The 10 Million of the 99 Percent
December 1, 2011 § 2 Comments
By Rebecca Ellis
Jose works 55 to 56 hours a week as a full-time chef at a downtown pizzeria. One of his specialties is a 15-inch pizza with pepperoni around the edges and lined down the middle, a popular item among the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. The pepperoni is arranged in the shape of the universal protest symbol, served up piping hot to hungry and freezing Wall Street occupiers.
Jose, who is undocumented and asked his last name not be published, is one of the 99 percent. Jose is one of more than 10 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States and without comprehensive immigration reform he has no way to legalize his status.
“I am not afraid to say I am illegally here,” Jose said. “I came like all Mexicans who come here, to work.”
Jose is more focused on what he calls the “the Mexican dream” rather than “the American dream.” Instead of buying a big house in the suburbs, Jose looks forward to the day when he can go back to his home country and be with his children.
Manuel Orozoco of the Inter-American Development Bank reported in a recent study that one third of all migrants living in the U.S. plan to return to their home countries. For Mexicans, the primary reason is to reunite with their families.
A recent Pew Hispanic Center study found that nearly two-thirds of the 10.2 million undocumented adult immigrants in the United States have lived here at least 10 years and make up 5.2 percent of the national work force.
Some politicians have argued, including presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, that we should legalize immigrants who have lived here 25 years and have roots in the community.
Jose has lived and worked in the U.S. for 18 years. He arrived on a tourist visa in 2001 from Tlaxcala by plane, leaving a wayward and troublesome youth behind. He came to the United States in order to provide better support for his two kids, who are still living in Mexico. He has long since overstayed his visa.
But his journey to the U.S. was relatively easy. For most people from Mexico, without a student visa or relatives who can afford to be sponsors, legal entry to the United States, even on a tourist visa, is next to impossible.
An immigrant visa, which is an application to legally stay and work in the United States long-term, is even harder to obtain. Section 214B of Immigration and Nationality Act outlines the procedure for obtaining an immigrant visa to the United States. Mexican citizens have to wait over 10 years for the Bureau of Consular Affairs to issue visas to be reunited with their families in the United States. And the visa doesn’t come cheap, especially for many low-wage workers in Mexico who make as little as $450 a month. The visa costs over $1,000 after legal and administrative fees.
Although Jose separated from his ex-wife Columbo, shortly after he arrived to the United States, he still sends money home to his children in Mexico.
“I advanced more than I probably could have in my own country,” Jose said.
Although statistics on under-the-table workers are hard to capture, economic motives are inextricably linked to immigration, legal and non-legal.
The World Bank estimates that last year, Mexico received a total of $22.6 billion in remittances from immigrants living in the United States. Mexicans make up 58 percent of undocumented immigrant population, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Pew Hispanic Research Center.
However, there has been a marked downturn in remittances since 2008. Orozco pointed out in the development bank’s 2009 report that there has a 44.9 percent decrease in remittances from 2008 to 2009.
The decrease in the flow of funds seems to coincide with a trend of reverse migration; people going back to their home countries.
“This is partly because of the economic situation in the U.S.,” Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, said.
David Katona, Chair of the New York chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, agreed.
“I believe there’s been a decrease in all kinds of immigration in the past two to three years. The economy is trending downward, and these numbers have also gone down,” Katona said.
The undocumented population has gone down from an estimated 12 million and more than one million have been deported under President Barack Obama.
Living in New York, Jose is not faced with the types of laws passed in Arizona or Alabama. But he still said he never felt at home in this country. He describes the every-day discrimination many Mexican workers experience.
“Here in the United States, the fresas work like us when they come here,” Jose explained.
He was referring to people who perceive themselves to be better off in Mexico called fresas, (a slang term which literally “strawberries,” figuratively meaning something akin to “hipsters” or “yuppies”). He emphasized that many fresas in the United States have the same social status as working-class Mexicans.
One of the biggest challenges, Jose said, is holding on to his culture as a Mexican living in the United States.
“There are many types of cultures,” he said. “The culture in this foreign country is very different than our own. So we are trying to make sure we don’t lose our culture here. That’s why we try to remember Mexico when we can.”
Asked if he missed Mexico, the conversation snapped back into self-reflective focus. “Of course… My family, my mom, my kids, my country…” Jose’s voice grew soft.
Audio piece written and produced by Rebecca Ellis
Voice-overs courtesy of Billy Shannon