Desperate Lives: Trials of Undocumented Workers in the Bronx

(Photo: Laverrue)

By Jackson O. Ude

Bronx Journal Staff Writer

Things have not been going well lately for Kwame Antwi John, a Ghanaian who lives on the Grand Concourse and tries to stay afloat, despite his status as an undocumented worker. After coming to the Bronx in 2000, John married an American woman for a green card that he never got.  Now he is almost ready to give up his quest. “I don’t even want to think about it. I spent all my hard-earned money on a woman who claimed she was interested in helping me, only to disappoint me at the last minute,” he laments.  “I got the shock of my life when, after securing an interview date for my green card in 2002, my supposed wife did not show up.”

John says that his wife left home two days before the interview, explaining that she was visiting a family in Brooklyn; however, she never returned. “I lost the interview, I lost the green card, and I was made to look like a fraud by a woman I love,” he said.  “I have had to abandon my love for teaching because I have no green card yet.  And with what I have gone through, I am not keen about getting married [yet again] just for a green card.”

New York City has an estimated population of 540,000 undocumented workers, and more than half of them live in the Bronx, according to statistics released by the Immigration Department in 2000. In order to make a living, many of these men and women agree to work at low-end, poorly-paying jobs.  Often desperate to survive in the States, they ignore or defy our immigration laws, often obtaining phony documents, entering – like John – into questionable marriages, impersonating friends with legal status, and using their social security cards simply to obtain work.

John, a 1999 philosophy graduate of the University of Legon in Ghana, came here after a brief stint as a high school teacher back home. He hoped to further his education and perhaps pick up a teaching job; instead, he is working as a cashier at Home Depot in the Bronx.

Despite his marital misfortune, John is lucky.  He is able to work on the books because he received a work authorization in January of 2001 after marrying an American, and he carefully renews it every year. He hopes that one day he might be considered for a green card, but he vows, “I will never slave for another American woman again, not ever.”

Stella Nganga Awour, 29, arrived in the United States from Kenya in 2002, thanks to the help of an old childhood friend. She moved in with that friend in the Bronx and worked off the books at a Webster Avenue restaurant for $5.50 an hour.

After four months, Awour, who had worked on the staff of the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi, had a falling out with her friend who abruptly asked her to move out. Fortunately – or so Awour thought  – her next-door-neighbor heard what had happened and asked if she would like to share his apartment. “He also promised to help me get a green card,” she says. “So I moved in with him, and we agreed that I would pick up a major part of the bills as compensation for the green card.”

But a few weeks later, her new roommate started asking for sex, threatening to report her to authorities as an illegal immigrant if she did not comply.  Although she panicked, she says, “Since I had no one here to run to, I let him have his way.”

Awour eventually ran away, abandoning her Webster Avenue place and all her belongings. She currently shares a Harlem apartment with a new friend from Sierra Leone and hopes that Bush’s proposed temporary workers program for immigrants, granting visas for up to six years, will sail through the Congress.

While many undocumented aliens fall victim to failed marriages or sexual blackmail, others are taken in by fraudulent organizations purporting to help them legalize their residency status.  Ifeanyi Arinze, 35, a Nigerian who graduated from the University of Nigeria in 1999 with a degree in microbiology, came here looking for greener pastures, but today works as an attendant at one of the African markets in the Bronx.  Hearing about a special Florida program designed for Haitians and other foreign nationals who wanted to normalize their immigration status, he took his savings – six months worth – and headed to Miami by Greyhound bus with the hope of settling his immigration status.

There he spent almost $500 for what he was told were filing and processing fees, and he was promised a work authorization by mail within a few weeks. But no such authorization ever arrived.  And no one has called, he says, “to explain to me what happened to my money.”

These days Arinze trusts no outside offers of help. And he is turned off by the negative experiences of Africans he knows who married American women to solve their illegal status. “I am very traditional,” he says. “I believe in my Ibo culture, which places the man above the woman in marriage, and I don’t think I can tolerate the American woman’s way of life in marriage. That is why I am not considering that as an option right now.”

Joseph Famuyide, an African attorney whose Brooklyn-based law firm specializes in immigration law, helps Africans from all boroughs adjust to their legal status. The process, he says, has been a 97-percent success. In fact, last August he was able to secure more than 22 green cards for his clients.  Famuyide estimates that 70 percent of undocumented immigrants who secure green cards do it through marriage. The rest adjust their status by either applying for asylum or  late amnesty. Those with professional backgrounds, like nurses, can have their immigration status adjusted by applying for the H2 B Visa.

Hispanics also make up a substantial part of the population of illegal immigrants in the Bronx.  Jesus Alvarez is one.  In 2004, he risked his life walking in the desert for almost ten days to cross from Mexico into the United States illegally. Today Alvarez, 32, a high school dropout and former truck driver who shares a room in the Soundview section of the Bronx with three other illegal immigrants, works in a halal meat market as a butcher at $7.50 an hour. He says he is happy with his job, even though he would make more money if he had papers and was legal. “In Mexico, there are no jobs, and the people are suffering,”   he says.  “Now I send more money to my mother in Mexico, and I am happy.”

Alvarez’s only hope of legalizing his situation, he says, is to marry his Puerto Rican girlfriend, who is four months pregnant. “We are thinking of it,” he says, “because I love her, and she loves me, too, and we hope to build a family.”

But for Pablo Mendez, 27, life has been torture since he left his tiny island country, the Dominican Republic, in 2001.  After a four-month stay in Mexico, he made a deal to be transported illegally from Mexico to the United States. But because he could not pay the required $2,000 fee, he had to work for the man for free seven months. “I was a slave,” says Mendez. “They used me. I cooked, cleaned and ran errands because I could not pay the money to cross into Texas.”

After escaping in December of 2001, Mendez joined another group, paying $1,500 to be flown, with six others, to Monterey. There, he says, “We stayed for two nights, then we walked about 12 days to the border, sharing the little food we had.”

He arrived in the United States in January, 2002, with just $17 in cash, and was brought to the Bronx by a friend. Today he shares a studio apartment with three others, and, with no social security or medical coverage, works three jobs in order to pay his household expenses and take care of family back home. On a good day, says Mendez, he gets hired on construction crews and makes $100 or more; on other days, he earns a mere $6 an hour cleaning in a Bronx movie theatre. “Then at night,” he says, “I go to a nightclub on Gun Hill Road. There I clean the bathroom, and I can tell you that it has not been easy. I don’t sleep.”

Mendez, whose only relation here in America is a married aunt, says he is currently shopping for an American woman whom he hopes to marry in exchange for legal status. On the other hand, he has a girl friend in Santo Domingo. And somewhere down the line, he says, “I want to marry her when I get my papers here.”

Africans and Mexicans are not the only immigrants seeking a better life in the Bronx.  For decades, Irish nationals have sought to better their immigration status. At a popular Irish drinking spot on Katonah Avenue in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, Ian John, an Irishman who came to the United States in August, said that he hopes to settle down and become an American citizen. John said, “I know I am not going back to Ireland any time soon because I have to become an American citizen first. But how I am going to do that is my business.”

The Emerald Isle Immigration Center has, since 1988, been helping undocumented immigrants acquire legal residency in the Bronx. Liam Boyle, a counselor at the center, says that the organization helps nationals from many different countries. “We do not keep records of our activities, but we do not discriminate,” says Boyle. “We welcome anyone with immigration problems.”

He says that the center has helped Irish nationals marry American citizens and has guided others who may be qualified to become citizens through the proper channels to get their papers. Boyle acknowledges that while he has heard off-the-record stories about the sexual exploitation, “I have not handled any in this office.”

While acknowledging the deluge of calls for assistance that his agency gets every week, Boyle says he refers any immigration matter that his organization cannot handle to the U.S. Department of Immigration for clarification.

Meanwhile, the Emerald Isle Immigration Center not only helps undocumented immigrants obtain legal status, it also provides free training in computer skills, employment referrals, college information, health awareness counseling, and other services.

“We are open to the public, and our services are free,” says Boyle. “These are just the ways we help immigrants realize the American dreams.”

The Emerald Isle Immigration Center is located at 280 East 236th Street in the Bronx. (718) 324-3039.

Page Designed By Jonathan Candelaria

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