Sunday, July 18, 2004

Living in the Shadows S.C. worker among thousands in county living below the radar July 18, 2004

Living in the Shadows S.C. worker among thousands in county living below the radar July 18, 2004
July 18, 2004

Living in the Shadows
S.C. worker among thousands in county living below the radar
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sentinel policy is to reveal the names of all sources in news stories, except in the most extenuating of circumstances. In the following report, we believe the story couldn’t be told without protecting the source’s identity.
For more on anonymous sources in journalism, see Insight, Page F2.

Sentinel staff writer

Most of all, Arturo misses his wife and four children.

Sure, the 47-year-old undocumented worker from Mexico would like to obtain a driver’s license so he could buy a car to get to and from work. And having a bank account might make it easier to send money home.

But it’s been four years since he set off on a grueling trip from Oaxaca to Santa Cruz, and the difficulties of crossing the border illegally means he hasn’t been back to visit. Since he left home, his oldest boys have grown to young men; the baby daughter he kissed goodbye is now 6.

"The life of an immigrant is very sad, very sad," said Arturo, which is not his real name, in Spanish through an interpreter.

It’s also a life of hiding one’s identity, of being on guard against detection, arrest and deportation, of finding ways to exist on the fringe of society without going over the edge.

Arturo’s concerns about being deported bubbled to the surface as talk of raids by federal officials swept through immigrant communities in Central and Northern California in late June.

Though authorities deny they were conducting random sweeps of supermarket parking lots, downtown shopping centers and other places where undocumented residents congregate, similar stories continue to percolate in communities around the country.

The tales ratcheted up what one mental health professional described as the reasonable paranoia among people living underground, and kept the undocumented from going to jobs and keeping doctor’s appointments.

The local turmoil has diminished, but some undocumented workers remain fearful and have not resumed normal activities.

Arturo said the anxiety he felt was less a concern for his own welfare as for that of his family.

"I made a commitment to my children (to provide) clothes, food, education," he said. "For my children, I had a little fear."

Leaving home
Prior to the 2000 election in Mexico, Arturo led what most would consider a middle-class life. He worked as an agricultural engineer for a research company with government contracts. He and his family lived in a three-bedroom, two- bath home he owned in a small Oaxacan town.

But when Vicente Fox won the presidency, overturning decades of a rival political party’s hegemony, the company lost its government work. Arturo estimated half the roughly 2,800 employees lost their jobs. He was one of them, and after unsuccessfully searching for work for several months, he decided to cross the border.

It took 36 hours to get from Oaxaca to Tijuana, and 12 more often harrowing days to get to Santa Cruz. He paid $1,600 to join a group of 16 people making the trip, which included six days hiking through the Southern California desert. Before he left he heard the tales of coyotes — the term for immigrant smugglers — abandoning their charges or killing them.

"Of course I was afraid," he said. "I didn’t want to sleep because I didn’t know if I would wake again."

The uneasiness continued after his arrival in Santa Cruz, where he had a friend who promised lodging for a couple of months.

"I didn’t know the names of the streets. I didn’t know the buses. I didn’t know the people. I didn’t know how to get around, and I didn’t know who to ask," Arturo said. "It was very difficult."

Language was a problem. He spoke only Spanish. He was suffering from culture shock. And he didn’t have much money. He ate at soup kitchens. At the family home in Mexico, matters were worse. During his first six months in the United States, his wife and children often went hungry.

For his first two months, he worked as a day laborer, standing in front of San Lorenzo Lumber on River Street and Kmart on 41st Avenue.

"Sometimes I had luck," Arturo said. "If they liked your work, they’d keep you busy for a while. But it was not a very secure thing."

Then he got a job at a fast food restaurant. The lack of documents wasn’t a problem, he said. The manager provided him with a false social security number. He shrugged when a reporter and translator expressed surprise.

"It’s a game you have to play," Arturo said.

But the rules are stacked against people like Arturo. Six months later, his employer received a letter from the Social Security Administration informing the business that the number didn’t match the name, and Arturo lost the job.

A Social Security spokesman said the so-called "no match" letters are not aimed at jeopardizing employment but rather to ensure money paid into the system is credited to the correct individual’s account.

A broken system
No one knows how many undocumented workers live in Santa Cruz County, but estimates run from 12,000 to 25,000. Federal officials estimate there may be as many as 10 million people living illegally in the United States, of which the largest number, more than half, come from Mexico.

Many, like Arturo, come here for economic opportunity and find a willing market for their labor. On political and social levels, however, the United States extends a more ambivalent greeting to the undocumented.

Critics contend that their numbers and acceptance of low pay depresses wages for U.S. workers. They worry about the burden on taxpayers as the unauthorized residents access public services, such as schools and health care. And they are outraged that the workers break U.S. law to come here.

Others acknowledge that their labor is needed. Edward Ortega, president of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, said local growers don’t hire undocumented workers knowingly, but concedes many farmworkers don’t have legal status. Agriculture isn’t the only place where they find work, he said.

"Try construction. Try gardening, landscaping, painters," he said. "The list goes on and on, in any business that needs labor. ... For ages the farm bureau has been pushing the federal government for a workable program for workers, not just from Mexico but from any part of the world."

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, called the issues surrounding the national debate over immigration complex.

"Everybody is against undocumented workers coming, but support the one they know, the one cleaning their house, mowing their lawn or washing their dishes," he said.

It’s true, Farr said, that undocumented residents place a burden on public services. He pointed to the financially troubled Natividad Medical Center in Salinas as an example. At least part of the hospital’s multi-million dollar deficit can be traced to the lack of reimbursement for care of undocumented immigrants, he explained. At the same time, however, undocumented workers pay federal and local taxes, and contribute to the Social Security system though they won’t benefit from it, he said.

The reality is they are here, and there’s a growing awareness in Washington that the immigration system needs reform, Farr said.

"It isn’t within the capacity of law enforcement to round them all up, much less the support from the community," he said.

Guarded lives
As it stands now, the system takes a toll on those who of necessity live guarded lives.

Francisco Ponce, a psychologist who is affiliated with Cabrillo College and has a private practice in Watsonville, said he counsels immigrants who have legal status and those who don’t. Both face the challenge of adjusting to a new environment, often far from friends and family.

If they’ve entered the country illegally, they also may have been brutalized by smugglers on the way and they must cope with the constant fear of detection.

The result can be adjustment disorders, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, even paranoia, Ponce said.

The paranoia isn’t necessarily a clinical syndrome, he noted. Given the reality of their lives, it can be a survival mechanism.

"They have to be on the lookout," Ponce said. "They have to be careful."

Ken Smith met Arturo through COPA, a coalition focused on issues affecting immigrants and comprised predominately of churches in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Its members include U.S. citizens, legal residents and undocumented workers.

One way the undocumented are coping is by taking a more active role in their communities, said Smith, COPA’s lead organizer.

It pulls them "out of the shadows, out of fear and into working for the common good," he said.

For Arturo, speaking out is a way to assert the dignity he believes undocumented workers deserve but which he feels is frequently lacking in their treatment.

Playing the game
Over time, Arturo learned how to work the system. He found a job at a store in Santa Cruz, using another’s Social Security number. He didn’t like doing it, he said, but asked what choice he had. His family was counting on him.

He makes about $1,000 a month, and sends more than half home. His earnings are putting food on the table and paying for his children’s schooling. One of his sons is studying to be an engineer, the other a priest.

After paying $425 rent each month for a room in a Santa Cruz home, he has little left to live on. On Monday he pulled two bills from his wallet — a 10 and a one — and said that had to last him until the end of the week.

He carries no identification. He rents a room from someone he met through church and didn’t require references. He pays 1 percent of his wages to cash his paycheck at markets that don’t require ID.

Recently, in his room, after making a weekly telephone call to his wife, he felt alone, but he recalled their conversation. She told him how grateful his children are for his sacrifice, and he found solace in her words.

"Many people have stories much sadder than mine," he said. "People have died in the streets, lost their kids, their brothers."

Contact Donna Jones at

Barriers exist to legal entry into the U.S.
Arturo, an undocumented worker from Mexico whose real identity is being withheld, said he crossed the border into the United States without legal permission because he couldn’t afford a visa.
Douglas Keegan, who heads the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project, said even if Arturo had the money, his chances of getting a visa are slim. Would-be immigrants have few options for entering the country legally, and the process can take years to accomplish, he said.

To gain legal entry, Keegan said immigrants must have:

A close family relative — parent, adult child, spouse, sister or brother — who is a legal resident or U.S. citizen. The relative must apply for the immigrant, and applications from adult children and spouses are given priority. However, because the number of visas is limited, Mexicans face a 13-year wait on sibling applications; the wait is 22 years for residents of the Philippines;

Special job skills, such as computer programming;

Eligibility for asylum. Mexicans rarely win asylum, but the designation can be granted if an individual can prove that domestic abuse or discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation occurred and authorities did not take protective measures. The burden of proof is high.

Emergency situation. The United States also has designated residents of some countries eligible for emergency visas that allow them to work and live here because of natural catastrophes. Honduras, for example, has been on the list since 1998 when Hurricane Mitch devastated the Central American country.
— Donna Jones


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