantageous individuals. They have become part of the semi-invisible masses that live here.

Becoming undocumented is not an easy choice to make because of the huge risk involved. Right now (at least for Trinbagonians), if you are caught and deported or leave the States without a valid visa to return, you can be denied entry for ten years – not to mention the actual detainee experience (another article for another time). But the thing is that, in most cases, the hustle is more lucrative and profitable than life back in the home country. The ‘Yankee dollar’, when sent home and converted to local currency, can mean the difference between starvation and your children being able to go to school with books in their bag and food in their belly. Money transfer companies have made millions of dollars from people wiring money to international destinations. So has the lucrative phone card business. 

 

But the thing is that, in most cases, the hustle is more lucrative and profitable than life back in the home country.

I was once one of those people. An undocumented soul. An illegal alien (cue either Sting or Shinehead). After dropping out of grad school, I went to New York to regroup and spend time with my mother who was doing chemo at the time. After she died, I spent some months in a great depression, and during that period my student visa expired, as I was no longer attending school. Since I had already been in the country six years, and had a bachelor’s degree and three quarters of a master’s degree under my belt, I thought it would have been easy to get a job and a work visa, and my life would be back on track. No such luck.


So I spent almost four years roaming the streets of Brooklyn, riding the buses and subway, and rubbing shoulders with people who had no idea of my status. To them, I looked like another Black man… until I opened my mouth. Then I became another Black man from Trinidad. Still, I could blend in because of the environment. I chose not to become involved in anything illegal, because I did not want to hurt my chances of getting back to documented status. During this period, hopes were raised… and dashed as the Immigration Reform Bill was killed by the Government.

After literally many trials and tribulations, I now have my green card, and I am now on the other side. This experience and that of others has given me great insight into the underbelly of US society. Being one of the semi-invisible has only reinforced for me what some people know, and others chose to ignore. And it is this: the undocumented are the support system of the US because they do many of the jobs that Americans are not willing to (though the present economy gives rise to a debate on this). Many janitors, night attendants, re-stockers and whatever menial task-workers you can think of are undocumented, and are proud of the job that they are doing because of the good they can do for their families. To them, it is just the beginning of the ‘American dream’. These are the people who eventually pay for houses in cash, and elevate themselves because of a particular mindset.

 

“… it is easier for a woman to survive undocumented than a man.”

In my opinion, it is easier for a woman to survive undocumented than a man. Women have more options in jobs like babysitters, home attendants, live-in nurses and the like because suburban families are aware of the benefits of hiring someone ‘under the table’ because the person will do a better job (and I’m guessing) because of the fear of being reported hanging over their head – not that the individual is not paid well, and, in many cases, she’s a welcome addition to the family, becoming closer to the children than the actual parents. 

There are undocumented women who have two and three bedroom apartments with cable, the latest phones and many other amenities that ‘normal’ Americans do not. It is also easier for a woman to get married and thereafter file for papers without it being a business deal or pregnancy trap. Last time I checked, the going rate for ‘an arrangement’ was around US$15,000 to $20,000 – $10,000 if you’re lucky.  

There are some who say that all the stress and constant looking over shoulders is not worth it, and that it would be easier to return to your home country to be with friends and family. Numerous people who come here and overstay for months or even years in order to quickly build up funds, and when the goal is achieved return home and continue life on the good track it was already on. For some people that is not an option because they have either a barely-there existence or nothing to go back to. 
Some cannot return home because they would be killed for various reasons like drugs, civil war, sexuality or any excuse that the killers come up with. In some countries, there is a lack of options or opportunities for self-improvement and upward mobility.

For others, they simply convince themselves that they have a better shot abroad. It all boils down to making a choice about who and what you want to be. 

 

It all boils down to making a choice about who and what you want to be.

I am a born and bred Arimian, and I miss my country and people terribly, but I made a choice in the 90s to go to school in the US, and put myself in a position to take advantage of a system that is in place to help those who want to help themselves. There are things in the US (at least then) that did not exist in Trinidad and Tobago, and to be honest my life would have been limited had I stayed home. To this day, when I tell people that I studied English in school their response is “So yuh want to be a teacher?”… as though that is the best and only thing you could do with my degree. 

You could argue that without proper documentation you are still limited in what you could do, so why did I stay and suffer instead of going back to the islands? Why do multitudes of people still fight to get into the US every day by any means necessary? The Mexicans and South Americans by crossing deserts and rivers on foot or paying exorbitant fees to ‘coyotes’ (human smugglers) to be taken across the border, the Asians who are packed into cargo containers like sardines for weeks on end going across the ocean, the Europeans, many of whom who don’t need a visa to enter the US, and disappear into the woodworks first chance they get, and the Haitians and Cubans who float on barrels and pieces of wood to reach the ‘promised land’? I think it is because of this simple fact; the worst day in the US for some them is in many cases better than their best day in their home country. 

For Trinbagonians, that is not the case. All that has to be done is get a visa and hop on a plane. There is no dictator in power (at least outside of that politician’s head), religious freedom exists, racism is at a tolerable (but still not right) level, and the unemployment rate is not that bad. I have friends and family who are doing very well for themselves, doctors, lawyers, and policemen, among other professions, who are driving nice cars and living in nice houses, so I know that it is possible to have a ‘good’ life in T&T. 

People make the ‘no papers’ choice for their own reasons, not always because of poor conditions in their home country or a less than perfect life. Whatever the motivation is for migrating, most likely it’s because people think that the grass is greener on the other side. It isn’t necessarily so. However, most will tell you that it’s definitely better, when your status is no longer up for scrutiny.

(Disclaimer: This article is based on personal experience and/or several words of mouths. I am in no way selling out or trying to set up anyone. To any I.C.E. agents reading this article, I have no names to give and MY papers are in order).

 

Check out the rest of this week’s issue (04/04/11; Issue 51):

Look out for a new issue of Outlish.com every Monday.

 

3 Comments

  1. Paddy

    November 19, 2014 at 1:56 am

    It started out as a great article and just seemed to end a little prematurely. How did you eventually get legal?

  2. Raphael

    March 20, 2016 at 10:09 pm

    I know a lady who’s mother crossed the Mexican border (not from Mexico) with her mother who brought her when she was 8 years old. She graduated from high school and studied a five year profession, all the while her and mother paid for that education cash back in the days. She worked up to a year ago when the system finally caught up to her when papers were requested by her employer—she had to quit. She is a certified professional that helped 100’s of people with pain management. She speaks/writes perfect English and it would be IMPOSSIBLE to tell her apart form any other American. She always paid her taxes and has all her records for years. She owns property. She can’t collect unemployment. She has a right-hand injury (she is right handed) due to repetitive motion of her health related career and she can not file for Disability. Because she can not work and is underground her boyfriend has to continue with her mortgage payments so she does not loose her only possession. No law that has been passed has benefited her. She is an outstanding Citizen in my view of her hard-work, education, kindness to help others, paying her taxes even when she receives no immediate benefit, and she is just a beautiful law-abiding and god loving person. Absolutely no one, when they find out she has no papers, can believe it, like I said, it is impossible to tell her apart from another American.

    • Raphael

      March 20, 2016 at 10:15 pm

      Oh, I forgot to mention how people have abused and taken advantage of her when they find out her status. Even as a professional she has to bow down and kiss feet. The points on her loan should have been around 8% (at the time) but when the agent found out her status it was bumped to 3 additional points (12%). Due to her status she has never been able to refinance and reduce that payment (even when she was able to do so).

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