“Erika” (not her real name), her husband and their two children moved to Ripon in the summer of 2001. In 2005 they had a third child.
Erika and “Jose” have worked at two area businesses and have also had occasional housekeeping and other jobs on the side. With frequent pauses to attend to her third child, Erika described their life in Mexico — a series of insecure, low-paying jobs that could not support a family — and their decision to come to the United States. She described their travels to get here, and life as undocumented workers in the Ripon area.
The couple agreed to be interviewed on the condition that their names and other identifying details be changed to protect their anonymity. The interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.
“In Mexico, Jose and I worked for quite a while plucking chickens, and then making ice cream cones….,” Erika said. “Then the man Jose worked for making cones bought a new, more modern machine and he no longer needed Jose, so then Jose started to sell ice cream cones. But he couldn’t support us that way. Then he worked in carpentry for a while, but when the kids started school, their expenses were high, and business was slow. Jose was laid off a lot. We were living in a one-room house, and often all we had to eat was tortillas.”
Erika’s brothers in Wisconsin had been able to improve their futures by moving to the states. There was only one problem: “Jose didn’t want to come at all.”
But they came. The family crossed the Rio Grande River with a “coyote” (an individual who guides and transports people across the border illegally for a fee). The river was dry, with water barely reaching their knees.
Once the family arrived in Texas, they spent several days in hiding before being transported in trucks and trailers to Dallas. In Dallas, they were left on a street corner with no money, no food, no English, and no idea what to do or where to go next. They sat on a bench hoping that someone who spoke Spanish would appear and help them.
“We got lucky,” Erika said. “A couple came along, and they helped us. Without even knowing us, they bought us food and bus tickets and helped us on our way.”
The bus ride to Wisconsin had new challenges. There were many connections to make, and they were so scared to be left behind or get on the wrong bus that they wouldn’t get off the bus they were on for meal and rest stops. They had one pack of cookies to keep their children from crying. Finally, an American woman on the bus noticed that they hadn’t eaten since the bus left Dallas. At the next rest stop she bought hamburgers and fries for them all. With lots of sign language and a few words in Spanish, they realized that they were all going to Wisconsin.
“The American woman had a lot of luggage – five suitcases – so every time we had to change buses, we helped her carry all her stuff,” Erika said.
They family said goodbye to her in Milwaukee, where they were met by Erika’s family. After four months unemployed, during which time a relative supported them, they found work, enrolled their children in school, and started to settle in.
While life is hard, Erika finds much to appreciate. “Tengo suerte; I am lucky,” she said. “I have some really good American friends and that has been a big help.” Her neighbors greet them and help them remove snow. Jose has occasionally been hired for carpentry work. An elderly woman brings candy to their baby.
“But not everyone is like that.” Erika said. “At work they treat us differently. They always give extra work to the Mexicans and the Hmong – it’s like they can’t stand to see us not working. When we’re waiting [for a machine to complete a task] the American women sit down, arms folded, and just chat with each other. If the supervisors see us doing that, they come over and start sending us to sweep here, sweep there, do this, do that. A few of the American women see this, and they come with us to help because they see it isn’t fair. But most of them don’t.”
And the union isn’t much help, either, she said. “We pay the union to help us, but we never hear from them, and they don’t listen to us or explain anything to us. They don’t support us at all. And our employer, no tiene corazon. They have no heart. You have to be dying to get a day off. We’ve been working there for five years, and we still only get one week of vacation per year. The Americans get two, and they tell us we get two, but we’ve never seen it.”
Erika’s assessment of the schools is more positive. “But I’ve only been to two parent-teacher conferences in five years,” she said. “They won’t let us off from work for things like that, and we’ve always been working during the hours they have them. The last conference I went to, they just told me if my kid was having a problem they would let me know. But I would like to know more – kids don’t tell you everything. The hours are a big problem – lots of us work during the hours they usually have school conferences and events.
“The other thing that’s hard with the schools is that almost nothing comes home in Spanish. Pages and pages come in English. I ask my daughter to read me things, and she says four words, from a whole page of print! I have no idea what most of it is about, but I want to know.”
Although an undocumented immigrant, Erika maintains she wants to work within the system. “We didn’t come here to get anything for free. We came here to work, and we work hard,” she said. “Everything we have, we bought. We pay taxes, we pay Social Security, we pay for health insurance … we’ve only asked for help once – we got WIC for one month for the baby.” WIC is the Women, Infants and Children program that gives free basic food items to pregnant women and small children. It is one of the only federal programs available to undocumented immigrants.
“If we could have come here legally, we would have, but it doesn’t work that way,” Erika said. “For example, we have a friend who married an American citizen, but she was going to have to return to Mexico to apply for a visa there and wait until they called her – years! We also know a guy where we work who married a citizen, and he did all the paperwork just like he was supposed to to get legal residency. Then they told him he had to return to Mexico to do it, even though he was already married and had kids. When he left a day late for Mexico, they gave him a deportation order that made him illegal for the next 10 years. He left a wife, two little kids and a mortgage behind. But he couldn’t bear to be away from them for 10 years, when they would let him apply again for a visa [with uncertain outcome] so he came back under a different name to be with his family. They make it really hard to do the right thing.”
In fact, Erika’s older children do have a chance at legalization. Both were victims of crimes in the last few years, and both of the perpetrators are behind bars after successful prosecutions. There is a new visa category to help victims of certain serious crimes attain legal status, and one or both of Erika’s older children will apply for this “U” visa (which did not exist at the time they filed charges.) One of the things they will need to prove to obtain this status is that they actively cooperated with law enforcement officials. Their parents hope that the fact that they did so will work in their favor. One of the perpetrators was found to have committed the same crime with a number of Ripon youth – Erika’s child was the first to report him, and thus prevent him from continuing the abuse.
There are many days that Erika yearns to return to Mexico. “Every day we are here we think about the same thing: we live in fear that they [Immigration] will separate us. We worry about it all the time.” She also would not encourage other family members to come here because living in fear takes such a severe toll. “The effect is depression,” she acknowledges. “If we were in Mexico, we could be united, free, and without fear.”
But for two reasons she plans to stay. Her children do not want to return – for them this is home. Second, if she returns to Mexico she will have no way to help her aging parents financially. From the U.S., she can send a little money. She acknowledges that while life in the United States is not easy, “Here I eat meat, I drink milk, I have a car. I have what I need.”
What does she hope for for her daughters and son? “I hope my daughter becomes president!” she says, laughing. “Then she could legalize us!”