Tuesday, July 06, 2004

A long quest for opportunity

A long quest for opportunity

July 6, 2004

NEWPORT NEWS -- There are no free meals in America.

Not for illegal immigrants - nobodies with a dream, searching for a job.

And there are no free meals along the way to America either.

Not for Fernando, a 30-year-old illegal immigrant from Honduras, who spent a year running, hiding and learning to blend in with his environment as he passed through small towns in Mexico on his way to the United States and eventually Newport News.

Along the way, Fernando, who has only a ninth-grade education, lived by working for his meals each day. He traveled Mexico's roads, hills, deserts and mountain ranges as many illegal immigrants do on their way to the United States, any way possible.

He traveled using buses, the back of a truck or, most of all, his feet.

Fernando's trek to the United States took him nearly 1,600 miles from Yoro, Honduras, through Mexico to the U.S. border in Texas. The one-year trip that eventually ended just over the U.S. border in McAllen, Texas, is one Fernando doesn't care to remember.

On some days, if he was lucky, he'd have work and a meal in his belly. On those days, he could pay for a bus ride to the next town in Mexico, avoiding the stream of illegal immigrants trying to make it to the U.S. border on foot.

But with only about 2,000 special immigration agents in the U.S. patrolling 2,000 miles of border, undocumented Hispanics often find their way across, said Russ Bergeron, a former chief press officer for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, now serving under the new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

"We only track people by where they come in," Bergeron said. "After that, they could have gone anywhere." Still, Fernando learned to dodge immigration officials in his path and steer clear of local bandits while braving Mexico's dangerous terrain and harsh temperatures.

"I didn't have any money to pay a coyote," Fernando said through a translator, referring to the hired guides who bring illegal immigrants through the desert to a spot along the U.S. border. "So I worked and walked. I dumped commercial trash for businesses to get something to eat.

"Usually, I made enough to pay for one meal a day. Sometimes, my payment was a meal. Sometimes, I had nothing to eat for days because I had no work, so I just walked. I lived and slept on the streets in Mexico."

He wants to forget the days - sometimes days stacked upon days - when no one wanted to give him work and he couldn't get food. On those days, he could only walk, his feet aching, his legs in pain. He winces and shakes his head when he talks of the cold nights he spent on the streets of Mexico, curled in a dark corner with nothing to cover him but the shirt on his back.

But most of all, Fernando hates thinking about how he was treated, at times beaten and discriminated against.

"Mexicans look at you really bad if you're not from Mexico. And they can tell if you're Hispanic but not from Mexico. The accent is much different. I tried to learn the accent, but people knew I was not Mexican.

"There's a lot of bad men in Mexico, bandits. One of those men gave me a black eye. He beat me."

Fernando longed for home and his family. He said he wished he could turn around and go back to Honduras. On the first day of his one-year journey, after spending four hours in a boat crossing from Honduras to Belize, Fernando was caught by immigration agents. A friend paid $150 to get him out of jail, and he was on his way to America again.

The opportunity to earn higher wages, in American dollars, kept him going. Even as a nameless Hispanic, a nobody, he could earn more in the United States, working illegally and on the run, than he ever could in his own country.

Each time he was on a bus that was stopped by immigration officials, he wondered what his fate would be.

"One time, I convinced a young woman with three children to say that I was her husband," Fernando said. "If she hadn't done that for me, I would have been caught."

But eventually, he did get caught.

Once Fernando reached Reynosa, Mexico, the last leg of his trip to America and located only five miles south of McAllen, Texas, where he planned to cross in to the United States, he stopped and carefully began to plan his entry in to the U.S.

To do that, Fernando spent time in Reynosa, working and thinking and waiting for the right time to make his run.

The right time came after his younger brother, who was working in Houston, connected him with a coyote who would take him to Houston.

The two had decided to make their run at night, crossing onion fields. But just as they and 22 others touched U.S. soil in McAllen, Texas, immigration officers wearing night vision gear surrounded them.

Fernando said he crouched down and lay still, so as not to be noticed by his hunters. His hands and face pressed into the dirt, and the strong odor of onions filled his nostrils. All the while, his mind raced toward the moment when he would feel the nudge of a boot in his side and hear a voice telling him to get up.

"I felt like I was going to die," Fernando said. "All that effort. All that suffering. And then the feeling that you're going to be returned to your country empty handed."

Fernando was arrested, but he wasn't returned to Honduras. He spent 24 hours in jail, praying and crying, before police mysteriously opened the jail door, led him to a police car and drove him to a bus station, where he was released. Fernando bought a bus ticket to Houston. He said he'll never know or understand why he was released and the others were kept for deportation.

"It was God," he said quietly. "It was God!"

Days later, Fernando was in Houston, framing houses for $5 an hour, working 12-hour days.

Although his employer was Hispanic, Fernando said his boss was hard. There were no water breaks, and Fernando said the harsh treatment made him long for home and family.

"We were told to work faster so that we could finish more houses," Fernando said. "And no matter how many hours we worked, we were only paid for a 40-hour week."

Fernando's employment ended in a shoving match with his boss over not being paid for his overtime. Unemployed, Fernando was on the road again, and headed to North Carolina where he heard jobs paid well and work was plentiful.

He found a job there as a cucumber picker. He picked cucumbers for one day before leaving because of the filthy living conditions. He found a construction job in Raleigh. Later, he went on to Virginia for more construction work.

Since arriving here 10 months ago, he's worked in both commercial and residential building, he's lived in four places and had at least six roommates. The longest period of time Fernando has held any one job is five months. But Fernando said all the hunger, the cold and the lonely nights on the streets in Mexico - the entire brutal journey to the United States - was worth every step.

For many like Fernando who make it to the U.S., once a steady stream of income begins, about $400 is set aside in a small box, usually kept by their bedside, to be used to send their body back to their native country in case they die here.

The next step: Send money home. Here, Fernando works daily and sends money home weekly to his family.

"If I had $10,000 to $12,000, I could go home and never come back. I miss my family so much," Fernando said, breaking down and beginning to sob.

State officials estimate that more than 200,000 illegal immigrants like Fernando are working in Virginia, mostly in construction trades. No estimates exist on the number of illegal immigrants who might be working on the Peninsula or throughout Hampton Roads.

But the Rev. Felix Nieves - pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Camino a la Luz, a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal Church in Hampton - says there are thousands like Fernando living on the Peninsula.

"Many who come here are low-income, with no credit, and it's impossible for them to find a place to live," Nieves said. "The places they find, I wouldn't let my dog live in, and they pay lots of money to live there. They get taken advantage of all the time."

Nieves said living conditions were the same for illegal immigrants, no matter where they went. When he was in North Carolina, Fernando said, workers stayed in a small, dirty room that was "so bad."

"And the place that served the meals was dirty. They gave us dirty food, and we paid $40 a week for our meals," he said.

Nieves said many illegal immigrants didn't stay in one place for long. For Fernando, the moves from place to place were a result of landlords learning that he was an illegal immigrant, and they try to take advantage of that, he said. In one case, he said, he was forced out of an elderly woman's home after the woman, the landlord, learned that he was an illegal immigrant and tried to get him to pay additional monthly bills. He refused.

In another case, two illegal roommates who lived with Fernando in a run-down mid-Peninsula motel room - with dirty walls and floors - became nervous after talking with the Daily Press and being photographed. When the two men had run out of work in North Carolina, Fernando found them jobs here. As both men were getting settled in Newport News, the Daily Press interviewed them in the motel room. A few weeks after the interview, Fernando was told to move out.

"Everybody is afraid of getting caught and being deported, but this group was really afraid. They didn't trust anybody. They thought they were going to be arrested," Fernando said.

The three were paying $45 a week each - $135 total - for a sparsely furnished room: a television set, a couch and a chair, two end tables, a small kitchen table and a bed. The room is tucked away from the main motel building, out of public view.

Still, Fernando and his two roommates - Carlos, 49, and Juan, 25 - consider themselves lucky. In many cases where motel rooms or apartments are shared by Hispanics, the groups are often much larger - as many as 12 people in a room - because they can't afford to live any other way.

"When there's pockets of Hispanics living in an area, it's usually people from the same country or people who know each other," Juan said, through an interpreter. "They like to live together, and one person brings another."

At night, after the three return from their construction jobs in South Hampton Roads, one makes a traditional Mexican dinner and serves the two others. U.S. television blares in the background, and sometimes, they said, they learn English words from the shows. "Learning the English language is the key to obtaining more," Fernando said.

Juan and Carlos only recently left Durham, N.C., where they had been working. "There are more immigrants than there are Americans in Durham," Juan said, "but there are no jobs. There are many good jobs here."

Juan left Honduras three years ago, after a hurricane destroyed his farmland. Fernando left a 10-hour-a-day job cutting down trees in Honduras that paid $2 a day. Now, Fernando earns as much as $600 a week in Hampton Roads. Carlos walked away from a government pension in El Salvador that offered $380 a month - a good salary there but less than he can make in a week here.

But with the higher U.S. wages comes a price: solitude. The men said they have no social life here. They work, eat and sleep.

Besides work and getting groceries, the three illegal men confine themselves to their motel room, too afraid of getting caught and deported. Even the simple task of going to get a haircut causes them fear.

"We live in the shadows because we can't speak the language," Juan said. "It keeps us from doing many of the things we want to do. If I were in New York, there would be no problem because there are so many Hispanics there. Here, we stand out because there's not as many of us."

But that's slowly changing. The other day, Fernando was making the 45-minute drive to work, with no American driver's license, when a police car with two officers pulled up alongside him. "They were looking at me, so I smiled and waved," Fernando said. "They drove on."

Still, there's always the worry "that immigration will get you because they can get you anywhere," Juan said.

Roberto Gomez, a lay minister for the Spanish-speaking church in Hampton, said he witnessed Hispanics running out back doors and jumping fences when he tried to get a count of Hispanics in Newport News for the 2000 U.S. Census.

"I tried my best to get them all, but there was a large number I couldn't get counted," Gomez said. "They were afraid, even when I told them I had nothing to do with immigration.

"Their biggest concern is that they will be deported. Some of these people come two or three countries away, and they have many sad stories to tell about how they got here. There is so much desperation to get to the United States, and it takes so much effort to get here."

Celso Mendoza swam a 70-foot stretch of murky water known as the Rio Grande in 1990 to find a job on a fishing vessel in the United States - a job known for paying thousands of dollars a week because of the dangerous work involved.

What he found in America was a job painting oil pipes in a Houston factory for $4.50 an hour. "Many think they can bring a broom and sweep up the money in America," Mendoza said, through a translator. "Not so. You have to know someone to get one of these fishing jobs. You have to have connections," the Newport News man said.

Although Mendoza married an U.S. citizen about four years ago, and is now a citizen himself, he says life here is still difficult. After about 14 years in the United States, he still doesn't have a clear grasp of English, and he still has a hard time understanding those around him.

"When you get here, you find reality is cruel. You feel lonely and disappointed because it's not the way you thought it would be. You miss your country, your family, and the culture is very different. You have a hard time expressing yourself, and you're put down because of that."

Gomez explains: "When they come here, they leave everything except their heritage behind. They have no idea what the future holds."

But Mendoza has been lucky, first with love, then with being able to become an U.S. citizen. Now he operates his own business in Newport News, a small construction company that specializes in concrete and employs a few men. He also has a family - a support system that he didn't have as an illegal worker.

Nieves said many illegal immigrants turned to Hispanic churches like his for help when they came to an area. There are as many as 16 Hispanic churches throughout Hampton Roads, Nieves said.

During a recent service when prayer requests were taken, more than 20 people asked for prayers for relatives in other countries trying to come to Hampton Roads. But even for Nieves' church, helping is becoming harder to do: More and more new immigrants are coming to the church each week, but the resources for helping them aren't growing. During a recent Tuesday evening service, only $12.50 was put in the collection plate - from among 60 people. "Not even enough to pay the light bill," Nieves said.

The modest offerings from his congregation cause Nieves to search for financial support for his church. Nieves has begun trying to reach the Hispanic community by preaching on WRJR-AM 670 on Saturdays and Sundays. The airtime costs thousands of dollars each month, he said.

It's not the type of financing that a church full of poor Hispanics can hope to support.

"They come here, and they have nothing," Nieves said. "They come for the American dream. They come to work in construction and fishing, but when they get here, sometimes they can't find anything.

"But you have to eat. So they do what they have to do to eat. They do anything."

In some cases, Nieves said, some find a job cleaning at local restaurants. They're paid as little $2.50 an hour, well below the law's minimum wage of $5.15. Sometimes, after performing the duties asked, some illegal Hispanic workers are chased off by restaurant staff without the promised payment.

But for Fernando, who has a steady job and paycheck every two weeks, a 10-hour day is a comfort for a man who knows the feeling of hunger in his belly.

"As long as I'm working, I know I'll have a meal," he said. "I'll have a meal and a better way of life."


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