February 17, 2010

Don Franco Mendoza: Still undocumented, after twenty-five years in the US

Don Franco came to the United States in 1985, with his wife, doña Lucrecia and their two youngest boys. They left their other two children behind in Morelos, Mexico, in the care of doña Lucrecia’s mother. They hoped to reunite with them once they were settled. They arrived at doña Lucrecia’s brother’s house on the near West Side of Chicago, where they stayed until don Franco could save up enough money to move out and get their own place. Upon arrival, don Franco’s brother had already arranged employment for him.

It did not take very long for don Franco to save up the necessary funds to move into their own apartment. Don Franco and doña Lucrecia were able to establish themselves and their family in Chicago. Don Franco obtained a driver’s license and social security number. However, they never qualified for legalization. This means that they live tenuously in the US, even after nearly three decades in this country. They also cannot return to Mexico, for fear of not being able to re-enter the US. They have extensive family and community ties on both sides of the border. Unable to obtain legalization, they have not been able to reunite with their children they left behind in Mexico.

Don Franco is one of about twelve million undocumented workers in the US who lives tenuously because of his migration status. The undocumented labor force constitutes nearly five percent of the civilian labor force in the US. This includes 29 percent of all agricultural workers, 29 percent of all roofers, 22 percent of all maids and housekeepers, and 27 percent of all people working in food processing (Passel 2006). Without this undocumented labor force, it is likely that food grown in the US would be grown elsewhere, thereby raising prices for consumers. It is also probable that processed meats would be more expensive and less available, meaning most Americans would have to cut their own chickens into chicken tenders. Fewer people would have access to maids, housecleaners, and nannies. In addition, many of the companies that provide those services would close. The loss of undocumented workers would lead to the loss of jobs for the administrators, and, in turn, for their local service providers.

Employers recruit workers to meet labor needs. If employers could recruit workers for pre-determined periods and ship them out at will, we would have a society with a sector of second-class citizens whose only purpose was to provide labor. None of their other rights would be recognized and they could be deported at our whims. This is not unfathomable, as it is common practice in many Gulf States, and the bracero programs which brought Mexican temporary laborers to the US during and after World War II could be described as such. However, such practices are anathema to our self-conception as a nation of immigrants and of family values and as a people dedicated to the equality of all. As President George W. Bush once pointed out, “family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River” (Office of the Press Secretary 2007).

Undocumented workers contribute greatly to our economy and provide a necessary labor force, yet must live in fear of deportation. Moreover, they come here because they are recruited by employers in the US, based on extensive ties between the US and their countries of origin. Nevertheless, migrants often are unable to acquire permission to live in the United States. Don Franco’s story puts a human face on this dilemma.
One evening, I was talking to don Franco, and he asked me if I enjoyed traveling to Peru, as he knew I had been there relatively recently. I began to tell him about Peru, but he interjected to say that, although he did not have much money when he lived and worked in Mexico, it seems he enjoyed life more then. Even though he worked, he still had time to hang out with his friends. Here, he said, he only works, and has little time to enjoy life. I asked him what he does on Sundays, his only full day off. He said that, since his license has expired, and he can’t get a new one, he stays close to home. He fears getting on the Interstate, so he no longer goes fishing in Indiana as he once did. He also does not visit his brother in Waukegan, just 40 miles away. Neither have valid driver’s licenses, and both feel as though it is too risky to make the trip. They make do with phone conversations.

Don Franco and doña Lucrecia have four grandchildren in Chicago. Their grandchildren come over most weekends and play in and around the house. Even though don Franco has Sundays off, he never takes the kids anywhere outside of their neighborhood. He would like to take them to the beach when the weather is warm or take them to Waukegan to play with his brother’s grandchildren, but it is not worth the risk that he would be stopped by the police, fined for not having a driver’s license, and potentially deported to Mexico.

Don Franco says his life has gotten worse since 9/11. He asked me why the events of September 11th have had such a dramatic impact on his life, when he had nothing to do with what happened on that day. I too ask this question. Why is immigration being linked to security issues? Why do we, as a society, choose to make life less enjoyable for people like don Franco? Wouldn’t financially stricken Northwest Indiana like for don Franco and his family to come to the beaches there on Sundays, thereby contributing to the economy through park fees, tolls, and likely a meal at one of the many taquerías in de-industrialized Northwest Indiana?

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