Invisible Men

Posted on 09. Feb, 2001 by in Uncategorized

The Western Honduran landscape is blanketed with cloud-forest
and dotted with tiny Indian villages. In every town, something
is missing: There are almost no men between the ages of 18 and
35. Everywhere, the explanation for their absence is the same:
They have left for El Norte.
The sprawling, loose-knit, Honduran family from whom I rented
a room last summer was typical. Three sisters and their children
lived together in a house; their husbands and eldest sons were
already gone, expected to return at some unspecified point in
the future. The oldest male left in the household was Francisco,
and though he was only twelve, he was already talking about his
own upcoming journey. When I asked him how men get through Guatemala
and Mexico and over the border into the u.s., he responded nonchalantly,
"You go visit the coyote." It is a simple business
transaction. You pay the coyote and he delivers you to El Norte.
If the first attempt fails, you go again and again until you’ve
made it. The whole thing sounded impossibly easy.
Honduras, the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere,
has been devastated, like much of Central America, by successive
hurricanes and floods in the past two years. The poor own no
land and have little opportunity to find work. In areas heavily
populated by Indians, unemployment pushes 50 percent. The only
option is to head north. Still, it is startling to see the magnitude
of the flight reflected in what is left behind: entire families
without a single male figure, children who have never met their
fathers, mothers who haven’t seen their sons in decades. All
are awaiting the return of some long-departed relative whose
memory takes on a shadowy, mythic stature in letters, memories,
and anecdotes.
One day, I met the coyote. Jaime wore a red flannel shirt and
sported a long black ponytail. He listened to Led Zeppelin and
the Rolling Stones and had once played in a rock-and-roll band.
He showed off the few English phrases that he knew ("Jou
are very bee-oo-ty-ful"), and together we sang the first
verse of "Black Dog." When I brought up immigration,
he grinned drunkenly, revealing a missing front tooth. But he
evaded my questions. How much does he charge? Depends. $2,000,
$3,000, maybe more. How does he get people to El Norte? Depends.
Truck, bus, maybe plane. How do his clients cross the border?
Depends. Through the river, over the fence, hidden in the trunk
of a car or the back of a truck. Jaime, however, was emphatic
on one point: Getting to the u.s. is easy and certain, despite
la migra (a moniker for the border police used on both sides
of the Rio Grande). "We are," he said in Spanish, "like
the barbarians invading Rome."

The US currently has a higher proportion of immigrants than
at any other time in the past hundred years. Still, New Haven-thousands
of miles from the border, lacking any major industry or agriculture-seems
an unlikely place to come across undocumented workers. I hardly
expected to find anyone in this small, northeastern city who
had completed the long, dangerous journey from Latin America.
I decided to look anyway-and what I found was an entire underground
community of ilegales a short walk away from the Yale campus.
I just had to head southeast on Elm Street, past the Green, and
through downtown. When Elm became Grand Avenue, I continued under
I-91 and crossed over the train tracks into Fair Haven. Suddenly,
the signs were in Spanish-Lujo’s Librería, El Canquí
Restaurante, Lujinera Caribera-and Spanish graffiti tagged fences
and storefronts.
Fair Haven has been the center of New Haven’s Puerto Rican population
for decades. Recently, a new crowd has come to the neighborhood:
the ilegales, undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Colombia,
Guatemala, and a host of other Latin American countries. Signs
on storefronts read "No loitering-Police take notice"
(or something similar in Spanish), but the measure hardly seems
necessary. Though it is a sunny Saturday afternoon, few people
are out in the streets. Grand old wood-plank houses line the
streets, their large porches pushing almost to the sidewalk.
Some of the houses show signs of careful attention, freshly painted
in blues and pinks, with small fences and Christmas decorations.
But every block also has houses that have fallen into disrepair.
Their windows are boarded up, their ancient paint-jobs flaked
almost off, their porches caved in at 45 degree angles. Some
of the most decrepit ones show the smallest signs of habitation:
broken windows covered with newspaper, a makeshift mailbox propped
against a porch column.
Though the streets are mostly empty, I occasionally see someone
walking hurriedly, eyes down, into a house, or a small group
of men standing on a street-corner. But whenever I approach them,
they eye me suspiciously and move away. Finally, I see a woman
watching me from the other side of the street, and I ask her,
in Spanish, if people live in these houses. She shrugs. "Only
los ilegales."
Last summer, Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) agents
raided a condemned house on Cedar Hill Avenue and found 35 undocumented
workers living there. At the time, the INS reported knowledge
of at least eight such hovels around New Haven, each of which
housed two or three dozen immigrants. According to Hernando Diosa,
a prominent journalist and radio personality in the local Latino
community, houses for ilegales still abound in Fair Haven and
a number of other local neighborhoods. "I know a house
where 40 or 50 people live. There are only three bedrooms. People
sleep in the hallways, on newspapers on the floors." After
the ilegales cleared out of the Cedar Hill Avenue house, authorities
discovered feces littering the basement and a chimney that was
on the verge of collapse.
In recent years, Diosa says, Fair Haven has been flooded with
new immigrants-"Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Peruvians,
Hondurans, Colombians, all groups." Latinos are the fastest-growing
segment of New Haven’s population. The official community now
numbers almost 25,000, 50 percent larger than it was ten years
ago. It is hard to say just how many more are undocumented. "The
people are scared, some of them are even afraid of me because
they think I’m la migra," Diosa tells me."But there
are at least 5,000 ilegales in New Haven."

Carlos passes me a drink and sits down at the table, where
I am chatting with a man who calls himself Sigi. The two ilegales
are friends of Diosa, and they have agreed to meet me in this
small South American restaurant at the edge of New Haven. Ranchero,
mexican country music plays in the background, and I hear only
Spanish from the clientele. When I first walked in and met the
men sitting at the bar, they made jokes about my being a spy
for la migra, an outsider sent to raid their establishment.
At first, Sigi dominates the conversation. He tells me that he
came from Mexico and that he can write down his story for me
for an unnamed fee. He knows how to write well, he claims, because
he was once a cop. When I politely turn him down, he tells me
that he has to leave, shakes my hand, and goes to sit at the
bar.
Carlos, however, is more open to my questions. His background
belies the stereotype of ilegales as lowly and uneducated. He
says he has a university degree and worked as an accountant in
Medellin, Colombia, where he lived before coming to the u.s.
He looks the part of an urban professional, with graying hair
and a green knit shirt tucked into slacks. After years of working
in business in Colombia, the situation became "unbearable-the
crime, bribes, and intimidation, all of it."
Carlos immediately asks me why I am interested in his "normal"
story. I tell him about Honduras, about the family I lived with,
about the absence of their husbands and brothers and fathers,
and the glorious homecoming they anticipate. Carlos smiles. When
I ask him about coming to the US, he uses words like "calm"
and "easy" to describe his experiences. Carlos has
lived in the United States for the past three years, the last
four months of which have been spent in New Haven. He lives in
a house with 19 other people and works 16 hours a day busing
tables. Still, he does not complain, or seek sympathy for the
long journey he made to get here. "The life is very . .
. tranquila," he says.
But when I press Carlos for details, his life seems nowhere near
as serene as his adjectives would suggest. "In Mexico they
take your clothes, they take your money," he says of the
Mexican authorities, who are also known to rape women making
the trip. The journey from South America may take months. Diosa
tells me about a Colombian man he knows who left his home with
ten pesos in his pocket. After crossing over to Panama through
the Colombian jungle-one of the most dangerous and lawless regions
in the world-he hitchhiked through Central America and Mexico,
and was repeatedly beaten up and robbed before arriving at the
Texas-Mexico border. There, he somehow managed to come up with
the money to pay a coyote-Diosa, not wanting to soil his friend’s
name, will not tell me how. And from there, Diosa says, "It’s
easy . . . the crossing takes 15 minutes."

"I came north to work," Carlos tells me. "I
am here for money. I work 16 hours a day. I want to help my family.
I send money home." The purpose of life in the US is to
make money, most of which will be sent to families back home
in Latin America. In several Central American countries, including
Honduras, remittance payments-money sent from relatives working
in the US–constitute one of the largest sources of national
revenue.
Carlos directs my attention toward the back of the restaurant.
A line of immigrants waits in front of a woman at a computer
screen, cash clutched in their fists. The woman, Carlos tells
me, works for a wire-transfer service, a small-time Western Union
alternative specializing in immigrant business. "They are
transferring money to their families. She has been working since
eight o’clock this morning."
The ilegales’ quest for work is guided by a large network that
extends from a village in their home country to the Mexican border,
and then to Houston or El Paso or Nogales or some other US city
where their services are needed. The coyote is the central figure
in this network. His role extends well beyond just shepherding
ilegales through the desert, across a river, or over a fence.
"It’s a whole industry," Diosa explains to me. The
coyote’s contacts are everywhere, and "it all depends on
the contacts." The way Diosa tells it, the immigrant follows
the coyote’s contacts wherever they take him. "You know
a guy who knows a coyote who guides you across the border and
has a contact on the other side," he elaborates. "Then,
maybe you have a cousin or a friend in New Haven who works for
a guy, or the coyote’s contact knows a guy who has a factory
and needs workers." Through their contacts, the ilegales
find a city, a house where they can stay (like the one raided
by the ins on Cedar Hill Avenue), and a job. The ilegales don’t
have much control over their lives here. They move through a
vast and intricate network of coyotes and cousins and corrupt
Americans that ends at some farm or factory or hotel or restaurant.
This kind of network defines Carlos’ story, as it does that of
most ilegales. A guy he knew in Colombia knew a coyote in Mexico
who guided him over the fence, through the desert, and all the
way to Houston. Once in Houston, he called a friend’s cousin,
who found him a job at Polo Ralph Lauren in North Carolina. After
a couple of years there, he heard from another friend in New
Haven, who knew a restaurant owner who needed workers. So he
came here.
By all accounts, getting a job is not a problem. "Employers
look for ilegales so they can pay whatever they want," says
Diosa. At his job in North Carolina, Carlos was paid six dollars
an hour, while the American workers received ten or twelve. But
the ilegales find, the relationship is mutually beneficial. Diosa
explains, "Even if you make five or six dollars an hour
here, you would only be making 75 cents an hour for the same
job in Colombia. And the employers need ilegales. No one else
wants to do the work, the dirty jobs, not even the Puerto Ricans,
and we come here and work for not even minimum wage for twelve,
fourteen hours a day, no problem."
The "dirty jobs" Diosa mentions are plentiful: picking
tobacco, cleaning hotel rooms, tending plant nurseries, manning
factory assembly lines. Ilegales hear about work from friends
or family or the coyote’s contacts, and are sometimes even sought
out by the employers themselves. In the past few years, Connecticut
tobacco farms have come under fire for this practice, and public
suspicion has been directed at several area construction companies
as well. Diosa is hesitant to offer me many details on local
employers-he does mention one downtown restaurant by name-but
assures me that ilegales have no trouble finding work. Some businesses
are entirely open about their desire to employ the ilegales,
going so far as to send vans to Fair Haven in the morning to
bring them in to work (though this practice has recently been
scrutinized). Other businesses maintain a façade of legality.
But, Diosa claims, this represents a small obstacle; fake papers
are easily obtained, and several different people can use a set
of papers to obtain work-often in the same day. "One friend
uses his papers in the morning, and then another uses the same
papers in the afternoon," he explains. Employers, officials,
cops, and la migra are willing to turn a blind eye, at least
as long as it benefits them. Carlos tells me that the police
frequently collaborate with employers. "They know that people
need you to work." Last May, investigators in New Haven
uncovered a scheme to employ ilegales to remove asbestos from
a building on Temple Street. Dominic Onofrio had sought out several
Mexican migrants, falsified work documents for them, and exposed
the laborers to a building’s worth of deadly asbestos, all without
protection. His sentence: six months house arrest and a $4,000
fine.

A desolate calm settles over the streets of Fair Haven. The
neighborhood shows few signs of the underground community it
harbors. Given the sheer number of ilegales that live in the
neighborhood, the emptiness seems all the more startling.
A recent article in the New Haven Advocate alleged that ilegales
"live in constant fear of being deported." I ask Carlos
if this claim is true, and he shakes his head. "You’re not
going to get deported unless you make a mistake." Not making
a mistake becomes the mission of ilegales. Life for them is like
walking a tightrope: maintain concentration, don’t slip up, watch
out for anything that could upset balance.
Since 1996, when President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration
Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act into law, the ins has
stepped up efforts nationwide to find and deport ilegales, especially
those who use public services and seek employment in the u.s.
In Connecticut, the number of deportees has doubled in the past
four years. Still, in 1999, this amounted to only 379 deportations,
a number that pales in comparison to the probable number of ilegales
in New Haven alone.
But for the ilegales, the pitfalls are many, and they make a
constant effort to avoid the mistakes that can send them home.
That is why the streets in Fair Haven are so empty. "They
come here, they work, and they stay out of sight," Diosa
tells me. "They don’t want to bother anybody or cause any
trouble." As a result, ilegales in New Haven are invisible
to all but the small segment of the population that deals with
them on a regular basis. They avoid bars, community centers,
and parties. They hoard their savings in mattresses or chests
in their houses, because they can’t open bank accounts. Gangs
frequently target ilegales because they know that an immigrant
will have his entire savings stashed in his house and will not
report the crime. Many are too terrified to visit a hospital
for fear they will be found out and deported if they have to
deal with authorities. "Say you just came from Michoacán
or Mazatlán or Mexico City," explains Diosa. "If
you feel something wrong with your chest, you’re not going to
go to the hospitals unless you have papers."
The passage of the 1996 Act gave the ins the responsibility to
deport any non-citizen who has committed even the most minor
infraction. The real risk for most ilegales, however, is that
someone will rat them out. "It could be anyone," says
Diosa. "Could be your best friend, could be an ex-lover,
somebody who is jealous, somebody who thinks you are a better
worker." He tells the story of an envious lover who suspected
that his girlfriend was seeing another man. For revenge, he called
the ins and reported the man, who was subsequently arrested and
deported. Employers also use the threat of la migra to keep workers
in line. Last year a farm owner near New Haven called the ins
on his own employees after they tried to organize to demand better
wages and safer working conditions. Generally, however, ilegales
just keep quiet and don’t complain. "They treat them bad
and the workers can’t do anything because they have no papers,"
Diosa tells me.
Each ilegal I meet has the same single-minded focus. "I
don’t go out, I don’t go enjoy the city," Carlos tells me.
He continually says that life here is tranquil, but this may
just be resignation, because he doesn’t really have any other
options. He set out from home in search of work and money, followed
his contacts, and worked his way through a network to where he
is now. "Here I don’t really matter. I don’t really have
any value," he says. "I wake, I work, I sleep. That’s
it."

"Our mission is to get here and work hard for two, three,
four years and then to return home," Carlos explains to
me. "All my family is in Medellin, and I want to go back
. . . ." He trails off and looks at a photograph of an Andean
village on the wall. Diosa tells me that he, too, came to the
u.s with the intention of going back home to his family and friends,
but somewhere along the way, his plan changed. He came from Colombia
25 years ago. He had obtained a temporary tourist visa by slipping
a corrupt Colombian official $4,000 under the table, and he didn’t
return home after the visa expired. "When I came here, I
told my family that I was going to work for a year and then come
back. I started working. I washed dishes. I was like a gypsy,"
he recounts. "Then la migra wanted to deport me, so I married
an American lady, and we had two kids, and we still live together."
Diosa is now a prominent and well-connected figure in the immigrant
community. Still, he doesn’t romanticize the story. "For
most of the people involved, marriage is just a business."
The ilegales come with the plan of making some money and then
going back home. They focus on the task at hand, try to stay
out of trouble, work hard, follow the jobs and whatever friends
and family may be in El Norte as well. Somehow, in walking this
difficult course, the original intention of going home gets lost.
The quest to return home is supplanted by the quest to obtain
papers. "The mission becomes to get documents, to marry
an American," Carlos continues. Diosa matter-of-factly describes
the course of his and his friends’ lives in El Norte. "You
say you’re going to come back, but when you start you don’t know
what will really happen because you don’t know where you’re going.
People come here, and they try to get married or become legal
some way. They don’t go back. They stay here."
In the mountains of Western Honduras, wives anticipate their
husbands’ returns and children wait to meet their fathers for
the first time. They continue hoping, while the ilegales continue
down a path of no return. And as soon as each fatherless boy
is old enough, the family takes its savings, contacts the coyote,
and sends another to El Norte.

 

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a sophomore in Berkeley
College, is research director of
TNJ.

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