My family and I hail from a Central American country that shall remain undisclosed. Like most of Central America, it is quite a beautiful place. We have paradisiacal weather all year round, colorful culture, and impressive sights such as stirring beaches and stunning volcanoes. Sadly, it's also ridden with rampant violence, deep-seated corruption, and ubiquitous impunity. Standard fare for Latin America, nothing new here. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of my countrymen are lured by the siren song of the obscenely rich neighbors up north. The gargantuan differences in wealth and income are only accentuated by the fact that the richest country in the world is just next door to some of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions Latin America has to offer.
A few years ago, some members of my family decided they should try their luck in the United States. My aunt, uncle and their kids somehow obtained a visitor's visa despite their poor income and many debts, borrowed even more money for airfare, and headed for a cold, eastern state. I never really understood why they should pick such a frigid destination, but that became more clear when I visited them last month.
Thanks to a university degree I've never really had much trouble whenever I've visited the imposing US embassy downtown to apply for a B1/B2 non-immigrant visa. However, that's hardly the case for most people here. Every single day the place is open, lines of 200-plus people form outside the stately building, after having paid the US government a bit over US$100 for the privilege of having their application processed; not a small amount of cash for people living in such an impoverished economy. While I have no access to official figures, judging from people's reactions upon leaving the building I would guess only about 5% of the applicants are granted visitor's access to US soil. Like I said, that's just a guess; it could very well be lower.
Did I say applicants? I may have meant supplicants. One of the reasons I had been reluctant to visit the US in the past years is because I dreaded having to go through the application process yet again. Of course, I realize that due to the sheer amounts of people that apply for a visa, 3 to 4-hour lines are inevitable. Still, I can't help it but feel it a bit humiliating having to sweet-talk a 20-something-year-old who's sitting on the other side of a bulletproof window into letting you visit her country. "Yes, I have enough money for the trip." "Yes, I brought my bank records and the various documents that prove I have a reason to come back home." "No, really, I promise I don't plan on staying there!"
Many people leave the embassy teary-eyed. Perhaps they weren't eloquent enough. Or rich enough, if you want to be cynical about it. However, like I told you my aunt and uncle somehow convinced the officer that they were only going on a short vacation. If only had they known.
And that's why I hadn't seen them in over 5 years. Once they arrived, they disappeared from the radar the best they could. But that doesn't mean they had nothing to do; friends from church had them set up with a place to stay, jobs to do, schools to attend. In fact, the reason they chose such a freezing place is because of the church connections they had there. One thing I realized when I got there is that immigrants tend to form tight groups, usually centered around a common religious belief. That makes sense, of course, since most illegal immigrants don't speak the language, and don't generally trust their fair-haired neighbors. The feeling is mutual, certainly.
Nonetheless, jobs are hard to come by. This is something I learned first hand. Due to increasing crackdowns, fewer employers are taking the risk of hiring undocumented workers. This has led to an increase in people who work with false documentation, or, falling in a grayer area, who use someone else's working papers. And, contrary to what the media would have you believe, at least according to my own observations most of the people who use someone else's ID do so with the consent of the person they impersonate. To do otherwise is just too great of a risk. You can do the math: for about $800 you can "borrow" original papers from a Puerto Rican who isn't planning to visit any of the other US states any time soon, while you can get fake IDs for $100 to $200; not that great of a difference. And, even though I'm not well versed in the legal details, the widespread belief is that there's a much smaller chance of getting caught using borrowed legal documents than using outright fake ones, or even a smaller chance of doing jail time if you're using papers that someone "lent" you with their consent rather than using the ID of someone who doesn't even know what's going on.
Well, once I was there, I decided I wanted to know firsthand what it's like to work in such conditions. My aunt was kind enough to call up the people who usually arranged employment for them, and soon I found myself waiting outside, in the cold, at 4 a.m., for the van to take me to my new gig: an industrial linen service located in another state, even further up north. After a not so short wait I was sitting in a cramped minivan next to various other boisterous Latin Americans, mostly Caribbean folks. Some fifty minutes later, spent enduring the latest in reggaetón music, we arrived at the location: a large warehouse located in a bleak, wintry, almost rural area.
I decided to play it as low-key as I could. I only wanted to observe, and interfere with the normal course of operation as little as possible: I wouldn't let anyone know I spoke English, or that I had a degree, or that I was only doing this out of pure curiosity and that I wasn't really planning to come back to work the next day. After being herded out of our ride and brought into the building we learned what the work consisted of: we were to feed these huge machines. With clothes. As fast as we could. The many machines took various types of garments; some washed them, and some pressed them. As for myself, I was sent away to the kitchen garments detail, to place semi-clean kitchen towels on a conveyor belt so they could be folded, packed, and shipped out to various restaurants in the area.
Frankly, the job was dehumanizing. After what felt like hours but must have been only like 40 minutes, I swear I could feel my brain turning off. It was such a repetitive task: Take a towel. Examine it: is it too dirty, too torn, or not even a towel? There's a bin behind you for each case. If it looks okay, spread it and put it on the conveyor belt, carefully aligned with the markings or it'll get stuck in the machine. Now pick up another one. Do this quickly, because you have a quota: 12 per minute. Which is 5 seconds per garment. And try to make your movements as efficient as possible, because you'll have to do this all day long, and you don't want to get too tired because you'll have to do it again next day. And the next. And the one after that. For $6.25 an hour, before taxes. That is if you're fast enough to get called again.
Not surprisingly, few Americans worked there, and the ones who did were, with a few exceptions, supervisors. After a couple of hours of playing robot as well as I could, my nose got too stuffed up due to the fibers that rose from the not-so-clean towels, so I had to break character and asked my supervisor where the nurse's station was. Oops, my first faux-pas right there. She looked at me with what seemed a concerned look, which -I believe- I rightly interpreted as "Um, actually, there isn't an infirmary in this kind of outfit." Never mind that over 50 people worked there, or that some of the machines could have eaten a person's arm, easy, or that none of us new guys had been given anything that even remotely resembled training. OK, so I backtracked and explained that I merely needed a face mask. And some gloves if they had them, so I'd expose myself to the contaminated towels as little as possible. Sure, she said, and led me to the supplies cabinet.
So now I was the only guy in the place with a mask and gloves on. So much for keeping a low profile. I offered my fellow machine feeders to get them masks of their own, but for reasons unknown to me they politely declined. Maybe, ironically they felt less exposed that way? In any case, the mask helped a lot with my breathing, and the latex gloves were very useful due to the increased traction. Remember, we had a quota: 12 towels per minute. And if you didn't come close to your share, you might not get called again tomorrow. Having no other job opportunities sure is quite the incentive. Very little conversation went on among the workers, who were all very focused on their mechanical tasks.
I broke character once more, at lunch time: I was standing in line to place my cup ramen in the microwave, and well due to not really being all there, since my brain was slow to turn itself back on, I stupidly stood right on the narrow aisle blocking the way of other people. Well, this old, scraggy American guy, instead of tapping my shoulder or saying "Excuse me", just plain pushed me out of the way while saying "The hell you doing in my way!", and walked off muttering something like "It's always the same with these ... [inaudible]." I got so pissed that I blurted out in English something like "You don't ever touch me again!", and gave him the dirtiest look I could muster. Well, he just looked back with surprised eyes; guess he didn't expect one of the short, brown folks to actually understand what he said, I thought at the time.
Some hours later, back home, my arms were so sore I could barely move them. My relatives said that it's tough on your body the first few days; but that soon you got used to it. I wondered how people's respiratory systems got used to pumping all that crap inside them. To be fair, they said the laundry service work was one of the worst jobs out there and that they avoided it whenever they could ... but also that, increasingly, better gigs were becoming harder and harder to come by. That broke my heart.
And mine is not the only heart broken. Millions have chased a dream of white fences and big trucks parked in nice suburban homes, but got stuck with toilet detail instead. Fortunately I had a life to come back to, but most don't. They've left everything behind, their homeland, their cultures, and many even their families, and have sold off all their belongings in the biggest gamble of their lives just to give their kids a better chance than they ever had. Or merely for the proverbial fistful of dollars. And all this for the privilege of being considered invaders, and if they're lucky getting their papers after a 15-year or longer wait. But is overstaying their welcome a reason to be considered criminals? These folks are usually among the best behaved in their communities, because they know it's only one strike, however small, and they're out.
In closing, let me quote a letter recently published in The New Yorker: "We have created a class-based form of apartheid in which superiority and inferiority are determined not by whether one is white or black, but by whether one is 'legal' or 'illegal'. These oppositions are historical constructions. Capital moves freely about the earth. Why can't labor do the same?"1
1. Robert Hinton, Brooklyn, NY