The first two times that Yessica Ramírez tried to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, she and her child ended up in an American holding cell with nothing more than a couple of blankets between them and the frigid floor. Border Patrol guards gave her ugly looks and ignored her requests for food and water. Her baby boy became sick.
On her third try, she walked right in, slipping across the 2,000-mile long border and into the Texas desert. Eventually, Yessica and her son made their way to New York where they joined her husband, a busboy, also undocumented. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
But for all that she found in this country—a job, an apartment in Staten Island, a new life above the poverty line—Yessica aches for what she left behind: the mild winters, her parents and siblings, a friendlier way of life. Most of all, however, she misses her voice.
Like many undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Yessica is terrified that speaking out or even attending a protest will lead to her deportation. Her life consumed by fear, she is haunted by the possibility that she and her children will be grabbed and taken back to Mexico, away from her husband and six years of hard-earned savings.
Yessica’s story is by no means uncommon. Of the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants estimated to live in the U.S., a majority is Hispanic. Hispanics now make up the largest minority group in the country, edging out blacks at around 15 percent of the total population. New York, a city of roughly eight million, is home to more than half a million undocumented immigrants and three million total immigrants.
Yet, after flaring up in 2006, immigration and immigration reform have once again fallen into the shadows of American politics, obscured from view by the personalities and personal defects of the “big three” presidential candidates: Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. When the American media does address policy differences among the candidates, the nascent economic recession and the war in Iraq receive top billing. Immigration reform is becoming a problem indefinitely deferred.
For undocumented immigrants like Yessica, already reticent to engage in political debate out of fear of recriminations, this national silence over immigration has left them in a dangerous limbo, unrepresented and afraid.
When asked if she joined the hundreds of thousands of Americans and immigrants who demanded the reform of immigration policies in 2006, Yessica shook her head.
“Just look what happened to Señora Elvira,” she said, alluding to Elvira Arellano, an undocumented immigrant who took refuge in a Chicago church for a year to avoid separation from her U.S.-born son. Arellano, who became a national symbol for the need for reform, was deported in 2006, without her son.
In this sense, Yessica’s story is typical of Mexican immigrants to New York and elsewhere in the U.S. Vulnerable to exploitation by their employers and others, their “illegal” status means that they often have little legal recourse available.
Instead of protesting, Yessica dedicates her life to working and saving money. She stomachs the discrimination towards Hispanics that she sees from time to time—the occasional leer or insult on the bus, a suspicious look—afraid that complaining would only bring attention to her, instead of the problem. She lives “between her job and her house,” afraid that even joining a march for immigrants’ rights will result in her deportation and separation from her family.
Many undocumented immigrants focus on the small things they feel will lead to citizenship: paying taxes, saving money, and raising a family.
“I have two children, I don’t take food stamps, no welfare. I don’t want to depend on the government,” said Sergio P. Sergio grew up in a small town in the state of Puebla, Mexico, before coming to the U.S. at age 15.
“That’s how I am. I don’t want to become a citizen only for them to say, ‘oh, you took this, you took that,’” he said. He takes English and computer skills classes, hoping to leave his job in a pizzeria and become a computer repairman.
In New York, immigrants’ rights organizations are drawing increasing attention, often to the residency status of their members.
José Gutiérrez, a member of one such organization, said that he worries that things will get more dangerous in the months to come, as the organization shifts its criticism from abusive landlords to city officials who fail to regulate them. His name has also been changed to protect his identity.
Unable to vote, life offers undocumented immigrants a choice between silence and controversy. Unless one of the presidential candidates takes up the issue of immigration reform before this fall, the voices of millions of the newest Americans will remain unheard.