Undocumented immigrants in the Trump era: Fears, resistance, strategies....and more
I traveled to two micro-universes,
Portland, Maine, and Manassas, Virginia,
to meet up with old and some new friends,
all of whom are undocumented immigrants.
I shared their work and learned their strategies,
and was happy to see all they had learned,
and how far they had all progressed.
I also learned about their many new fears
incited by Donald Trump’s rampant aggressions.
José Luis Rocha
Avianca announces its first call to board flight 582 to Dulles Airport in Washington. A legion of elderly Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan women in wheelchairs line up at gate 14 of San Salvador’s Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez airport. They will be the first to board, aided by diligent young women pushing their wheelchairs. They are visiting younger relatives, particularly children, grandchildren and perhaps even great-grandchildren sprinkled through different cities of the United States.
Monsignor Romero, those leaving and those gone
I don’t know what puzzles me more, the connection that exists between this large cohort of elderly women and the two or three generations of their relatives living in the industrial and digital North or the fact that the airport they are leaving from was rechristened with the name of a bishop murdered three decades ago by the founder of the party that governed El Salvador for twenty years, from 1989 to 2009.
Seen from the right perspective, the two are connected. The war that started in 1980, the year Romero was murdered, made the US a favorite refuge for Salvadorans. That first generation of migrant pioneers laid the foundation so that in postwar times—filled with economic turnovers such as the switch from the peseta to the “cora” (US quarter) and political ones like the utopian christening of the airport with Romero’s name—other generations could follow the path made by these first refugees.
From “over there” those immigrants influence politics “here,” as Mario Lungo noted in an editorial in the Salvadoran Central American University’s ECA magazine. Perhaps the airport was renamed Romero after El Salvador’s politics began to depolarize “over there” as both those who had fled the army’s repression and those who escaped the guerrillas’ hostility discovered their common interest—to get documents—and together took the first steps to be admitted as refugees thanks to lobbying from different churches.
Those who took the long, wet route
In 2017 the US Census Bureau recorded 58.6 million Latinos in the US. They’re now the second largest racial group in the country. They contributed 1.1 million people to the 2.2 million population growth of 2016-2017. This influx of immigrants is one of the major factors in the growth of the Latino population, though it is less than during the previous decade: from 40% in 2006 down to 34% in 2015.
According to the Pew Research Center, a million immigrants receive permanent resident status, the coveted “green card,” every year. The great majority get it for being related to citizens or because their spouses, parents or children had already received their residency and could “request” them ahead of time. That was the case for 65% of the 1,051,031 immigrants who got their card the color of hope in 2015.
But most aren’t really “requested” prior to arrival. Between 2004 and 2015, 7.4 million of the immigrants who got residency (57%) were already living in the US, exceeding the 5.5 million who arrived only after processing their status. These ex-undocumented immigrants gradually found the way to legally insert themselves into a society that had already accepted them in factories, malls, churches, even universities, and many other spheres where day after day an acknowledgement of membership is put in play. They are the ones who went the long, wet route.
Those who arrived dry
The above figures relate to immigrants in general, but in the case of Central Americans, most now arrive dry and enter legally thanks to a close relative who preceded them. In 2015, 84% of Salvadorans, 67% of Guatemalans, 76% of Hondurans and 90% of Nicaraguans got their residency through family or matrimonial ties with legal residents and citizens who themselves had gone the long, wet route.
In 2015, 47,711 Central Americans received permanent residency. In 2014 and 2013, the number was only slightly lower: 44,403 and 44,724, respectively. The Salvadorans lead with about 19,000 new residents each year. Much farther behind are Guatemalans with about 10,000, Hondurans with close to 9,000 and Nicaraguans with around 3,000.
In the ten-year postwar period between 2006 and 2015, 203,226 Salvadorans, 134,545 Guatemalans, 74,560 Hondurans and 34,882 Nicaraguans obtained permanent residency and citizenship was respectively granted to 177,101, 89,318, 50,534 and 70,645 people of those nationalities. In 2014 the Department of Homeland Security recorded that of a total of 320,000 Salvadoran and 180,000 Guatemalan permanent residents, 250,000 and 120,000, respectively, are eligible for US citizenship.
Most of these rookie citizens and residents on the eve of naturalization are dried-off wetbacks, and most of the remainder are dry immigrants who were requested by a former wetback. Now they all can invite mothers, grandmothers and other relatives to visit and enjoy a small piece of the American dream for one to three months, financing their trips and helping them get a visa.
“Everyone was sad because of Trump”
On a visit to Portland, Maine, I met Ismael Portillo, a Salvadoran whose trajectory as an immigrant bridges the war in El Salvador and the Trump era. His is a vital cycle closely interwoven within migration politics and shaken up by US imperial geo-politics.
Ismael arrived in 1989 fleeing the FMLN’s strenuous efforts to recruit him just before the second final offensive. He obtained residency in 2008, after Obama was elected. In early 2017, shortly after Trump took office, he went to one of the campuses of the University of Southern Maine to be sworn in along with 50 other immigrants obtaining their naturalization.
“They talked about history, about the country, the current government,” he told me, “What a surprise when a man, I think he was the director of the university, started to speak. He was almost crying. What I saw was very moving. Everyone was angry about the election results. They didn’t put up any picture of President Trump. The director said ‘I’m ashamed of what is happening with our President. What he says is not right.’ Instead of being happy, everyone was kind of sad. The director explained that his parents were Canadian and they had told him a little story about how someone received them and gave them food, some apples, when they came to the US. And he said, ‘How can we give something to those coming in now? We should follow their example, but what this man is doing and wants us to do is reject what we’ve done since the beginning.’ Everyone was very sad and he was crying.”
This repudiation of the new US President confirms Ismael’s own day-to-day experiences: a mixture of welcoming and rejecting attitudes towards new arrivals in a country of immigrants and a deporting nation. It’s a repudiation that reflects the thoughts of the 68% of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center who answered that being open to foreigners is essential for the US as a nation, and the 64% who answered that racial and ethnic diversity makes the US a better place to live.
However we cannot forget that for the other third, those features either make no difference or turn the US into a worse place, and for 29% that openness makes them feel they risk losing their identity as a country.
“Wrack your brains so Mr. Trump doesn’t kick us out”
After the Sunday Mass in Spanish, Ismael and one of his brothers who also lives in Portland, gave a talk to some of the men about the dangers they’re in, particularly now, because they know cases of recent arrests—so far a couple of Hondurans—that have sown panic among Central Americans. It would be a “man-to-man” talk, Sister Patricia told me, a few minutes before it started.
The choice of an exclusively male audience was to stimulate trust. In addition, the infractions they would talk about are more typical of men: driving without a license or an mechanical inspection sticker and/or drunk, having cars with license plates that don’t match the vehicle’s documents, seating children under ten years of age in the front passenger seat, riding without seat belts, sexual harassment (touching, catcalling), domestic violence, disciplining children with physical punishment, fraudulent tax returns (declaring more dependents to increase the amount to be refunded), fake social security, identity theft, getting angry with the police.
“What I’m talking about is to protect us,” added Ismael, after the list of infractions, “so we aren’t caught so easily. We’re not in a sanctuary. If the police catch you for one of these offenses, you go straight to ICE [the Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. Get this advice into your heads. Being careful doesn’t leave any room for Mr. Trump to kick us out. Sometimes we come to this country and we think everything is easy. But it’s not so. I know what I’m talking about. Some years ago I committed a serious infraction and it cost me big bucks; a US$7,000 fine I paid with my $10-an-hour salary made packing lobster from 4 in the morning. That hurts.”
“I can barely write”
Ismael didn’t have the chance to finish second grade. He advanced a little with his reading and writing skills thanks to bible study, but not much. That’s why his exam to become a citizen was all uphill. “I’m going to tell you something, with my heart in my hand,” he confessed to the official supervising the exam, “I can hardly write.” The bureaucrat, who was fortunately not just another cog in the wheels of an unfeeling system, reassured him: “Don’t worry. We’re going to do everything we can to help you. I wish I could help you in the whole exam, but I can’t.” He dictated very slowly, letter by letter. At the end, with visible satisfaction he said: “Congratulations. You are now a citizen.”
Despite his still rudimentary writing but with efficient oral speech, Ismael gave his talk in the basement of the church, like the first Christians in the catacombs. It was a migrant-to-migrant talk, one that evoked the proverbial “peasant-to-peasant” method invented—perhaps rediscovered—in Mexico and put into practice by some grassroots development organizations in Central America.
The personal and the political merge in Ismael’s life
Ismael knows the US wants certain types of citizens and that’s why he trains other Central American immigrants who are less knowledgeable about the laws and customs of a country that maintains a permanent Ellis Island, a country of eternal probation. “You may think that if you get in a little trouble, it might get resolved in a couple of years. But it never gets erased. It’s for life. That’s why I had to wait so long to get my residency.”
The talk in the catacombs is a theater of fear and resistance. It’s the type of fear that triggers the need for a talk, a resistance that plots strategies. “War wants ideas,” is a Salvadoran saying that Roque Dalton reproduced in “The forbidden stories of Tom Thumb.” That fear feeds on daily happenings. “Before, when we went fishing, the Americans would come up to us all friendly and talk to us. Now they smoke pot near us so we’ll leave. If we don’t, they go call the police. Racists gather gumption when they hear Trump.”
Ismael’s life continues to be hyper-politicized, interwoven within local politics and imperial politics. He left El Salvador to flee the war and now he has to measure his steps to avoid falling into the claws of a “migra,” an agent of ICE, whose nails Trump wants to sharpen. Personal and political life are an amalgam in Ismael. At the end of the interview I asked him if he wanted to be identified by his name or a pseudonym in this writing. He nearly said: “Call me Ishmael,” like the protagonist of Moby Dick.
“Look, Susi, you’re grown up and being poor is no excuse”
Ismael arrived 28 years ago, but Susi has been in the US for only six months. She was born and raised in Quiché, but, seeking her daily tortilla, her strides took her to Xela, in Guatemala, and then to the US.
She came straight to Portland after a first frustrated attempt in which she, her husband and two children, six and seven years old, nearly died of asphyxiation. They escaped the Grim Reaper in a situation much like the one told by Jorge Ramos in Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History, in which 17 of 73 immigrants inside the closed container of a truck traveling from Harlingen to Houston in May 2003 died when the container’s climate control system broke down, its occupants ran out of oxygen and, unable to communicate with the cabin, languished as the heat reached unbearable limits.
An interview with the migrants in the truck Susi was traveling in could reveal some of the unknowns Ramos presents in his book. None of them died, but they had to turn themselves in to the migra only a few miles from the border.
Susi didn’t give up. Her father’s words injected her with courage: “Look my daughter, you’re grown up and have two children. You need to think about what you’re going to do. You can’t keep renting a home all your life. Anyone can come tomorrow and take your house and you would be well educated but without your own shelter. Being poor is no excuse. It’s like not bathing because you don’t have soap. I gave you your education so you could get ahead. The rest depends on you.”
The fear of Trump skyrocketed last November
For her second attempt, Susi changed “coyotes” and traveled alone, probably a different route, venturing as the family’s pioneer. Her trip took 16 days, most of the time in vehicles, but also walking five hours through mountains. Her husband and children, following her footsteps, arrived 22 days later.
Since she had no children to present when she turned herself in to the migra, Susi had to improvise a role as the mother of a 16-year-old the coyote had assigned her when they started the journey. “He’s going to be your son,” he blurted at her. Susi whispered some kind words to her “son,” trying to inspire confidence she herself didn’t even have then.
However, trust is in goods that multiply when shared. She became calm, although slightly annoyed by the couple of feet in height her putative offspring had over her, but the next morning her concern shot up to the stratosphere when daylight showed her the color of the kid’s light skin, which contrasted with her soft brown. Now what do I do with this whitie?, she asked herself and immediately came up with an answer. “I’ll say his father’s a gringo.”
Like Susi, many other Central Americans migrated during those days. It was November, a month that due to low temperatures tends to be off-season for crossing the border. Judging by the arrest statistics at the southern border of the US, one of the reactions to the fear of Trump from outside the US was to push forward the trip for those who had been thinking about it for months or years. It’s now or never.
Will Trump be the watershed, the before and after of the migratory volumes? That’s yet to be seen. The migra is continuing forward with its job. Trump is just a simple, vociferous tip of the ICEberg.
“We come to work and save as much as we can”
In Guatemala, Susi’s job was frying potatoes in one of the hundreds of Pollo Campero fast food restaurants. In Portland her work itinerary has varied. “Here I started with packing lobsters. It’s hard and poorly paid work. They pay $10 an hour, working in ice with huge gloves that don’t really protect from the cold, and the workday starts at dawn. Now I put goods in order and clean in a mall.”
Her boss paid her the minimum possible and hired Africans and Asians, who from the start got paid $3 or $4 more than Susi’s hourly wage. “Either we’re all children or we’re all stepchildren”, thought Susi before resigning. She went trembling and accompanied by a Guatemalan nun who translated the tough conversation.
The boss had the poor judgment to forecast that “it won’t take long until you come back begging me for work.” Sure enough, the begging didn’t take long to materialize, but it was he who called Susi and made her a better job offer with better pay, sprinkled with praise. She was his best worker. “That’s what we come here for,” she says to me as she giggles; “we come to work and save as much as we can.”
Saving means getting organized to reduce costs. Susi doesn’t have the luxury of a babysitter because they charge as much as she earns, or more. That’s why someone from the family is always at home to look after the children: she, her husband, her brother or her sister-in-law. The two couples live together with their total of three children in a family commune where everything is shared: food and chores, fun and sorrow.
Susi’s situation reminds me of a more extreme situation of three Honduran siblings—two men and a woman—who lived in Fairfax, Virginia, in one bedroom room of a small three-bedroom apartment. They split the total rent ($750) by the number of bedrooms and the quotient of $250 is divided by the number of people in the room. Living room, kitchen and bathroom are common spaces.
The fear doesn’t go away for Susi: at any moment, deportation
The children flutter around us as we talk, showing us their toys. They will be Dreamers in the near future, if better winds blow by then and the benefit package that Obama granted in 2012 for those who went to the US as children and want to go to college is resuscitated. Trump has thrown this package overboard like a useless bundle.
Susi’s children are on the right path: they’re in school and making progress with their English, which is the key to entering another society, the possibility to understand it. Changing from a dirt or cement floor to a rug, and from rickety pick-ups to shiny buses probably aren’t as drastic as acquiring a second language.
But while those changes are visible, a language—with its heavy cultural baggage—seeps in silently. The globalized world has erased other differences. Toys are the same and so are work and school hours, and diet is increasingly similar. But with more globalization, is there less adaptation trauma? That’s also yet to be seen.
The Latino market is just starting to open a path in Portland, but there already are some delights. While telling me about her fears, Susi hands us a cup of “incaparina” pudding, named after its birthplace, the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP), where in 1959 a Guatemalan biochemist, Ricardo Bressani, invented this combination of soy and corn flour, strengthened with minerals and vitamins to improve the nutrition of the most impoverished.
The taste of the pudding doesn’t erase the fear from Susi’s face and words. She knows she can be deported at any moment. She has to report regularly to an office and at some point will have to face trial in a migration court. She would have no other option but to tell the truth.
In the interim, her movements are limited: from church to home, from home to work and not much more. In these times, she is reducing her movements very few to almost none. Her freedom is increasingly restricted by the fear Donald Trump’s words are sowing every day and everywhere.
“There’s a lot of violence back there, but here there’s no freedom”
“Freedom or tranquility, but not both,” Ledis and Manuel explain to me. They’re a Salvadoran couple with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and three US-born children. By pure chance my visit coincided with the 18th birthday of the oldest, who’s studying computer engineering at the university. There were tacos and cake, songs and laughter.
Since life is so fast-paced in the North, Manuel had to leave in the middle of the party to go to work. He cleans buildings. He starts at 4 in the afternoon and ends at 2 in the morning, or later. Before he left he took some time to tell me about his fear: “Back in El Salvador there’s a lot of violence. There’s no tranquility. You can get mugged or shot. But here there’s no freedo; they can deport you at any time.”
They came to that conclusion in 2004 when, after eight years in the US, they traveled to their hometown in La Union, a trip planned to be a definite return. With their savings, Manuel bought a micro-bus and became a successful driver. The homeland flavors were enrapturing. Every weekend they would go out. They visited family. They probably celebrated birthdays with a lot of people. They had freedom. However, the extortions by organized crime were quickly draining their income. They returned to the States with a coyote (a person who smuggles Latin Americans across the US border, typically for a high fee) who put them in the hands of an ICE agent who charged them $1,600—$800 per head, to take them from the border at Harlingen 10 miles to Los Indios, 23.5 to Brownsville or 33 to McAllen, the cities closest to their probable entrance point.
And if they suspend the Temporary Protected Status?
ICE is the most expensive coyote, between $24 and $80 per mile. Back in gringo territory with their TPS document, which didn’t allow for their little escape to their country, they were documented and authorized to work. They caught a plane to New York at the Valley International Airport, returning to tranquility but without freedom.
The same relationship between freedom and tranquility is also perceived within the United States. When comparing the cities where they’ve lived they conclude that Los Angeles—considered the capital of the Third World—was the freest one and Portland, Maine, as the most tranquil one.
In contrast, since we are talking about goods distributed in inverse proportions, it is said that Los Angeles is the least safe city and Portland is the one that most restricts their movement and reduces their lives to house-work-church. Others with TPS are worse off than they. Some obtained it five or more years ago but never renewed. Now they’re faced with requirements they can’t fulfill. Just in case, Ledia and Manuel are now making plans for the possible suspension of TPS: what savings do they take with them and what do they about their son in the university, who due to his legal status could stay, but due to his economic dependence couldn’t.
Miriam and Elsi hanging by a thread
Miriam and Elsi came to the US from Chalatenango three years ago, when they were 8 and 15 years old. They traveled hand in hand in a relay chain of coyotes that placed them in the hands of ICE at the border. They entered in 2014, the peak year of the so-called humanitarian crisis that brought 51,705 Central American minors to the US that year alone. Of them, 16,404 were Salvadorans, counting only those who turned themselves in or were caught by ICE.
Elsi is about to finish high school and plans on studying nursing. Her status as an applicant for asylum allows her to go to the university. However, her parents are undocumented immigrants. Her father works in a restaurant that serves Korean and Japanese food and her mother looks after her baby and is in charge of the household chores. This combination means very limited income and high insecurity. Minimum freedom, Manuel and Ledis would say.
Miriam and Elsi’s status hangs from a thread that could get cut by an immigration court following Trump’s new and very strict guidelines. That’s why, as in Susi’s case, their apartment doesn’t have a TV, or “large” investments. They buy only the essentials. Also, as in Susi’s case, their apartment seems a bit soulless, like the temporary camp that it is and always will be, until their situation is stable. Or until the end of Trump’s virtual curfew is proclaimed. This temporary nature invades everything. In Knox, two hours from there by car, the soccer teams don’t even have a name. They know they’re transient.
Neither Ismael’s citizenship, nor Ledis and Manuel’s TPS nor Miriam and Elis’ status as an applicant for asylum free them from fear. They are people with little freedom or are very captive, like Susi, a recent arrival who has no other credential but her spirits and her monumental desire to work.
Reynaldo and his flourishing gardening business
In another scenario of fear and resistance, this time in Manassas, Virginia, I meet up with more old friends. One was Lito Melgar, a Salvadoran I met when he was three years old and lived in a community of people displaced by the war, whom I wrote about in the November 2014 Envío. And another was Reynaldo Campos, a Honduran I met in February 2014 when he was my host for several weeks in a house where he lived with a Guatemalan immigrant.
In the three years we haven’t seen each other, their lives have experienced major changes. Both were undocumented immigrants and belonged to a youth group that promoted retreats sponsored by a Catholic religious congregation. They’d been living in the US for 10 years already, but their English was basically non-existent and their clientele a bit unstable. Reynaldo worked tending lawns, a “gramero,” as they’re called in Spanish, and Lito painted bath tubs.
Now Reynaldo works with his brother Julio, who came from Maryland to learn about gardening after a decade in restaurants. Together they’ve strengthened a company Reynaldo founded over five years ago and have expanded their network of clients to a point where they can’t even take a breather during the summer, they’re so busy with their regular clients and sporadic ones. Reynaldo speaks English, rents storage which he keeps full of tools and knows all the ins and outs of the local bureaucracy, from where to dump the dead leaves from the gardens to how to get a contract with the city government to pick up branches that fall during a storm.
The importance and social prestige of gardening
Reynaldo is now married and has two children. Too many changes in three years. He hasn’t been faithful to his motto of doing things slowly: “the way an iguana chews,” a saying that has crossed the Atlantic and via immigrants is spreading through Spain.
Reynaldo has dynamite-proof optimism which the thousands of dollars he’s had to pay in fines have been unable to defeat. He walks by the police and comments: “Have you earned your beans? It’s harder for us to earn them.” Thanks to the quality of his work, he has no problem getting clients, but does getting employees: “The young ones don’t want to work in this. I’ve brought some and after an hour they’re asking for food and then want to leave at noon, and they leave because they can’t take it. Before people were tough and now they wimp out.”
I go out to work with him and Julio, determined not to be like those wimpy youth. Even though they give me easier tasks, it’s hard for me to keep up with their pace. It consoles me to know that I’m more like a wimpy old man from too much desk work. When exhaustion hits, Reynaldo encourages us: “We deal with plains and slopes.” We’re all terrain: valleys and hills.
It doesn’t take long for the prize to arrive. Neighbors walk by praising our work. And better yet: two potential clients set up a deal. One promises big contracts. He buys houses, fixes them up and sells them. His only condition is compliance with the agreed-upon dates.
The quality of work of Reynaldo and his team stands out. Sprucing up a front yard is like working in a showcase window. It’s a theater of social acceptance. The passers-by only see our Latino phenotype. They can’t see our political-legal genotype (i.e. our migratory status), but they can suspect.
The lawyer who contracts us, a man in his 50s with a distinguished air and soft manners, is clear. Perhaps that’s why in the end he paid us more than agreed to, and on top of that tipped us $20 each. Our work was dual purpose: landscaping and a being a presence that raises questions and incites dissent. We gained visibility: a group of three Central Americans spent eight hours before the inhabitants of an upper-middle class neighborhood.
Lito Melgar is fluent in English and is a businessman
In February 2014, Lito Melgar was paying lawyers a fortune. After presenting false documents when a police officer stopped him for something trivial, he had to submit his residency request for a waiver of inadmissibility, a purgatory of paperwork and a return to El Salvador followed by prolonged anxiety in the swamps of uncertainty.
This gringo hotplate has been left behind. Lito obtained his waiver and his residency, started his own business and now has nine employees (plus two partners). He paid for his younger sister’s trip from El Salvador to the US and experienced the birth of his third child. After several classes which he had to interrupt due to a clash in schedules, Lito has mastered English. I listen to him and I’m amazed.
Lito has turned into a Jack-of-all-trades who with the same skill and speed can paint a bathtub, change a wall or put in a new baseboard. He has dozens of tools of all kinds, everything he needs for his work in his van, which acts as storage and mobile office.
“They do everything with machines here,” he explains to me as we enter a condominium where he has assured contracts. His business isn’t yet two years old but he already has a good number of regular clients, abundant sporadic ones and many concrete contracts.
Reynaldo and Lito feel proud
During the Trump era, immigrants in north Virginia are breathing the same air of tranquility I experienced in 2014 when the country was led by Obama, called the “Deporter in Chief” by activists who repudiated the Department of Homeland Security’s work and record deportations.
Virginia is not a sanctuary state. And Manassas isn’t a sanctuary city. But, the signs of acceptance society emits towards immigrants every day are clear and different. Reynaldo is proud: “When I enter the condominiums, the rich kids greet me. They make a thumbs-up sign of approval with their hand. They love my 1990s truck because they like old things.”
Lito has dozens of maintenance managers eating out of his hand. Both his family and Reynaldo’s are growing and breathing freedom. When I returned from Portland, Lito stopped by to see me, accompanied by his family. They were coming back from visiting the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, a place of entertainment for gringos and tourists that is slowly becoming Latinized.
What does being a micro-minority in the land of white people feel like?
Why these different perceptions of freedom in Portland and in Manassas? Those I interviewed in Portland feel there’s no Latino environment. They aren’t supported. The statistics eloquently corroborate this perception. Portland is a city where 85% of its inhabitants considered themselves pure white in 2015. Of the 66,490 inhabitants it had then, only 2,065 (3%) were Latinos and of the 460 (0.7%) Central Americans, 273 were Salvadoran and 131 Guatemalan.
In contrast, 33% of the 40,743 inhabitants in the city of Manassas in 2015 were Latinos and 18% were Central American, with 4,923 Salvadorans and 1,145 Hondurans standing out. It may be that precisely due to fear the number of undocumented Latinos is underestimated in Portland. However, it is in Manassas as well, as many of those who live there claim Maryland as their official residence because that state grants drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, a right Virginia denies them.
In either case, there’s no doubt that the Latinos in Portland are in the land of white people. The first thing that caught my attention when I arrived there, after spending some time in Manassas, was that there were no Latino waitresses, mechanics, gardeners or cleaning women. Among a smaller population of the persecuted, the theater of the persecuting power has a greater impact. In a larger population, relationships are more impersonal and the effect of an expulsion is diluted.
A Trump who pumps up racism triggers their fear. Between January and August 2017, the percentage of those who think racism is a big problem in the US more than doubled, from 26% to 58%. It’s a general trend, but as racism isn’t distributed equitably throughout the country’s geography, the same happens with fear.
I’m not saying there’s more racism in Portland, but that the predominantly white composition of its population keeps Latinos alert to the smoke signals from the pot smokers and to the generalized perception that racism is a big problem experienced more intensely by a group that knows it’s a micro-minority in the land of white people.
“Dreamers”: It depends on where
We get another measure of the dimensions of fear by comparing the Dreamers’ situation in Portland and San Francisco. Dreamers are undocumented youth who arrived in the country before the age of 16 and are in or have finished high school. In August 2012 President Obama benefited them with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allows them to study and work. It is estimated that nearly 790,000 young immigrants joined this program just so far in 2017 either through initial applications or renewals.
Their situation in San Francisco (a sanctuary city and 15% Latino) is different from the one in Portland, which is a “welcoming” city, an informal status that much more timidly declares solidarity with immigrants. The Dreamers are a real movement in San Francisco. Many know each other, a lot of them meet regularly and some have even participated in explicit acts of civil disobedience, like blocking main intersections of the streets of downtown San Francisco. In Maine, these Dreamers are more like a group of anonymous applicants in a bureaucratic process that places them in a slightly less uncomfortable position, but doesn’t serve them as an organizing platform. In one city they’re a movement. In the other they’re nomads who benefit from a program; nothing more.
Salvadoran Dreamer Fernando Martínez is the only one in the state of Maine who has dared to go public. He gave two interviews to the written press with the minor result that one other dreamer, a classmate at the University of Southern Maine, came up to him to talk about the migratory condition they have in common. That university has only had 100 DACA beneficiaries, which is very few. It is a sad fact that only these two know each other. “Coming up for air” in the public scenario was a theatrical blow for Fernado that perhaps has not yet harvested all its fruits. This small effect is another thermometer measuring the fear undocumented Latinos have in Portland.
Fear and strength in the catacombs
Undocumented immigrants don’t sit around idly in the face of fear. Just as the decibels of fear are different, so are the responses. In Portland there are fewer resources at hand. Religious services are among the more powerful ones.
Years back, Jesuit Paco Azurza told me something that seemed to me at the moment nothing more than an amusing notion: “I like Masses because I like theater a lot and Mass is theater.” And in the context that many of the parishioners are undocumented immigrants, it is a theater for feeling supported and for recreating the communities they lost or maybe never had. The meeting in the catacombs, looking beyond its practical purpose, was an expression of fear and also a theater of strength.
In Portland, a city where Latinos comprise no more than 3%, even if they may weigh more within the Catholic community, having a Sunday Mass in Spanish is a message that says Latinos matter. In a dark dairy in Knox, in the middle of nowhere, a Mass is much more than that.
I went there with a US-Chilean nun and John Fagan, a friend of mine for many more reasons than just because he writes memorable homilies. Before starting his sermon he walked among the people handing out mustard seeds and welcoming the cows that wandered up, curious, as if wanting to join the congregation.
A Mass is an evocative scenario
The Mass was held on a corridor, an attachment to the structure of the local common house in rural Central America that looks like an unusual annex. No other house has it, which is why it accomplishes its mission as a public community space. There was a Mass and a table there, which made it an evocative scenario.
The theater of Mass not only convokes but also evokes. Children noisily squirmed in their seats, reveling in sunshine, like in their homeland. Little girls were dressed like princesses with diadem included, observed John, like they used to do in their villages when they would dress up in their best clothes for parties and mourning. They used their cloths to laugh and to cry. The only man at this Mass stood at the back of the improvised temple, the way he would have done or perhaps used to do “back there,” which is a constant reference.
Two women prepared and handed out exquisite typical meals based on our everyday tortilla. All the elements and actions of this scenario seemed to be aimed at producing normality and freedom, at reproducing the spaces and flavors of the parishioners’ homelands.
Because “God needs no passport”
The temple, the church, is in a physical and organizational sense the institutional space for exercising the global citizenship Peggy Levitt talks about in her book God needs no passport. Nobody there is concerned about political genotype. That’s why Manuel and Ledis say that in the church they have recovered to some degree the freedom that was taken from them when they moved to Portland. That’s why Lito recovers his freedom of speech in a weekly radio program where he speaks of God and daily life. The church and other religious activities make them feel free and part of a greater whole.
However, the church isn’t a perfect melting pot. Progressive whites in their Sunday Masses have taken in Africans, but the Latinos hold a separate Mass in Spanish. Maybe that’s the price for doing things like “back there,” in a language only a minority in Portland speak.
A Mass evokes, but convokes in a segregated manner. Maybe there’s a need to go through this first phase in the church for multiple reasons and leave the function of mixing the races to other environments, like the Flores Restaurant, a pupusa place owned by a couple from Chalatenango,. There Latinos get together with whites seeking ethnic cuisine and with Africans who claim Salvadoran dishes are very similar to those from their countries.
What’s more troubling is the polysemy of that global citizenship. Is it a piece of “now but not quite yet”? Or a misunderstanding of “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” behind which the different presumptions of apoliticalness inside the Christian churches have hidden for centuries? Is this global citizenship obtained by omission or by action? Is it an active achievement or a passive one that merely lets other forces act?
“Many Latinos voted for Trump”
There’s strength and danger in the fact that many religious leaders ignore the political-legal genotype, because there’s active and passive “ignoring.” Some simply pretend out of inertia not to know about the undocumented status, dismissing that legal condition that permeates so many aspects of their parishioners’ lives. But it’s one thing to ignore it and another to reject the stigma or turn it into an emblem. One attitude comes from dismissal and the other from dealing with it; one is the sin of omission and the other virtue in action.
Though several of the practical effects of the two attitudes are similar, there’s a political abyss between ignoring legal status and actively treating undocumented immigrants as citizens. And if the time comes to face Trump with greater belligerence, the difference between them will be felt.
In fact it’s already being felt. Many conservative religious leaders work with undocumented immigrants. In many aspects we could say they are “saintly men” who show no discrimination towards their faithful based on of their immigration status. And that’s how it is for better and for worse. They love them so much they’re injecting them with the same value system shared by Trump. My first glimpse of this discovery was given to me by a Guatemalan while we were waiting for Lito’s car to be repaired. “Here many Latinos voted for Trump. They like what he says. Or if they didn’t like it, they disliked what Clinton was saying even more. That stuff about abortion, about gays... Latinos don’t like all that.”
Weeks later, working in yards with Reynaldo, I learned about his sympathies for Trump and his hopes that he would decree an amnesty. Such expectations don’t lack foundation: the last migratory amnesty took place during the administration of Ronald Reagan, a rightwing conservative and no friend of Latino immigrants. However, as days and yards went by, in conversations over tools or dinners at his house, I realized Reynaldo shared key points of Trump’s ideology in the religious terrain (aversion to Muslims) and the political-religious one (rejection of homosexuals).
Many Latinos move closer to more conservative sectors and pull away from the “cultural Left” embodied in Clinton and other Democrats depending on the ideological package absorbed from religious leaders who seem indifferent to their being undocumented. In the theater of the church, several plays are presented at the same time and one must be attentive to all.
Work in the theater of integration
Immigrants also react to the policies of fear in the working world. Usually only the most measurable and thus flatter aspects of that world are revealed: salaries, job stability, unemployment index, informality and self-employment, among other small portholes open to a vast and appreciable universe from an infinity of angles.
Work is a scenario of personal fulfillment because it implies the externalization of one’s own self, a space for projecting plans and social recognition. In a context where integration into a new society comes into play, social recognition is vital. Legal migratory status is its official formation, but that integration finds spaces of fulfillment that are informal, unofficial. The working world is a big scenario in the theater of integration.
“Whoever buys a van is moving upward,” Kelvin Orellana, a Honduran from Danlí, told me this past February. A van, always white, with a ladder on top and an immense closed area behind the front seats is the vehicle most used by self-employed immigrants who make house calls. Plumbers, painters, roofers and many others have them and carry their tools and materials used for doing repairs and maintenance in them.
Successful businessmen in offices on wheels
The van is a mobile office. In his metal refuge, Lito carries his tools along with folders brimming with pro-forma invoices. The files are in his head, with all his contracts bustling around in his brain like molecules that crash with each other seeking an order that never happens because each new contract and new employee increases the chaos.
He does his bureaucratic chores at the wheel, while driving unblinking along highways that seem to go on forever. He displays the frenzy of a top-level stock market executive answering phone calls with half-minute intervals: a partner lets him know he’ll be leaving early today; a contractor cancels a repair; an employee asks for more tiles; another tells him he’s arrived to the apartment where he’ll be working but doesn’t know in which bathroom he’s supposed to paint the bathtub; another informs him his car broke down... and on it goes ad infinitum. Lito sets up an emergency appointment with the mechanic, delivers materials, takes the car to the shop and resolves a hundred doubts and as many misunderstandings.
The labor market here is very ethnically divided: taxi drivers are Sikhs, subway officials are African American, stores are Arab, supermarkets are Chinese or Korean—and now painters, roofers and gardners are largely Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan. Maintenance managers in buildings, condominiums, “closed communities” and other housing conglomerates tend to be Dominican or Puerto Rican. Getting beyond a one-time contract depends on maintaining a relationship with them. The amount paid within a range established by the company, depends on them. One needs to have good relationships with them. Lito is a master in that art.
Micro-businesses that mimic big businesses
Housing complexes or condominiums have between 15 and 25 buildings, each of which has 6 apartments. The rules applied to tenants tend to be strict. Pet owners must pay $50 a month per pet and aren’t allowed more than two. Exotic pets like gorillas and poisonous species aren’t allowed. Dog owners must have insurance that will cover damages of a minimum of $300,000.
A maintenance manager guarantees the apartments’ proper functioning by contracting experts. He’s the man that Central Americans who offer refinishing jobs must sweet talk. If the guy is nice, he’ll be considered an ally. If he’s stingy and rough, he’ll be baptized a tamagás (pit viper) or even more degrading nicknames. And many are that, because they’ll haggle, cheat and sell their souls to their employer to pay a few dollars less which tomorrow could become a recognition bonus or a job promotion.
The art of presenting yourself with the best credentials to these maintenance managers is based on mimicking the uses and customs, paperwork and cosmetics of big companies. Immigrants’ micro-businesses mimic those big ones. That’s what happens when capitalism eliminates a costly executive, lightening things up through a worker-manager.
Reynaldo is a worker-manager
While Reynaldo the worker spiffs up a yard, Reynaldo the sales manager sends a less-experienced employee to deliver Reynaldo’s business card to all the houses in the neighborhood. Some clients start their relationship by calling the number on a card some unknown person left on their door.
Before starting work, Reynaldo the manager gives all of us green t-shirts with his company’s logo, which is legal even if its owner isn’t. Three of us stay behind: two undocumented immigrants and me, a researcher, the least skilled worker in this terrain, in fact the only one with no skills; and because of that my job is to carry mulch and branches, in the hope that little by little I’ll be given more challenging tasks. The logo is also seen on all of the work vehicles, especially the old truck that fascinates the young kids.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos did work on this issue of the informal sector mimicking the formal sector. In Pasárgada, the name he gave the favela he studied over four decades ago, he describes the documents as structurally similar to the private documents on the right to asphalt.... In this way, Pasárgada’s right borrows the general outline of legal formality from the State’s right.
The undocumented Central American’s micro-businesses mirror the forms, resources and protocols of big businesses: logos, t-shirts, office stationery, vocabulary, negotiation rituals... even values. One of the results of this mimicry is that we’re seeing workers who would appear to have read the complete the complete works of Peter Drucker, the great guru on entrepreneurship. This motivates a first interpretation: this unique school of thought has achieved widespread dominion. Its hegemony is not tempered by social classes, religious creed, generational cohorts or gender.
The cult of entrepreneurship is an appropriate breeding ground for the celebration and reinforcement of the externalizing of costs and the uncontested evasion of employer’s obligations. The creed of entrepreneurship levels the road to the outsourcing capitalism needs to revitalize itself. Its extremely individualist concomitant ethos allots strictly personal responsibilities for economic achievements or failures based on the position occupied in the social pyramid.
“Papers are no use for those who doesn’t move”
The facts aren’t plain enough to allow for just one point of view. Without excluding this first approach, there’s room for a second interpretation. This entrepreneurship is also a breeding ground—through the labor market—for the settling and acceptance of millions of undocumented immigrants. We aren’t just talking about simple workers, but about unauthorized workers.
The working world of immigrants is permeated with the lack or possession of papers. But they aren’t indispensable. Undocumented immigrants can register a company, get credit and much more. One of Lito’s brothers saw clearly that having documents isn’t the pinnacle. “Getting residency,” he mused, “should be like graduating. One thinks jobs will be waiting for us but it’s not so.” I remember Kelvin Ordoñez saying to me three years ago: “Papers are no use for one who doesn’t move.”
However, the lack of documents is a threat and a limit that hovers in the environment. Lito’s employees continuously joke about the papers. The ideal woman they describe “has everything. She’s young, pretty and has papers.” When they encourage a co-worker, they say “Guillen should take advantage of his success with women to get himself a gringa and get his papers.” It’s why the practice of what Iranian sociologist Asef Bayat calls “the art of presence” is so important. They make themselves visible on the streets and in the neighborhoods. Their work shows what they want to do in the US.
But presence is no guarantee of visibility. I remember years back, when I visited a big NGO that worked on behalf of immigrants in Washington DC, one of the people who tended to me said: “We can’t put you in contact with undocumented immigrants. They’re hiding. They’re afraid. We don’t have any relationship with them.”
And it was true. The NGO was a “grasstops organization,” a term recently coined, I believe, in Washington to distinguish organizations that work with the base (grassroots organizations) from those that work with policy designers and lobby on Capitol Hill and similar spheres.
This comment could be a sign of the limits of the “art of presence.” Undocumented immigrants can do gardening out in the open and still remain as invisible as their legal genotype. The art of presence is a necessary condition, but it doesn’t produce enough visibility and legitimacy.
Are they vitalizing the capitalist system or building a new one?
Paradoxically, the greatest visibility and steps along the path to legitimacy are obtained in an environment of self-employment, what one Marxist analyst characterizes as a net concession to the capitalism that feeds off of outsourcing. From a perspective closer to the situation Marx and his contemporaries tried to unravel, the self-managed informal sector is fighting against one of the forms of subjugation that capitalism entails.
This is what Proudhon saw and denounced: What does it mean, for example, that our big capitalist associations are organized in a feudalist mercantile or industrial spirit? It’s about monopolizing manufacturing, changes and benefits; centralizing professions; agglomerating functions. In a word, excluding small industry, killing small business and that way transforming the most numerous and interest-worthy part of the middle class into proletariat, all to benefit the so-called organizers, founders, directors, administrators, advisors and shareholders of those gigantic speculations.
Micro-businesses place the means of production in the hands of the workers and eliminate, at least partially through their showcase work, the alienation from the product of their work that Marx refuted. To some degree, they are returning to a traditional society, when metalsmiths, cabinetmakers and many other artisans had their own workshops. In 21st-century capitalism, cleaning women, painters, builders, plumbers, mechanics, roofers, seamstresses, tailors and other self-employed groups own their own means of production and their businesses.
Maybe this situation injects vitality to the system because it unquestionably allows big businesses to free themselves with employers’ obligations. But it may also announce a slide towards another system. In either case, immigrants are forging their inclusion with the materials the US socioeconomic configuration has made available to them. And they do it with what André Gorz would call “poverty of the present, wealth of the possible.”
Returning to Proudhon’s idealism
The situation of many of these self-employed immigrants seems an echo of the self-management Proudhon saw as ideal to fight against monopolies and big capital: under the regime of mutualism, we all are clients of each other, subsidiaries of each other, servants of each other...
It’s not a matter of destroying acquired positions, Proudhon argued. It’s simply seeing whether eliminating parasitism, removing agio, subjecting deposits and markets to good policing, reducing the price of transportation, balancing values, providing higher education to the working class, making work definitely prevail over capital and granting each part and each skill the fair consideration they deserve will restore to work and property what capitalism unduly seizes from them.
Proudhon’s idealism, which Marx harshly criticized because it was suspiciously sliding towards playing along with the system, could be a good instrument for analyzing what’s happening with certain forms of self-management.
It’s not about celebrating self-ownerships per se, but understanding the consequences of undocumented immigrants practicing it in a society where work can’t be understood separate from legal status.
And legal status doesn’t say everything about the situation of undocumented immigrants if we ignore their ways of work insertion and the wealth of their possibilities and meanings. That insertion—along with their commercial, educational, ecclesiastical, linguistic insertion—are the theater of legitimization in the US.
Barack Obama: Whom to choose?
No US administration, not even the most anti-immigrant, has ever totally rejected all immigrants. Neither has it accepted the bulk of them without exercising any kind of discrimination. Ellis Island’s shadow is long. The State hasn’t renounced exercising selection. Each administration has its good immigrants and its bad ones.
Their policies reflect a set of values that segregate immigrants. The criteria used give us a clear clue of which immigrants they want to avoid at all cost and which are acceptable. At the same time, they send a message to citizens, to the political clientele they want to satisfy with certain discrimination or acceptance.
Obama began to apply the DACA program in the peak moment of deportations. He threw out wetbacks and dried-off backs at the same time. DACA is the best collection of model immigrants. They didn’t come of their own will, their parents brought them, so broke no law. They master the language as well as natives do and want to go to the university and contribute to the country.
Donald Trump: Whom to throw out?
Trump acts as the strict father. In this he doesn’t distance himself from the typical Republican political archetypes. He raises his whip against criminals. Zero tolerance for unruly stepchildren, above all the Salvadoran gang known as Mara Salvatrucha. His ally Vince DeMarco, sheriff of Suffolk County, appeared on Fox&Friends and charged that the majority of that gang’s members had come to the US thanks to Obama’s program to protect unaccompanied minors.
The focus of Obama’s policy was to define whom to accept. The focus of Trump’s policy is on whom to throw out or not accept. Both administrations accept and throw out immigrants in large numbers, which is why the utopia of the wall is pleasing to politicians of both parties. Controlling the entrance door is the only way to maintain free election of what type of foreigners should be admitted.
Following that logic of selection, this time on the grounds of legal immigration, Trump emphasizes what he wants to absorb and at the same time what he wants to avoid. To slash legal immigration in half he proposed the RAISE Act, which offers fewer opportunities of granting residency through family ties and more opportunities as a prize for skills and abilities.
The Trump administration noticed that 64% of the immigrants given legal residency in 2014 were immediate relatives of US citizens or were given it through applications supported by relatives. Only 15% obtained it based on labor market criteria. Trump’s bill proposed to turn those proportions around, so it contains criteria that exclude mass immigration. It asks for education, ability to speak English, offers of highly remunerated jobs, record of achievements and entrepreneurial initiative. Trump rewards the “skill” of having been born in a silver cradle.
Trump’s law would restrict the possibility of legalizing relatives, spouses or underage children, and would exclude siblings and adult offspring. And if the parents are elderly and require medical care, they would only be granted renewable temporary visas. Are the groups of elderly women lined up in Central American airports to travel to the US so frightening?
Trump against the “DACAmented”
In apparent contradiction to the objective of admitting immigrants with education and skills, on September 5 Trump annulled the DACA program that granted work permits, drivers licenses and educational opportunities precisely to young people who had demonstrated having skills. Does Trump reject these skills only because their owners arrived “wet”?
The young beneficiaries of DACA had an intermediate status. They were no longer undocumented but they also weren’t even temporary residents. They enjoyed short-term protection. They were DACAmented. To become unDACA¬mented isn’t the same as again being undocumented. The suppression of DACA doesn’t return them to their prior situation. It places them in a worse limbo, and a better one. Worse because unlike what happens to most undocumented immigrants, the government has all their information and if it wanted to could start a selective persecution of fixed and visible targets. It could do it during the six month grace period to renew DACA, behind the smokescreen that every renewal is decided on a case-by-case basis.
But they are better off in this limbo because the tremendous construction of the DACA label has turned them into the most acceptable of all undocumented immigrants, with favorable media coverage and persistent attention from politicians who probably see in them a promising electoral quarry for the future. Close to a million votes isn’t a despicable chunk. That’s why the suppression of DACA closes a door where many windows could open. One such window is the BRIDGE Act (Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy Act) and the Recognizing America’s Children Act, both of them initiatives that essentially consist in extending DACA. Both are also temporary solutions, but they could be a step towards a permanent solution because they buy time (until Trump is out of the presidency) and are legislative instruments of Trump’s caprice or that of whoever succeeds him.
And finally, there’s the DREAM Act, initially proposed in 2000 and presented again this July. All these laws are filters of what’s acceptable, and by omission speak to what’s unacceptable. These are the cards the DACAmented can play in a country where the forces aligned under Trump’s leadership launched the RAISE Act as a desperate effort to save the country from losing its white majority.
Resisting Trump’s filter
Meanwhile, immigrants continue in the self-selection struggle. Portland and Manassas gives an idea of the diversity of situations in which these struggles are taking place. They need ideas and resources. I’ve tried to describe the strength of their resources and their limitations, in spite of which and thanks to which, not even Obama could impose his filter. We don’t know if Trump will.
To make the end of my stay in Manassas leisurely and pleasant, Lito invited me to dinner at a Peruvian restaurant. As we were leaving it we saw a young, short man with a backpack and doubtful visage. He had arrived from Nebaj six months ago. He still had no job. He left a little scared. Two days later, Reynaldo called him to join his team. They won’t let Trump filter him.
José Luis Rocha is a researcher at El Salvador’s José Simeón Cañas Central American University and associate researcher at the Institute for Research and Social Projection on Global and Territorial Dynamics (IDGT) of Guatemala’s Rafael Landívar University.