Working Alongside, And Speaking Up For, The Undocumented
Before moving to the United States, Lili was a department head at the Technical University of Chihuaha, Mexico. She managed budgets and had eight employees who reported to her directly.
Now an undocumented immigrant, Lili, who asked that I use only her middle name, waits tables at a seafood restaurant near Harvard Square. She works overtime every week just to try to match her former salary, and sends much of the money back home to her aging mother and her nephew, whose father was murdered in Chihuahua.
“I’m just trying to survive and trying to work my best,” she told me recently before a shift at the restaurant where we work. “But it’s hard.”
'I’m just trying to survive and trying to work my best...But it’s hard.'Lili, undocumented Mexican immigrant
Donald Trump began his presidential campaign with the promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He has called Mexican immigrants like Lili criminals, drug-dealers and rapists.
And on Nov. 8, those views carried him to victory. As I watched the returns election night, I thought of my coworkers like Lili and what a Trump presidency might mean for them.
I work at a restaurant where a significant portion of the staff come from places like Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. Stories of perseverance like Lili’s are common; "bad hombres" and the otherwise bad actors that Trump describes are not.
My coworkers pay taxes on every paycheck. Many of them have multiple jobs. They pay for rent, transportation and household necessities. Lili told me that after taxes, most of her pay goes to rent, groceries and utilities. She sends some money home and saves the little she can.
Those payments have a cumulative impact: A 2016 study by the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated that undocumented immigrants paid $11.64 billion in U.S. state and local taxes in 2012.
In Massachusetts, undocumented immigrants paid more than $201 million in state and local taxes. Immigrants who had since gained permanent citizenship contributed an additional $262 million.
But Trump wants them gone. Earlier in his campaign he promised a “deportation force” to hunt down the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Days after being elected, he tempered his tone: the president-elect told “60 Minutes” that he wants to deport 2-3 million undocumented immigrants “who have criminal records.”
Those promises, empty or not, strike fear into people who are vulnerable.
The day after Trump’s victory, I texted another of my coworkers, Guadalupe, to see how she felt.
“Everyone is upset, and we are afraid,” she responded.
Guadalupe, who also asked me to use her middle name because she is seeking asylum, fled El Salvador in 2011, when she was 18, after her father and younger brother were executed by a local gang outside her home. She, her mother and her siblings traveled through Mexico on an infamous “death train,” riding on the roofs of freight cars along with hundreds of other refugees escaping the violence in Central America.
They crossed the border into Texas on foot, walking at night and hiding during the day, until they were caught by immigration officials and allowed to apply for asylum. They moved to Boston, Guadalupe graduated high school, and a new future began to open up for her.
The day after Trump was elected, though, Guadalupe told me that, in her East Boston neighborhood, “people were crying.” The streets were quiet. “It feels like if someone died,” she said.
Guadalupe said she wished she had the option to go back home to El Salvador, but, “...living there is a war.”
Guadalupe dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen and going to college. But even now she’s not supposed to work because of her open asylum application. And with a new president who might prioritize finding and deporting people like her, she’s even more unsure of her future. She’s stuck in a limbo, bussing plates of oysters and lobster in Cambridge until she is granted legal residency, or made to leave.
[Guadalupe is] stuck in a limbo, bussing plates of oysters and lobster in Cambridge until she is granted legal residency, or made to leave.
I’ve worked in offices where the pay was much higher and where nearly everybody had a college degree. But rarely have I witnessed the drive, grit and intelligence that people like Lili and Guadalupe have demonstrated over and over again.
I can’t buy the claim that immigrants like them are “destroying” the fabric of the country, as Trump says. I think they make America great.
Donald Trump may be my future president, but Lili and Guadalupe are my fellow Americans, regardless of their immigration status. Against all the harsh talk of the campaign and the budding administration, their voices need to be heard.