After several wrong turns, I finally saw Rosalyn, who had been waiting for me about half a mile from her house. She could tell I was having trouble, after numerous phone calls for directions.
As I pulled up next to her, she jumped into my car and we headed back to her house. When her home came into sight, she asked me to park on the side of the road — from what I could tell there weren’t any formal parking lots in her complex, so one place to park is as good as another.
Walking up to her gate, she asked me to wait so she could restrain her dog. As I passed the rambunctious canine, he managed to just nip my knuckles. She apologized profusely even though I wasn’t fazed by the incident. She said her dog only acted out once before and she wasn’t sure why he was acting the way he was.
Rosalyn’s mother greeted me at the door — her siblings were at school and her father was at work. Her mom couldn’t speak a lick of English, but was cordial and kind. Their home was a little musty, and the air was thick and humid, but overall, it was immaculate, with the exception of the little sister’s room and the laundry room. The rooms were small — smaller than most walk-in closets — but Rosalyn and her mother were more than happy about their living situation. Only a couple of years ago, her family had been renting two rooms from her aunt — Rosalyn and her brother and sister shared one, and her parents shared another. Since moving into their new place, her parents sacrifice their privacy to give the children their own bedrooms while the parents sleep on the couch.
As Rosalyn gave me the tour, she became apprehensive about what I was doing there. Even though she had invited me to her home to photograph her life, her living situation, she watched me very carefully. When I took pictures of family photos that hung on the wall, she reassured her mother the faces would be blurred out if they were published. While in her sister’s room, she requested that the windows not be in the photos, for fear of the landlord identifying her family’s home and kicking them out. In her room, she removed her purse from the bed so it wouldn’t be in the shot.
Although she wanted me to see her life and wanted her life documented in the paper, she didn’t want me to take pictures of anything anyone would be able to recognize. Not because she was doing anything wrong — she wasn’t running from the law, she wasn’t cooking up drugs, her home wasn’t a brothel, etc. In fact, Rosalyn, 21, is well-read, has her bachelor’s degree in Spanish from a local university, is working a full-time job and paid her taxes this year. She is the spitting image of any respectable hard-working citizen, except for one thing — she is an undocumented immigrant.
Rosalyn is just one of millions of undocumented workers–in factories, in the fields, mowing lawns, working in housekeeping–who want nothing more than to become legal, to not live under the radar. She, along with so many others, wants to live her life, have a career, fall in love and contribute to society just as those who were born on U.S. soil automatically have the ability to do. But the hurdles to achieve that dream seems insurmountable. This is her story.
Rosalyn — Hopeless but happy
Rosalyn (a pseudonym) came to this country with her pregnant mother and younger sister in 1992 from Michoachan, Mexico. Because conditions were so poor in the rural part of Mexico where she had been living — chances to receive an education were slim and living wages were practically nonexistent — her parents decided to emigrate to California. Her father, who had been working as an accountant in Mexico, made the final decision. Although the equivalent worker in America would be well-off financially, he made only $5 a week.
Rosalyn, only 5 years old at the time, and her mother and siblings were able to “borrow” documents from relatives who were already residents of the U.S., and catch a flight into California, settling in Santa Paula. Her father wasn’t as fortunate and had to cross the border just as thousands of others who illegally immigrated into the States back then. Luckily, her father didn’t have to scale the wall that currently borders Mexico and California — Operation Gate Keeper, which was built in 1994. Rosalyn said her father has never spoken about his experience.
Shortly after their arrival, Rosalyn enrolled at a local public school. She had no problem learning the language.
“It was great for me. I started kindergarten here and I just picked it up — English,” she said. “All of my elementary school was great. Middle school was also great. I did very well and got good grades.”
She progressed with ease until high school, where she was diagnosed with a learning disability. She had an abnormally difficult time with memorizing and communicating — she was fluent in English but had other problems with communication.
Regardless of her stumbling blocks, she pushed herself that much harder and earned a B average, eventually graduating from a highly acclaimed high school in Ventura. But when it came to considering college, she thought she had hit a brick wall.
“It hit me. When the time came to talk about colleges and filling out applications, I thought, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” she said. “I didn’t have the financial means or the legal ability. I was very naive — who to go to, who to trust. This was something very terrifying. I felt like my life would be over.
“Then one of my counselors took me to [a local university]. I got information and applied. I applied only to two schools … and I didn’t apply to any other colleges. I didn’t feel like I would be able to do it anyways, and fell into a deep depression. Then I received a letter saying 50 families that would attend the university could apply for a parent-plus loan. That was how I was able to go.”
Using fake social security numbers, her parents were able to secure a loan — which her father made payments toward until Rosalyn started working — and in 2008, just three years later, Rosalyn graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish.
She didn’t need a social security number to obtain her degree. But everything changed as she entered “the real world.” And it wasn’t the fact that the country was barreling into a recession. She had seen worse in her own country. It was her legal status.
“When I entered as a freshman, I was pretty naive and pretty hopeful. Graduation seemed so far away — I tried not to think about what it was going to be like after graduation. Also, I was just waiting until something came along — some kind of new law that allowed me to work. My stupid state of mind … I felt that maybe if I got good grades, it would be like, ‘You’re a good student and going to contribute to society.’ Logically, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.”
Although Rosalyn grew up in the U.S., she has no privileges to work in this country even though she was too young to know any better when she came here 16 years earlier. After her family immigrated to California, her father had jumped through many hoops just to live in the States. He went to various attorneys, seeking answers about how to, at the very least, get a work visa. Because tens of thousands of Mexicans were and continue to be turned away for just a tourist visa in their native country, securing a legal social security number to work was out of reach — mainly because he immigrated illegally. However, her father did lawfully obtain a special visa that allowed him to legally reside and pay taxes here but, ironically, not to work.
In 2001, her father filed a family petition, based on the aunt’s citizenship, to become legal residents. Rosalyn believed this would be her ticket. Luckily, her youngest sibling, her brother, had been born in America shortly after they for him arrived. While illegal immigrants have received flack for having children in America just to have citizenship, it did her family, like many others, no good.
For one thing, her brother can’t petition for any of his family members until he is 21 — the age when he is recognized as a legal adult based on special immigration codes — and that won’t be for another six years. If and when he files petitions on their behalf, it could take up to another 17 years for review, due to backlog. Rosalyn could be in her 40s before they even look at her brother’s petition. All of his family would also have to return to Mexico in the meantime, due to a provision, added to the immigration codes after 9/11. Prior to the terrorist attacks, family members could stay here illegally if they had been petitioned. Because of this, she has decided against applying for residency at this time.
In regard to the family petition filed in 2001, the soonest her family’s petition may be reviewed would be in 2016. Since her family immigrated illegally and remained in the country illegally, the chance of their petition being approved is slim.
Rosalyn’s hope has nearly vanished.
“Since I grew up here in this country, I am and I should be a resident of the U.S.,” she said. “I feel like an American, but I also feel like an outsider, like I am a criminal. There is so much [talk] about anti-immigration. It really makes me feel awful.”
“At the same time, I understand the situation. You can’t have all of us coming over — there have to be rules. Yet, we are all human and are worth the same; everyone has the same struggles and should be given a chance.”
With few options, even from the onset of their migration, her family followed the same path as millions of other undocumented workers. Her father toiled as a lemon and orange picker, then later found work in a packing plant. He worked either as an undocumented worker or used a fake social security number, which was an invalid number and didn’t belong to a resident or citizen. Rosalyn’s mother also worked using a fake social security number in factories and a plant nursery.
After Rosalyn graduated last year, she realized her only option was to get a fake social security card as well. She and her mother, who had just recently been laid off, went job hunting.
“It’s been terrifying. I spent eight months trying to find a job, going from job agency to job agency trying to find something. We would walk in trying to fill out applications, and they would ask for our social security cards and our green cards.
Having a fake green card, every time, my heart would just race, that they would find us out, deport us, and that would be it for our entire family.”
Rosalyn finally found work in a factory in Oxnard, where her shift begins at 6:45 a.m. She makes $250 a week, which is enough to pay back her student loan, pay for gas and her cell phone. She drives to work every morning even though she doesn’t have a license. She said she would rather take that risk than not work since public transit wouldn’t get her to work on time from her home nearly 20 miles away. Her mother is still looking for work, and her father works at a packing plant by day and at a department store warehouse by night.
No easy solution
Professor Jose Alamillo of California State University, Channel Islands, is all too familiar with stories such as Rosalyn’s. Alamillo, a native Mexican from the rural south Aztecas, came to the U.S. illegally when he was seven years old in 1977. He rejoined his family, who had come into the country by a “coyote” — an immigrant smuggler — two years earlier. Alamillo had been living with his grandparents while his family settled in California. His family lived on the Limoneira Ranch in Santa Paula, working in the orchards and packing plants while he went to school. Becoming legalized then wasn’t as arduous a task as it is today — Alamillo became a legal resident nine years after arriving here under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act — an amnesty provision that legalized more than 3 million undocumented residents.
Alamillo’s parents immigrated to the United States for the same reason as Rosalyn’s —opportunity. Opportunities for education and work were and continue to be scarce in Mexico compared to those north of the border — even as illegal immigrants. Being tougher on undocumented workers and erecting walls are not solutions, according to Alamillo. Instead, he believes government should try helping Mexico, similar to practices in Europe.
“When we negotiate and debate immigration and free trade policies, they should be discussed at the same time. For some reason, they are separate,” he said.
He recalled when Portugal and Spain, which were less industrialized countries compared to their neighbors, sought admittance into the European Union. The more advanced countries in the Union invested in Spain and Portugal, building infrastructure and creating jobs. With the two countries becoming more stabilized, immigrants began returning to their homes in their native lands.
“What happened, we actually see the opposite. Spanish people who had left migrated back,” Alamillo said.
Sending illegal immigrants back to Mexico isn’t a solution — they will just return, risking life and limb for what American citizens take for granted, Alamillo said. For instance, if an undocumented worker is caught with a fake social security number, due to the problem of identity theft, he or she could be sent to jail from eight to 10 years and then deported. But still Americans, taking a mainly a conservative viewpoint, believe that illegal immigrants are to blame for society’s malfunctions — from budget deficits to poor health care. Unfortunately, illegal immigrants — which are estimated to number 15-20 million nationwide and 25,000 to 50,000 in Ventura County, depending on the season, have taken a lot of the blame for society’s ills. Yet, rarely have they been recognized for what they contribute.
For example, in 2005, the social security administration received more than $7 billion in revenue through fake social security numbers, reported the New York Times. Illegal immigrants who remain illegal will never see a penny of this, even into retirement.
The Oregon Center for Public Policy did a survey in 2007, and it revealed that undocumented workers contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to Oregon’s tax base as well as spending billions of dollars in the local economy.
“They purchase products and services in Oregon with the roughly $2 billion in income they earn annually. Finally, they are taxpayers, contributing millions of dollars annually to Oregon’s tax base and to the federal Social Security and Medicare systems. These taxes paid by undocumented workers total about $134 million to $187 million annually. Taxes paid by Oregon employers on behalf of undocumented workers total about $97 million to $136 million annually,” as reported in the conclusion of the Oregon Center for Public Policy 2007 issue brief, “Undocumented Workers Are Taxpayers, Too.”
There is no denying that undocumented workers do labor-intensive jobs that Americans are unwilling to do for the same pay — the average field worker earns less than $15,000 a year, or $6.41 an hour based on a 45-hour work week. And many field workers don’t start earning overtime until after 10 hours of work, or they work by piece rate — the heavier their yield the more they get paid. Also, because of their low wages, taxing their incomes would not yield any additional tax revenue, Alamillo said.
Based on the grueling hours and low pay, many, if not all, Americans would turn their noses up at the wages these jobs offer. If every farmer was forced to pay minimum wage or higher, based on the tediousness of the job, consumers would see a jump in prices in the produce section.
“In terms of getting rid of immigrants, we would see a huge spike of inflation,” Alamillo said.
If Americans opted not to work in the fields and there were no undocumented workers, there is always the option of importing produce. But that could create a catastrophe in America.
“There would be more importing of [fruits and vegetables] from abroad, where there are no environmental laws, and the food security of this nation would be jeopardized,” Alamillo said. “There would be a chain-link effect — truckers, shipping industries, the ports, grocery stores, clerks.”
He said that if this country shifted away from growing its own fruits and vegetables, those affected would be virtually limitless. Millions of people are employed in one way or another in relation to crop production, and it all starts with illegal immigrants who are willing to work in the fields for little pay.
On the other hand, there is no denying that undocumented children go to public schools, in which special courses such as English as a second language are funded by taxpayers. Undocumented workers also use public health care.
According to the Web site of the nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to improve border security, to stop illegal immigration and to promote immigration levels consistent with the national interest of about 300,000 a year, the burden on taxpayers for immigrant health care is irrefutable.
“Immigrants are often uninsured and underinsured. Forty-three percent of noncitizens under 65 have no health insurance. That means there are 9.4 million uninsured immigrants, a majority of whom are in the country illegally, [which constitutes] 15 percent of the total uninsured in the nation in the mid-1990s. The cost of the medical care of these uninsured immigrants is passed on to the taxpayer, and strains the financial stability of the health care community.
“Another problem is immigrants’ use of hospital and emergency services rather than preventative medical care. For example, utilization rate of hospitals and clinics by illegal aliens (29 percent) is more than twice the rate of the overall U.S. population (11 percent).
“As a result, the costs of medical care for immigrants are staggering. The estimated cost of unreimbursed medical care in 2004 in California was about $1.4 billion per year. In Texas, the estimated cost was about $850 million, and in Arizona the comparable estimate was $400 million per year.
“One of the frequent costs to U.S. taxpayers is delivery of babies to illegal alien mothers. A California study put the number of these anchor baby deliveries in the state in 1994 at 74,987, at a cost of $215 million. At that time, those births constituted 36 percent of all Medi-Cal births, and they have grown now to substantially more than half of the annual Medi-Cal budget. In 2003, 70 percent of the 2,300 babies born in San Joaquin General Hospital’s maternity ward were anchor babies. Medi-Cal in 2003 had 760,000 illegal alien beneficiaries, up from 2002, when there were 470,000.”
But Alamillo contends that while illegal immigrants use public health care, their fear of deportation overrides most of their health concerns, so they often avoid public hospitals altogether.
As for education, the 2003 California Institute Rural Studies Report projected that 9,000 to 11,000 illegal immigrants are in grades K-12 in Ventura County, about 7 percent of the total number of children enrolled. Based on data from the California Department of Education (CDE), taxpayers spend around $8,000 per pupil per school year. The total cost to educate illegal immigrants may be around $80 million in Ventura County, but both Alamillo and a representative of CDE agreed that the projected number of illegal immigrant students was only an estimate and virtually impossible to calculate accurately. Also, the $8,000 figure was based on a formula that might not boil down to the actual cost per undocumented student.
The problem: there is no easy solution. The answer: better immigration reform, Alamillo said. The mentality that “if we only sent all those illegal immigrants home, we would be better off” is a fallacy. From their work in the fields to the money they spend in local economies to their share of contributions to tax revenue, the dependence on public schools and healthcare could possibly cancel out or even be superseded by their contribution to society.