Outsiders at Home: Four American Migration Stories

Immigration is rarely off the headlines in 2018. Questions abound when it comes to topics such as the future of the young beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or the fate of refugees leaving precarious situations the world over.

In the United States, an overhaul of immigration policy such as the one President Donald Trump has championed runs counter to the international migration regime that has been in place for decades. The loss of immigrant protections or an increase in deportations might also slow down progress in meeting the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, a set of 17 targets meant to ensure decent work and build safe cities and communities by 2030, among other objectives.

As long-standing protections come under renewed scrutiny, what might the fate of immigrants be a dozen years from now? Four stories of immigration from around the country offer four different perspectives on the issue.

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Chapter 1 — Roberto from New York City
Chapter 2 — Maria from Los Angeles
Chapter 3 — Karen from Orlando, Florida
Chapter 4 — Cris from Washington, D.C.

Behind the Broadway Food Truck by Valentina Fuentes

People walk on a sidewalk where a small food truck stands.
A food truck on the New York City street where Roberto works. PHOTO: Valentina Fuentes

NEW YORK — “Walking.” Roberto’s answer is curt and direct when asked about how he arrived from Guatemala to the United States in 2015. He doesn’t want to go into further detail.

Roberto is 23 years old and works at a food truck located outside Columbia University on Broadway Avenue and 116 Street. He estimates that, on average, 200 people make a line every day to buy food at his wagon. From the truck’s little window, not only the smell of Korean food comes out, but also the sound of a soccer match that Roberto is watching on his phone. Wearing a Real Madrid T-shirt, he says, “Here in the United States I could buy an iPhone to watch my favorite team play.”

He enjoys living in New York. Nevertheless, he also makes very clear the daily fear he faces working in the street while he waits for a visa to work and reside legally in the United States.

Editor’s note: Roberto is using a pseudonym for safety concerns.

New York is considered one of the greatest multicultural hubs of the country, with first-generation immigrants accounting for almost 23 percent of the city’s population. According to the American Immigration Council, 775,000 people are, like Roberto, unauthorized immigrants living in New York.

The Center of Migration Studies notes that the state of New York has the third largest population of undocumented residents in the country after California and Texas.

Immigrants make up more than 25 percent of the labor force in New York, with 590,920 of them going into health care and social assistance and 329,089 working in food services. Moreover, immigrants account for almost 36 percent of the workers employed in the food services industry in the state.

In fact, Roberto is not the only one selling food on the block. There are about eight other food trucks, installed one next to another, that are run by immigrants. Half of the food trucks offer Korean meals, and the other half are owned by immigrants from Afghanistan and Lebanon and serve Mediterranean fare. Roberto’s boss is a Korean man who arrived in New York 25 years ago and is now a naturalized American citizen.

Two months ago, the state of New York granted Roberto a special license that he needed to work on the food industry. Nevertheless, what Roberto wishes he could obtain is a driver’s license from the state. He further explains that he could earn more money if he could transport food every morning from the kitchen to the truck on Broadway Avenue.

With his new license, Roberto is no longer worried about being surprised by a state supervisor while selling food, but still has the stress of potentially being deported. Blaming the the current administration, Roberto is not entirely positive about his chances of getting the authorization to remain in the United States legally. In a climate of uncertainty, and unable to answer the question of how he pictures himself 12 years from now, he asks the state of New York to protect immigrants.

A Stroke of American Luck by Isabella Narvaez

María Curiel Meza smiles at the camera while sitting in a classroom, in front of a chalkboard.
María is a first-year student at California State University. PHOTO: Isabella Narvaez

LOS ANGELES — For most Americans, the Fourth of July means barbecue celebrations filled with hot dogs, hamburgers, and blazing sparklers. It was the American tradition of grand firework displays, however, that allowed María De Los Angeles Curiel Meza to enter undetected into the United States through the southern border on Independence Day in 2005.

Curiel was 5 years old when she crossed the border illegally with her stepfather, mother, and grandmother. Luckily, her family members all had legal status to live and work in the US — Curiel, however, did not. Not wanting to subject Curiel to an uncertain and perilous future in her birth city of Tepic, Mexico, her family decided to forge legal documents and secretly cross Curiel from Mexico into California in search of greater economic opportunity and access to better education.

Right before the border check in Tijuana, Curiel’s stepfather told her to pretend to be asleep.

“We were so lucky that it was Fourth of July, that is the time people think they can pass illegal fireworks,” says Curiel. “So the car in front of us decided to pass illegal fireworks, but they overheated, so it exploded.”

In the commotion, the border officials allowed their car to enter the country unquestioned. The coincidental date of their crossing also became their saving grace.

“I remember I wanted to cry because people in Mexico kept telling me ‘you’re going to enter mojada,’ which means wet, and I was like, I don’t want to enter mojada I want to enter dry,” says Curiel, recalling her thoughts during the border crossing.

Curiel realized she was undocumented her freshman year of high school.

“Freshman year I kept thinking of what I wanted to do in my life and everything, but when I brought it up to my mother she was like, ‘High school could be the end for you and you might have to go back to Mexico,’” says Curiel. However, Curiel’s honor roll status at school, passion to continue her education, and her mother’s new status as a U.S permanent resident led to her family’s decision to begin the process of obtaining Curiel’s legal papers. In the summer of 2015, Curiel had to travel to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to obtain her legal permanent residency. On Sept. 2, 2015, a week after arriving in Ciudad Juarez, Curiel re-entered the United States as a legal resident.

Curiel, now 20, is a freshman at California State University, Northridge majoring in anthropology, a subject she plans on studying all the way to a doctorate. Her interest in the field stems from her experiences as a Mexican immigrant in the United States. She is no longer undocumented, but she still dwells on the struggles she faced in obtaining residency and the continued uncertainty of her status in the United States.

When asked about her working future after college Curiel is uncertain. “Residency does not guarantee you an entire space here in the U.S, you could be kicked out,” says Curiel. As a college student, she fears the government.

“I fear going into the workforce in a couple years with a residency because I’m like, can I really get a good job compared to any other citizen?” she asks. “Or if I get a job, do I have to suffer looking at people who are undocumented or them looking at me with hatred because I have something they want?”

According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2014, the Los Angeles Metropolitan area has an estimated 1,000,000 undocumented immigrants living in the city. In 2013, Mayor Eric Garcetti re-established the Office of Immigrant Affairs in order to promote the well-being of immigrant communities in the city. In December 2017, a Los Angeles City Council committee formally declared the city a “sanctuary city”. However, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the State of California on Tuesday alleging that “sanctuary city” laws violate the Constitution.

Curiel wants to see change. She wants the future of the Dreamers to be certain and protected. She yearns for Los Angeles and the United States to open up more immigration programs for people to come into the U.S legally. She especially wants to see state and federal laws that help protect undocumented workers from exploitation and underpay. She cannot wait to begin applying for her citizenship in September — three years after first receiving her green card.

Fighting for Justice by Jesus Rodriguez

Karen stands in the University of Central Florida student union wearing a yellow shirt that reads
Karen Caudillo is running for student body president at the University of Central Florida on a campaign focused on inclusivity and sustainability. PHOTO: Jesus Rodriguez

ORLANDO, Fla. — Karen Caudillo has no time for breaks. The 22-year-old political science student from the University of Central Florida is not even halfway through telling her life story when she spots a friend folding T-shirts emblazoned with her name at a distant table.

“Shazia, you can’t have those T-shirts out!” she admonishes, saying she is not allowed to campaign inside the student union. “I’m just not trying to get in trouble, to be honest.”

Caudillo is running to represent 66,000 UCF students as student body president. No transfer student, woman, or woman of color has occupied that seat before, and she boasts an impressive resume. She has served as student senator, chair of the student advocacy committee and co-chair of the immigration committee for the Youth and Young Adult Network of the National Farm Worker Ministry. She also manages her own environmentally friendly cleaning business, Caudillo Cleaning LLC, in her hometown of Naples, Florida.

But at least since Sept. 5, 2017, one more thing has been on her mind: the constant uncertainty of her future in this country.

Caudillo is one of the nearly 700,000 DACA beneficiaries nationwide that could be caught in the crosshairs of the Trump administration’s deportation efforts at any time, along with those who were too old to apply for the program or came to the United States too late.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the repeal of DACA, Caudillo travelled to Washington, D.C. to begin a four-day fast in the U.S. Capitol as a form of protest to demand a permanent solution for the millions of “Dreamers” currently living and working in the United States.

“You never realize like how hungry you are for something till you really are hungry. And so I realized how hungry I was for justice, you know?” Caudillo says. “It taught me how to really not just think about myself but to think about everyone.”

In her eyes, “everyone” includes those who might not feel safe to keep a profile as public as hers, or average Dreamers who work odd jobs to provide for their families. According to a recent study from the Center for Migration Studies, Florida’s undocumented population is the fifth largest nationwide with about 750,000 immigrants. Many of them are farm workers who have become newly unemployed in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which flooded the fields of Immokalee, Florida, just 30 miles northeast of the town where Caudillo grew up. Up until a few years ago, workers faced slave-like conditions in Immokalee’s farms.

Caudillo has been advocating for local policies that would protect farm workers and the immigrant community such as the Fair Food Program, which ensures decent working conditions for immigrant farm workers, and the Trust Act, which would limit information-sharing between Orlando’s local police and federal authorities who are looking to deport immigrants.

“People are scared just for providing for their family and living in the community that they’ve lived forever,” Caudillo says. “After Pulse and after, you know, just Douglas and just a lot of tragedies here in the state of Florida, at least from my feeling, Orlando has grown a lot.”

County- or city-level protections are more likely to succeed than statewide ordinances in this conservative bellwether, where in 2013 Gov. Rick Scott (R) vetoed a bill that would have provided drivers licenses to young unauthorized immigrants. Three years later, Trump captured all 29 electoral votes in the presidential election and Republicans renewed their control of the governorship, state senate and state house.

In any case, those local policies are no panacea for a nationwide issue.

Orlando is the place Caudillo says has allowed her to grow — the tourist metropolis where dreams come true. In this “current uncertainty,” however, that means she cannot grow her sustainable cleaning business and provide more resources for her family. Instead of investing long-term, she has had to save funds in case of an emergency.

“But you know, that’s why I stay here — because someone’s got to create these conversations and talk about them,” she says. “Otherwise, I don’t know who will.”

Bridging the Local-Federal Policy Gap by Morgan Forde

Cris smiles at the camera dressed in a suit and tie.
Cris’ family story inspired him to study immigration in college, and he now works at the Bipartisan Policy Center. PHOTO: Cris Ramon

Cristobal Ramon, who goes by Cris, is an immigration policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. who is working on a variety of pressing national immigration issues. As a former Fulbright Scholar and a member of D.C.’s thriving “think tank” community, Ramon is deeply familiar with the wide range of immigration policy debates going on everywhere from Congress to the cities and states that have begun taking matters into their own hands and designating themselves as sanctuaries for national immigrant populations.

However, there is more behind his work than pure academic expertise. Ramon’s parents immigrated from El Salvador to the United States in the mid-1970s. They met and married in Los Angeles, where Ramon was born and raised. His parents’ story, and those of other immigrants in his community, fueled his desire to focus on immigration policy during his academic and professional career.

Currently, his work at the BPC focuses on the relationship between immigrants and law enforcement in states, counties, and cities; some locales are self-designated sanctuaries, while others have chosen to work closely with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Department of Justice to deport undocumented residents.

Despite the fact that there has been no immigration reform at the federal level, Ramon is very optimistic about his work. The BPC is what he calls a “hybrid organization.” The center engages in comprehensive research across a wide range of policy areas), but is also a nationally respected neutral convener of advocacy organizations and policymakers — organizing regular “round tables” and producing publications that seek to bridge the partisan divide and deliver unbiased solutions to the government and its constituents alike.

“You see D.C. and people see a polarized city,” he says. “People say that there’s divisions between conservatives and liberals, that there’s no consensus, and what I’ve found with these [roundtable] conversations is that when you get down to it and you bring together organizations working in the same issue space, there’s actually a lot of consensus on what could be feasible solutions to an issue like immigration.”

When asked about what he believes to be the best immediate solutions for America’s immigration today, Ramon says that there are three main areas he would like to see policies focus on: work, community integration, and law enforcement.

In the realm of work, Ramon believes that the visa system for temporary and agricultural workers needs to be reformed, first and foremost by raising the caps on H-1B and other visa categories to allow more people to immigrate legally. Secondly, Ramon thinks that state-sponsored visas would be a potential area of policy exploration.

“What would be interesting,” Ramon says, “would be … if you have more of a state-sponsored visa system. That would be one way to address the specific, labor market needs of those individuals.”

“But of course, immigration is more than just people coming in here,” he continued. “You’re also talking about integration, and one of the key things that I would like to see in any type of immigration reform would be setting up a formal government body for integration.”

Ramon believes that such an office could potentially be housed under the Executive branch, within the Department for Health and Human Services or the Department of Homeland Security. However, he says that the government would then need to work closely with churches, nonprofits, cultural groups, and activists to bridge the integration gap for new arrivals.

Lastly, Ramon acknowledges that there must be a law enforcement component to any future immigration reform policy. He believes that any new immigration laws need to clarify the relationships between federal, state, and local actors when it comes to enforcement. He pointed to the Utah Compact, a bipartisan effort to delineate where these boundaries lie. The compact outlines guiding principles to ensure that police officers’ mandate remained with crimes, and issues of immigration enforcement were left to the federal government. The compact also emphasizes that families should not be separated, but integrated into their communities.

Overall, the parties involved must strike a balance, Ramon said. However, as the federal government has made no progress on DACA and other necessary immigration reforms, states and localities will largely be left to figure out their own immigration policies — for better or worse.

This story was developed with training from the International Center for Journalists and the United Nations Foundation