Crossing in faith: Immigrant couple describes life in the shadows

| April 4, 2011 | 0 Comments

Immigrant couple describes life in the shadows

Miguel, 37, and Gabriela, 40, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border unauthorized 10 years ago in search of work and a better future for themselves and their two children, now ages 16 and 10. The couple, whose names have been changed to protect their identities, agreed to share their story for the second installment in a three-part series examining the impact of U.S. immigration policy on undocumented immigrants at Sacred Heart parish in St. Paul.

Franciscan Father Eugene Michel, pastor, suggested we feature Miguel and Gabriela’s story to help readers understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of his parishioners, many of whom share similar challenges because of their immigration status.

On a recent Friday evening, Miguel and Gabriela greeted two reporters from The Catholic Spirit and Spanish-language Catholic newspaper Espíritu Católico at their apartment in St. Paul. The couple’s wedding portrait, a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a giant wood-carved rosary with beads the size of oranges adorned their living room walls.

Here is their story, in their words.

Life in Mexico

Gabriela: In Mexico it was difficult because we were living with Miguel’s father and the house was very small. There were a lot of family members living in the house and not much space.

Miguel had to work all day, and there was little money. He worked at a gas station, and after that he worked at a brewery. He earned about 1,000 pesos [$84 at the current exchange rate] a month, 250 pesos [$21] a week, working 10 to 12 hours a day.

Miguel: The family began to grow, and our situation became more difficult. Gabriela wasn’t working because there was no one to take care of the children. We didn’t have money to pay rent or for the children’s education.
Gabriela: People always say that in the U.S. there is better work, a better life and better everything. That was what made us think about coming here, because we didn’t even have a place of our own to live.

Part One

Read the first article in the series, which ran in the March 17 issue.

Perilous journey

Miguel: I came here first. Things seemed to be going well because they hadn’t yet diagnosed my illness [lupus]. The truth is, because the illness has severely affected my memory, I don’t remember how I came here, but they say that it was difficult.

Gabriela: When Miguel crossed, it was difficult for him — the language and so many things. But you come to live a better life, you come for everything that you can’t have in your country because there it’s even more difficult.

I remember that my children and I crossed the [Rio Grande] river on tires. You’re exposed to danger, and the children are exposed, too. You can die because the current can carry you away, and it scares the children. I remember that my youngest child was crying. Yes, it was very, very dangerous.

Once you cross, there are people waiting for you, and they take you by car to a place where you can wash up and eat. In my case, they took me to a terminal in San Antonio, and there I boarded a bus with my two sons. The youngest was 2 years old, and the other was 8.

I think now, someone could have taken one of my sons. I was alone. What could I have done? I didn’t know anyone. Sometimes I think about it, and I don’t think I would do it again. But thank God it all turned out well for us.

Miguel’s illness

Gabriela: It’s difficult being an immigrant, and even more so when you’re sick. My husband was diagnosed with lupus after we had been here for three years. Medically, it’s been really difficult for us, and it’s more difficult for him because his illness has affected his nervous system, so he has forgotten a lot of things. It’s very difficult, but we keep going.

Miguel: One time, when things were really bad, I had to go to Mexico because here we didn’t have medical assistance. Gabriela has an uncle who is a doctor in Mexico, and her aunt told me to go there so her uncle could give me a hand. So I went. But I only remember that I went to Mexico because of some photographs that they sent me. If not, I wouldn’t have remembered. I was there for about two months. I went because Gabriela insisted.

Gabriela: It became very difficult for me to take care of Miguel. He was getting worse, and I felt so desperate. In Mexico they were able to get it under control more or less, but they didn’t diagnose what he had.

When Miguel was in Mexico, his test results came back and they told me he had lupus. That’s when we decided that he would return to the U.S. because it was becoming so difficult for me here. I also thought it was going to be even worse for him in Mexico because a medical specialist would be very expensive. Here we had the opportunity to get low-cost medical insurance offered through a local nonprofit organization, and that has helped us a lot.

We’ve had good things and bad things happen, but there are very good doctors that have helped Miguel a lot because he’s receiving a treatment that’s extremely expensive.

Miguel: Thank God I’m taking medications, though I pray to God that one day I won’t have to take them. But it’s been seven years now. I really don’t have a choice.

I have to fight to survive with this disease. But here we are, battling with my health.

Making ends meet

Gabriela: We came to the U.S. to work, to search for a better future for ourselves and for our family and our children. We didn’t come to be criminals, simply to work and be one more person living here with all of the responsibilities that that entails. We have to eat and clothe ourselves by working for it, of course. We pay for everything, like any citizen does.

We’ve been here for 10 difficult years. You come to this country and you suffer because without papers it’s difficult. But you have to get past that and do your best. You try to give your best effort at work — not to make a good impression, but because, as Latinos, we like to work. That’s what we’re taught to do in our country.

Miguel: When I arrived here, I worked in roofing, with people that painted apartments — whatever work there was for me. The roofing was dangerous because, you know, without papers and a fall. Of course, I was very careful.

Later, I found a job at a car wash, but I began to get sick and little by little they were decreasing my hours. Then they didn’t give me any work. Sometimes we went to the temporary agency and they gave us work at night, but I couldn’t do it. Because of my health, it was too hard to work nights.

Gabriela was working, but because she was taking care of me she missed work sometimes. So, me being without work, and then sometimes her being unable to work, and with the economy, it was going very badly for us.

I used to leave the house and get lost because the lupus affected my memory. It was more difficult for Gabriela because she would worry. Foolishly, I would leave to look for work because I saw how hard it was paying the bills, for food and the doctor, and you have to pay for everything because if you don’t pay you have a bad record.

Now, I work in another car wash, but it’s quieter. Rain or thunder, I’m there. Sometimes in the summer people ask me to take care of their lawns.

Gabriela: Even though it’s hard here, I think that we’re living better than we could have been living in our country.

Also, because of our situation in our country, it’s easier here to give our kids an education. Maybe if we had had a more stable and more lucrative job, at best we would have been able to give them an education, but with what we were earning and having to pay school fees, supplies, a uniform, all of that, and on a low salary, you hardly have enough left over to pay for food.

Uncertain future

Gabriela: The U.S. is like a coin with two sides because it has meant something good in terms of being able to better ourselves — all in all, I believe we’re living better than in our country — although we’re finding that we’re suffering a lot of discrimination and encountering a lot of obstacles for not having documents. This is a country of a lot of opportunity, but it doesn’t give opportunity to everyone. There are positives and a lot of negatives, but maybe there are more positives.

My children were born in Mexico. One is 16 years old, and the other is going to be 11. I brought them with me to this country when they were little. I think a lot about my older son because he’s about to finish high school and he wants to go to college, but I feel it’s going to be very difficult for my kids to study. When kids have that desire to study, you have to search for a way to help them and encourage them. I have to make it possible.

We’re always thinking that it’s going to be very difficult to fix our immigration situation. But returning to our country would be even more difficult because of Miguel’s illness. Here, in one way or another, he’s receiving treatment. His doctor says that if he returned to Mexico he wouldn’t do well because there isn’t the same support, even more so because of how aggressive his illness is.

All of the immigration laws that have been added through the years do scare us because we don’t know what can happen. We could be separated, and that scares us because of Miguel’s illness. Yes, it does scare us. But that’s the reality that we’re living.

Miguel: The truth is that we entrust ourselves to God because we know he will keep us safe. But when we leave the house, we don’t know if we’re going to return. And, we have a lot of fear when we’re driving and the police are behind us.

Clinging to faith

Gabriela: It’s our faith that has given us the strength to endure the things that have come to us, like illness and the scarcities we’ve had over the years. Only by means of our faith have we been able to go forward.

One time when we were walking, we saw a church and there was a bilingual Mass. That’s how we arrived at Sagrado Corazón [Sacred Heart]. In time, we began to go to Mass in Spanish on Sundays. They’ve supported us a lot — the priest, the staff. When Miguel was sickest, the church drew closer to us.

We’re in the hospitality ministry. It makes us very happy. We like that we’re giving something back. And it’s a time when we feel more peaceful, a time when we forget our problems and offer God something of ourselves in thanksgiving for all he gives us.

Julie Carroll and María Capouch conducted this interview and translated it from Spanish. It has been edited for space and clarity.


Seeking the impossible dream

Why don’t they just come here legally?

It’s a fair question reasonable Americans might ask about undocumented immigrants.

Simply put, many immigrants who enter the country without permission have no other way to come here.

An estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Family unification, safety concerns and persecution all draw people here from other countries. But most who risk their lives crossing the border do it for one reason: the promise of work and a better future.

In their pastoral letter “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” the Catholic bishops of the United States and Mexico have said that, regardless of their legal status, immigrants possess human dignity and deserve respect.

Legal options

There are three general ways an immigrant can obtain lawful permanent residency, according to the U.S. Department of State:

1. A U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident can petition to bring a foreign-born family member to the country. To do so, sponsors must prove they have an income above the poverty line and must commit to financially support the foreign-born family members.

2. Immigrants fleeing from persecution may seek political asylum in the U.S. or qualify for refugee status. There is an annual cap on the number of refugee admissions to the U.S., typically between 70,000 and 80,000.

3. There are various immigration categories for workers to be sponsored by a U.S.-based employer to come to the U.S. to work and live lawfully. These categories are limited to multi-national executives, individuals with advanced degrees and narrowly-defined specialized workers. There are only 5,000 slots available annually for unskilled workers.

Most immigrants who are waiting in line to enter the U.S. legally have a family member living in the U.S. who has sponsored them. For immediate relatives — spouse, minor children or parents — of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, there are no limits on the number of visas available. For everyone else, the U.S. government has set annual quotas.

People can expect to wait up to 20 years for family-based petitions, according to Susana De León, an immigration attorney in Minneapolis. At 1,381,896, Mexico has the longest waiting list, most of them family-sponsored petitions.

The U.S. government assigns each country an annual limit on the number of immigrants it will accept. The total number of family-sponsored visas issued annually for all countries combined is 226,000. For employment-sponsored visas, the total is 140,000.

Immigrants seeking to enter through employment-based channels can apply for what is commonly referred to as a “green card” for permanent residency, or there are temporary visas. In both cases, the employer has to sponsor the employee.

The U.S. allows only 66,000 non-agricultural workers to enter the country on a temporary basis for industries that have seasonal needs, such as hotels and ski resorts. But for the rest of the workforce, no temporary visas are available.

‘No other choice’

The largest demand to immigrate to the U.S. comes from “unskilled workers,” a category that includes busboys, nannies and landscapers, for example. With only 5,000 visas for a worldwide market of unskilled laborers estimated at 60 to 100 times that number, hundreds of thousands of migrants cross the border without permission in search of jobs each year, despite stricter U.S. border enforcement and the skyrocketing costs demanded by human smugglers.

In the case of a person with no special skills and no relatives who are lawful permanent residents or U.S. citizens, if that person wants to enter the U.S. legally, it would take almost a “miracle,” De León said.

That’s why they cross the border without permission, she added. “There’s no other choice.”

“It’s now taking seven, eight nine attempts to cross, and they’re paying $3,000 to $7,000 [to a smuggler],” Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan said at a conference on immigration at The Catholic University of America March 21. “Once they’re on this side, the incentives to go back home disappear.”

Risk of exploitation

Without legal status, immigrant workers are vulnerable to exploitation because they cannot protect their rights without fear of deportation.

People whose parents brought them to the U.S. without permission at a young age face the same hardships as other undocumented immigrants, De León said.

Even though they came to this country without permission through no fault of their own, currently there is no path to citizenship for them. There is also the possibility of deportation to a country they don’t know.

Entering the United States unauthorized is not a crime, De León said. Rather, it is a violation of civil law on the level of a speeding ticket or littering unless the person has been deported in the past.

“Immigration is not a crime; it’s more a human right, the ability to move freely and to find a job with which you can support your family,” said De León, a U.S. citizen who immigrated from Mexico in 1985.

“Being employed or having a roof over your head should be something that we all understand as basic.”

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