Living in the Shadows: An Immigrant Story

Revolutionary Worker #1062, July 16, 2000

As readers know, the RCP is in the process of forging a new programme, a battle plan to bring down this parasitic imperialist system that preys on people here and around the world. As part of the process of bringing the new programme into being, the Party has called on the masses to participate in the process. Below is an interview with an immigrant worker, now living in California, who took part in the investigation for the programme; in this interview he talks about what itís like to live in the U.S.

Living in the Shadows

There are two ways one can deal with police harassment. The youth donít care. They know what the deal is. They know they get harassed by the cops all the time. They donít care about it. The second one is the immigrants who donít have papers. They worry a lot. They donít want to give the cops a reason to stop them and ask them questions or give them tickets or worse.

So people plan their route, they avoid the cops. They try not to come in contact with them. If they see a cop while driving, then they alter their route, they turn, they stop, if the cop is in front of them. Sometimes they see you in the rear view mirror and turn around and come and pull you over. They think just because you are avoiding them then you must be guilty of some wrongdoing. You also try to avoid main streets, specially when there is not a lot of traffic. If you are walking then, you change your route, you cross the street, when you see them pulling someone over or when they are parked. You try to avoid them one way or the other.

If you have an old car and you look Latino then you are sure to be stopped. The necessity to drive is very important and you canít do without it. One knows the consequence of driving without a license. They arrest you, they give you a $1000 ticket, they take you in for fingerprints and they take your car away.

People in Latin America see the police and the army as the enemyówe donít trust them. Here too, they are the same. Sometimes you donít know if you are going to get home that day or not. You are walking home at night, then you see a patrol car. You are afraid. First you donít know what they are up to, also you donít know what they are going to do to you if they stop you. You are just minding your own business, walking home at night, you really donít know what they might do to you. You donít know if you are going to arrive home or not, then you start thinking what might happen to your family etc. It is true that police arrest you and turn you over to the Migra.

I was crossing the railroad tracks, walking. The roadblock that they have to stop the traffic when the train comes started coming down. I didnít stop. The police saw me and stopped me. They asked for ID and I said that I didnít have one. They asked me why. I said, how could I have it if they donít give me one. They cuffed me and put me in the squad car. They told me only the criminals donít have ID. They gave me a $60 ticket, but they let me go.

When they stop you, they always insult you. They call you names, they say, "Hey you motherfucker come here." They insult you because of your nationality. They say if you cross the border illegally then you are a delinquent, a criminal. This is very common, it happens to a lot of people. And there is more.

Living Without Papers

Tell me, why canít people move to a place that is calm? Where there is no drugs, no gangs? It is difficult to live with the kids in these kinds of neighborhoods. But we canít move out, because we donít have ID, we donít have money, so we are condemned to live in these kinds of neighborhoods. When someone is knocking on the door you donít know whether it is a gang member or the police, and you have to be careful with both, so one constantly lives in a state of terror. Also you always have problems with the buildingóno hot water, hole in the ceiling, problems with electricity. When you complain, the manager simply says, "If you donít like it, move somewhere else." Once we didnít have cold water for almost a month. With the children and all, imagine not having cold water. It was last summer. And if you go to court, you have to take off work, so you donít get paidónot to mention that a lot of people donít go because they donít have papers.

If you donít have an ID then you canít open a bank account. Then you canít cash your paycheck, you canít get an apartment in most areas. Then you go to the check cashing places to cash your check and they charge you money. You canít afford to pay this kind of money every time you cash your check. People are always looking for places where they can shop cheaper, save some money. They go to Food for Less, places where they are economical. Some markets get to know you and they give you a membership card. You can use this ID to cash your check, but they still charge you, 1% or 2%. This gets to be a lot of money, since you are not making a lot of it, and at the same time you have a lot of expenses. For clothes people go to a swap meet, or places where they sell second hand clothes.

If you want to buy furniture or an appliance, you can use your ID from Mexico (This is a national ID issued in the home country), so you show that and they take your information, like where you work and where you live and they call and verify all that. Then someone has to co-sign for you. These places are to serve the immigrants and poor people or people with no credit, but they rip you off. They charge you two or three times more than the value of the things you are buying.

If you want to send a small amount of money to your country they donít ask for ID. But if you are sending more than $1000 then they ask for ID. They think that you are laundering money, or perhaps you have stolen this. You are giving them your money, and not only they charge you to send it to your country, but they want you to prove who you say you are.

People donít send a lot of money. They send maybe a couple hundred. Here is how it works: You have brothers and sisters here and you want to send money to your family. It is crazy to send $50 or small amounts, because the transaction fee gets expensive, so what people do is they put their money together and they send a lump sum, and they call and say, "Give so and so this much, the other person this much" and so on. That way they pay one transaction fee.

You borrow money to pay the coyote to come here, then you have to work very hard to pay back that money. Sometimes it takes years to do that, because you donít have a job, then if you get a job, you donít make enough money, and on top of that you need to send money home and have enough to get by. It is very difficult.

If you donít have money or food, it is really difficult. Before, with the job I had I was only able to pay the rent and buy a few necessities. For food we used to go to the church and stand in line for three hours and get some vegetables or something, then walk home. This was almost a whole day thing, it was a long walk with kids, hungry and tired. You had to walk home, because you didnít have money to take the bus. Walking at 11 p.m. with the children, it is very difficult. I know people who used to sleep on benches and get harassed by the cops, or under the freeway overpass and bathe using the water from the sprinklers that water the bushes on the side of the freeways.

Now they are talking about the Census. A lot of people are afraid, most people donít want to take part in this. They know the information is going to find its way to the hands of Migra. Who are they kidding? The people behind the Census know what the necessities of the people are. They know that people donít have enough schools, clinics. People donít trust them; that is why the TV is pushing it so hard.

Social Life

People donít go places. The young ones, those who have a job and no family, they go out, but other than that most people go to the park or get together. You donít go anywhere else, because you donít have money. There are language barriers, too. People feel uncomfortable going to certain places. For example if you go to a restaurant where there are a lot of white people you feel out of place.

I feel like going to the movies sometimes, to see a good movie, but the good movies are not usually playing in our neighborhood, so what is one to do? I donít want to go places where there are a lot of white people. So these things deprive people from doing certain things. Once my wife was going to clean an apartment, she took our son. They were in the elevator, and a white man walked into the elevator. As soon as he saw her and our son there, he said, "shit," looking at my wife and the kid. They both understood what the man said and why he said it. My wife didnít want to go there any more. That is why people donít feel like going to certain places. They donít want to be looked down on.

There is a lot of discrimination here. The other day a Black man came to where I work looking for a job, but the owner said he didnít need anyone. I know that he was looking for someone. Then they turn around and say that Blacks are lazy. Why donít they give them jobs? For several reasons. If they hire him he is not going to work long hours with no overtime, he is going to ask for benefits, he knows his rights, and he is going to demand them, he is going to ask for vacation, retirement, etc. All these things that people demand, but we immigrants canít because if we do we are going to be replaced by those who donít ask for these things.

I asked the owner why he didnít give the guy a job. He said, "They donít work, they are no good." I said that is racism. He said, "No, I am not racist, but these people donít work."

There are nice places in the city, but one doesnít feel comfortable going to those places. They talk about how immigrants come here and cause problems, use the social services, take advantage of this country. They say all these things on TV. So one feels out of place going to places where there are a lot of white people. You are worried that they may attack you, beat you up, insult you, and look down on you. If you have children, that makes it even worseóthey really look down on you.

I have friends who donít get on the bus at certain times because at that time there are a lot of people with suits and ties on the bus, and my friends feel uncomfortable because these people give you dirty looks. You are coming from work and you are dirty, dusty and all that, so these people with suits and ties look at you and move away from you. Some of my friends prefer to walk. Before they wouldnít let the Blacks get on the busóthat problem, that racism continues today in a different form. You can get on the bus, but they treat you differently. They may not say things to you, but you know it is thereóthey say it by looking at you.


It is almost common to have seven or eight people living in a two-bedroom apartment. They pay $700 or more in rent. When the manager knocks on the door to collect the rent, or for any other reason, some people have to hide so that the manager wonít see how many people are living there. But if you have any problem with your place, they are never around. You call them to come and fix things, but they never show up. This can go on for a long time.

It is like you are constantly struggling. The manager thinks of us as people who are vulnerable, people who always submit to themó"Mister, please give me another day, I promise to pay the rent." That kind of behavior. When I am late with the rent, he expects me to be like that.

Last time I didnít do that. I told him, "I donít have money and youíll just have to wait till next week," and I shut the door. He didnít expect that. He used to come and demand the rent and say, "If you donít have the rent money it is your problem, you must move."

There are several months when there is no workóOctober, November, December, and January. You canít buy gifts for your kids or anything. So you have to work very hard other times to save some money for these times. We are accustomed to treating December/Christmas like any other times, it is sad.

Education of the Children

They donít really want to give the children of the immigrants an education. They only want to comply with the law.

They have no interest in educating people. They only teach simple things such as reading a simple note, basic math, being able to read a littleóall in the service of the workplace/factories. They teach only enough to serve their interest, to be able to utilize our serviceólike the slaves, the new generation of slaves. They have no interest in teaching the kids.

The school expects the parents to help with the education of their kids. How could they? They work 12 or more hours a day. They canít do that. When parents donít go to school to see the principal or the staff, because they work long hours, the principal asks the kids if their parents are into illegal activities or gangsóperhaps that is why they donít come to school or donít want to meet the teachers. I have talked to some people who say to me, "If I had been born here I would have been in jail or shot."

The youth have no desire to live, no future, and constant harassment by the cops. Also they classify the kids in schools. They say, "These are very smart kids, these are not so smart ones and the other group is troubled kids." The last group is throwaway kids. They say that the parents need to take an interest in the education of their children while, at the same time, in some schools the principals are preventing the parents from entering the school grounds and spending time with their children. I know of some schools where this is happening. This wasnít the case before and the parents are very angry.

Health Care

People buy medicine at the swap meets or herb shops. Or some go to "El Mercado" in East Los Angeles. You can buy penicillin there. Some people go to Tijuana.

If you need some medicine and you know someone is going to Mexico (people who have papers) then you give them the money and ask them to bring you what you need. The most essential medicine, i.e. medicine for infection, pain etc. This is a way of making a living for some people, who frequently go back and forth and bring medicine here.

It is much cheaper this way for us. We canít afford to go to regular pharmacies and buy medicine. Besides, the cost of seeing a doctor to get a prescription is out of reach.

On the job, they donít post the name and the phone number of the doctor or the clinic for people to go to in case of injury. If you ask where the sign is or the phone number is they may fire you, so no one asks for that information.

If you get injured on the job, first they blame you. They say, "Why arenít you paying attention? Youíre stupid. Why did you do that?" Then they want you to go home because they are afraid that you might get worse and complain or go to the authorities. So they send you home, but you donít get paid.

So a lot of people hide their injuries and continue working, because they donít want to be insulted and on top of that not get paid. If there is a cut, they wrap it with some cloth or whatever they can find and keep working. If the boss finds out, heíll say, "Go home and Iíll call you tomorrow." But they donít call you, instead they hire someone else. People know that. That is another reason why people donít say anything. I had problem with my knee (caused by my work). I couldnít walk, but I had to be at work and stand on my feet all day, because if I took off work we wouldnít have money. And going to see a doctor costs a lot of money, too.

There is no ventilation, not enough light, no protection, nothing. Inspectors come and leave, and they never say anything. It gets cold, there is no heat, and in summer there is no relief for the heat.

The Future of the Children

I feel very uncertain about the future of the kids. My wife and I talk about it a lot. Iím more of an optimist. I want my children to get an education, but my wife thinks I am crazy. "Where do you think you are going to get the money from?" she tells me. She says it is impossible. "The kids are growing everyday, we are getting older everyday, and we canít work like before, and it is getting more expensive to meet their needs."

I am thinking: when I reach the age of 40, who is going to hire me? So my kids are going to start working like I do. You canít do it here. If you go back to your country, you may get an education, but you canít find a job.

The kids ask all kinds of questions: they want to know why the clouds form, why the air moves. We canít answer those questions and the school doesnít care. So the kids lose their curiosityóthey give up and their passion for learning dies.

You donít know what may happen to you tomorrow. You try to prepare yourself mentally. Itís horrible to feel that you are treated like an animal, like waste. You are not respected like a human being. Your feelings donít mean anything. You live feeling like that all your life.

I know someone who bought a house in another state. When we talk on the phone he always says that he is worried that he might get deported and lose everything. What would happen to his kids?

The other day I was at the liquor store, this man was talking about how life would be easier if he had papers, how he would have a lot of opportunities. The man behind the counter said, "What opportunities? What better jobs? There are no good jobs for us, with or without papers. The only place they have for us is in jail. The only thing the green card gives you is the chance to go to TJ and eat tacos and you can come back here again. That is the only advantage you have."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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