Immigrant New York

An undocumented immigrant talks about coming to America, living 'under the radar' in NYC, and life post-election

By Alanna Schubach  | March 30, 2017 - 12:30PM

In the wake of November's presidential election and a controversial executive order on immigration that was first shut down and re-emerged in another, still similar form, immigrants in these United States—many here legally, but many more undocumented—have seen their lives upended; fear is a daily bitter pill. Back in 2014, New York City declared itself a sanctuary city that was welcoming of those who may be in this country without legal paperwork, a policy that has seemed especially embracing.

(Tune in tomorrow for a new episode of the Brick Underground podcast, which looks in detail at what New York's status as a sanctuary city really means, and includes a short segment of our interview with the couple featured in this story.)

Still, what's it like for the undocumented in this city? And for those close to them? We spoke to one couple who have been impacted by the dramatic shifts in the political leadership's attitudes. Julie and David—their names have been changed to protect their privacy—have been married for a year; Julie is an American citizen, while David is an undocumented immigrant, having crossed the border into the U.S. over a decade ago. 

The couple is in the process of getting David citizenship, but it isn't easy. "Because of the way he came here, he has to go back to his country and re-enter legally," Julie explains. "But once he steps foot in his country, he'll banned for 10 years from re-entering." 

They applied for a waiver of the 10-year ban, and were granted it on the grounds that David's being deported would cause Julie significant psychological hardship. Even so, she says, they don't have a 100 percent guarantee that he'll be able to gain legal status. They must first return to David's home country, where he'll go through a physical and an interview at the embassy. "We have to take the chance, because it’s our only chance for a safe and secure future," Julie says.

We spoke to David to hear firsthand about why he came to the U.S., whether sanctuary cities can really protect people, and how life has changed since the election--and to demystify what it actually means to be undocumented. Here are his thoughts, in his words:

The journey to New York

"It was a really hard and confusing time when I was 21 years old. The place where I come from, there’s a lot of crime and political corruption. The situation for people doesn’t get better just by being a hard worker and saving money. People come take it from you and steal from you. As hard as you work and as much as you want to achieve, there’s always someone pulling you down. There’s freedom in this country because there’s nobody doing that.

I came face to face with that reality and I made the decision to immigrate to the United States. I had a cousin who lived in [New England] who helped me to come through Mexico. I knew it was hard to get a visa—If you don’t have money or property, something that attaches you to the place where I come from, they won’t give you a visa. Everybody that goes there has to prove they’re going to return. I didn’t have any paperwork; I didn’t even own a bicycle. They were going to turn me down, so I didn’t even want to apply. Whether that was a mistake, I don’t know. But deep down inside, I knew it was going to be hard to get a visa. I lived 30 minutes away from the embassy, and I went by often and saw thousands of people camping outside and spending all this money to get a visa, and they turn you down and you have to reapply. It’s $200 to apply and it’s not secure. Most people where I come from have to work at least three months to get that extra $200 to apply.

To get to the United States, I had to walk across the desert. I think I walked for 14 hours straight through the roughest part of Mexico. Going to the border was nothing—a piece of cake. But walking was hard because of all the stuff we went through coming through Mexico. When I crossed the Arizona desert I went to Phoenix, then to L.A., then to [my cousin's]. That’s my journey. It’s been a little rough—freedom isn’t free. You’ve got to pay your way.

My cousin helped me and gave me a place to stay. I was with him for a month and a half, and then I moved on. From there, I went to work doing landscaping. I made $300 a week and I did that for about a year. It was hard labor, low pay. Then I got to know more people and started learning the language. I started working in restaurants. That wasn’t well paid, and I wanted to learn something and contribute to society. I like building, so I became a construction worker. 

It was hard to get a job around 2009 and 2010, but I met someone that got me a job in [Long Island] and then when that job was over, I researched and I found another job in New Jersey. From there, I met my wife and then we decided to live together in New York."

Staying undetected as an undocumented immigrant in NYC

"As far as the law in NYC, so far I don't have any complaints about being bothered by authorities. I do know some people [who] drive with no license. They’re breaking the law a little bit, not because they want to, but because they need to get to work. There are no buses running, and they have to drop off their children at school. Breaking the law is breaking the law, and that’s a decision they make. They get pulled over, but so far they just pay the fine and they don’t get bothered.  

I try to stay under the radar. I don’t cause problems, and I've never been arrested. I got pulled over one time years ago, and I got penalized and paid the ticket, but there's been nothing major that caused me to get questioned by immigration. It wasn’t the situation we’re in now. At that time, I wasn’t even thinking I might get deported from a little infraction.

Right now, though, it could happen. I do have a driver’s license that says who I am that has been approved by the DMV. That’s how I drive. If police question me, and ask what I'm doing in the city, all I tell them is I’m working. They do a background check and see I’m not wanted by the law, and they let me go. Of course I get nervous, because nowadays you don’t know how law enforcement is going to react. I let them know right away that I’m going to comply with anything they say."

How life has changed since the election

"Before the election, a lot of people were confident that the president now wasn’t going to be elected. When that happened, it was a What the heck? moment. I went into work that day and it seemed like everybody was looking at each other like, "What’s going to happen now?" [These days] I walk into a deli and sense that people are drilling me with their eyes. It's really uncomfortable. I don’t know what people are thinking.

Hispanic people are targeted as immigrants, but everyone immigrates here for the same reason: to find a better way of life. I’m looking for a safe place to raise a family. But I don’t want to have kids who might be raised without a father. I’m not going to have my wife raising a kid by herself and I’m in another country. It’s not an option for us.

Now I’ve been approved by Homeland Security for the waiver, so we just have to wait. If I go back to my country, they can say I can’t come back. There’s that faith you always have to have that everything’s going to work out for the best. I don’t know what’s really going to happen, but I’m going to take my chances."

What Americans should understand about undocumented immigrants

"There are a lot of hard-working people. You give an immigrant a shovel, they make a company digging holes. You give two immigrants a job for two days and they’ll probably get it done in a day. My boss does construction, and all you see is Hispanic people working by his side. There’s a certain drive for working and producing that immigrants have. I’ve seen people from Africa speaking three different languages because they need to communicate at work. I had to learn English, and it was indispensible for me. Immigrants are driven to do better because they’ve been provided with less in life. A lot of people who have been given everything don’t appreciate it.

There is good and bad. Some drink, get into fights, and they don’t know to behave. Certain people don’t know any better. But there are many others who just want to get ahead in life, and we haven’t been provided with as much education, or we come from poor families with not that many options. I want to make a difference and do better than my parents did. It was hard for me to get ahead, but being in this country teaches you to be independent. I pay taxes and I don’t get anything back. But like I said, freedom is never free."


Alanna Schubach

Contributing writer

Contributing editor Alanna Schubach has over a decade of experience as a New York City-based freelance journalist.

Brick Underground articles occasionally include the expertise of, or information about, advertising partners when relevant to the story. We will never promote an advertiser's product without making the relationship clear to our readers.