Survival in the Shadows
When I was sixteen, I got a summer job working at a supermarket. At the time, I didn’t really have any financial obligations, so I just saved my daily wages and bought my first pair of shoes. That pair of shoes was my first and last piece of independence back home in Kingston, Jamaica.
A year later, I graduated from high school without the slightest clue about what to do next. After my parents told me they couldn’t afford to send me to college, they gave me a choice: either move to America or stay in Jamaica and support myself. I chose America. My parents planned to move there too, and agreed that my mother would migrate first.
In 1990, I came to the U.S. on a visa, bearing no gifts. My suitcase had so few belongings, it could have passed for carry-on luggage. Although, as a child, I dreamed of becoming a pilot, I had never flown on a plane before and the experience made me feel important. As I thought about how I would miss visiting my grandmother in the country—where we would eat mangoes and jackfruit—that summer, I hoped for a better life than the one I had previously led.
When I arrived in New York, taking in the sheer width of the streets, the height of the buildings, and the pace of the people sent instant messages to my brain that I was not in Jamaica anymore. It took about three months to get reacquainted with family members who were already living in the area and to familiarize myself with the streets of Brooklyn. It dawned on me one morning, as I looked into the empty suitcase I had brought with me, that I needed a job. I had no knowledge of the necessary procedures or paperwork, but quickly realized that trying to get a job without the right papers would be daunting. I needed to become resilient.
My mother had already been in the U.S. for a year before I came. She rented a single room from a family friend, with the understanding that she would be the only person staying there. My arrival (at first) did not alarm the landlord—but as time went by and the arrival of more family members was on the horizon, it became obvious that other living arrangements had to be considered.
Most of the time I was by myself, thinking about the future. I had been groomed to believe that people could become anything they wanted in life, as long as they put forth the necessary effort and learned from capable mentors. Having no money and no job, I was getting frustrated with the situation I was thrown into, which was not getting any better.
At church one day, a friend (who had caught wind of my situation) offered me a job helping him with his roofing and contracting business. He was currently assigned to a roofing project—I knew nothing about roofing, but figured he could teach me all I needed to know. I felt like a child again as he taught me the trade—he brought me lunch, transported me to and from work, and gave me $180 at the end of our three days together. The doors of opportunity had been opened and I began to realize the possibilities that were out there.
However, back on the home front, I was caged in that one room like a bird with clipped wings. I wanted to fly, but knew I needed help. I started poring over the want ads, careful to stick to job listings that did not seem too complicated. After a week of this, it became clear that I would need information and advice from my mother. She worked as a live-in nanny, taking care of a little girl whose father was a stockbroker (and a part-time lounge singer) and whose mother designed women’s bathing suits. When my mother came home one weekend, I asked her what a green card and social security were. She gave me the short version—the government needs to know who is in the country and who should contribute to the U.S. economy. We were deemed illegal aliens and, as such, could not apply for either form of security without proper documentation. I wanted to do so many things with my life and this looked like a major hindrance. There had to be a way to contrive to survive.
One thing was apparent—I needed identification other than my Jamaican passport. Something government-issued, or else employers would throw me out of their establishments. One of my mother’s friends told her about a man—a supposed advocate for immigrants— who would be able to help.
From the outside, the “government office” building looked like it belonged in the projects—there was graffiti painted on the front door and no trace of any official signage. My mother’s friend was with us and neither she nor my mother seemed to care about the writing on the wall. But I had been in this country for just seven months and they had been here for two years, which gave me some confidence that they knew what they were doing. I don’t usually pay attention to superstitions but when we first walked into the building, I noticed a section of a hallway to our right where the lights flickered and a black cat peered out of the darkness.
My mother’s friend knocked on a metal door and the sound reverberated through the long hallways. As we heard footsteps approaching the door from inside and several locks unlocking, I knew this was no government agency.
A woman opened the door and called out for a “Mr. Bakersfield” as we passed into what seemed to be a living room/warehouse/ file room. I guess my mother had called ahead because the elderly man who rolled out of an adjacent room in a wheelchair carried sheets of instructions, forms to fill out, and one of those machines that laminate paper. In a matter of minutes we were finished. I had my ID and was en route to the American dream. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that this ID card (which cost me $100) was illegitimate. It was just a picture of me next to a listing of my height, date of birth, a made-up social security number, and my current status in the U.S.—“lawful temporary alien.” But it finally gave me something tangible to use as I started my job search.
My first real job came through a brother of one of my mother’s friends. It was a security position and I had no experience in security training. Nevertheless they hired me, without asking for any ID. I worked weekends because no one else wanted to. I later found out that this job was part of a work release program and that many of my co-workers had conviction histories of robbery, selling or buying drugs, prostitution, gun-running, and other illegal activities. The people in charge of hiring may have overlooked me amid the heavy streams of workers coming through the office.
My shift began at 5 p.m. When I arrived at the downtown Brooklyn-based site, there were two guys stationed in a four-foot by seven-foot hut waiting to be relieved by me and another guy. Each security guard had a particular section of the site to monitor and keep secure. The nights went by fast, as I usually slept through most of them in some hidden spot. The building was going through its metamorphoses, with its half-finished rooms, unused open areas, and exposed brick walls. Each night, after making a few rounds and performing some routine checks, we gave ourselves completely over to sleep only to be awakened by the sound of a drill or something banging against wood.
This went on for two months until security firms all over the New York metropolitan area become stricter with the screening requirements for their security personnel. They kept asking for my social security card and I kept stalling for more time. I was afraid they might find out I had no legitimate identification, and all I knew was that I had to keep working as long as I could to help my mother financially. When they eventually sent me to a private investigation bureau that does background checks, I had to come clean. The company fired me at the end of that pay period.
Afterwards, I found myself reminiscing about the job and the independence it had finally given me in this country. I had managed to save up some money and I wanted to get my driver’s license. A driver’s license was the type of government-issued identification that could help me attain and maintain another job.
When you go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, you must be prepared. An applicant must establish at least six “points” in order to qualify for a learner’s permit. “Sir, you need six pieces of identification,” the lady behind the counter yelled at the prospective applicant who stood ahead of me in line. Looking embarrassed, he quickly grabbed his papers and, without making eye contact with anyone, belted for the exit. The documents I held seemed to have a mind of their own—as soon as I made my way to an available counter, they all leapt from my hand like a frightened squirrel. The woman at the counter looked annoyed with everyone, so I knew I had to be on my best behavior. “Where are the documents that prove you are a citizen?” she grunted when it was my turn with her—even though U.S. citizenship is not a prerequisite for a New York State driver’s license. “They are right there before you,” I replied. She rummaged through them, while half-glancing at me. Still rummaging, she loudly asked “Sir, are you a citizen of the United States?” My stomach contracted. I felt dizzy, I sweated profusely. I saw security guards coming toward me and knew I could not outrun them.
I am going to be deported, I thought to myself.
But the guards walked past us without even noticing me. They were focused on a person in a wheelchair who needed help getting through a door. I quickly grabbed my papers, as the man before me had, and exited the building without looking back.
My mother and her friends convinced me to turn to an agency that placed people in day-laboring jobs like cleaning offices and filling dumpsters. I was not excited about this type of work, but it would be a job.
When I reached the agency’s Manhattan office, I joined about twenty men who varied in size, all waiting to be chosen for that day’s jobs. The American-sounding ones seemed unworried. I had to register and present a piece of valid identification. I showed them the ID card I had received at the “government building” and, oddly enough, they accepted it. They asked when I would be getting my social security card and, as always, I answered: “In a couple of months.” After the registration process, they told me to sit in the waiting room until my name was called. I sat across from two guys who seemed to go on many assignments, so I tried to befriend them, hoping to get chosen by association. After about two hours, a representative called up the three of us and assigned us to an empty warehouse in Queens, where we would finish clearing out trash that the previous tenant had left behind.
I traveled to the work site with my two new acquaintances. They were loud on the bus and on the way to the train. When we got to the train station, they hopped the turnstile in broad daylight and I was a little scared of being caught with them. As I paid my fare and ran with them to the oncoming train, I felt like a wild gazelle running from lions that were about to attack me.
When we got to the warehouse, these two acquaintances did more reacquainting than working. They talked just about everything— girls, cars, how skilled they were at evading public transportation fare. They told me what to do and how to do it (my accent might have led them to believe that I was slow). I did most of the work, lifting old chairs and tables that were so wounded they looked like they had been fighting with the last tenant.
We piled the garbage into the dumpster and when the designated garbage truck arrived to haul it away, the driver told us about a job vacancy in an office that was located in the same building as this warehouse. It sounded more permanent than the gig I had at the time, so I was interested. As we went upstairs to get more information, we all glanced back and forth as if we expected someone to follow us. There was a young girl sitting at a desk when we approached the window. She intercommed an elderly gentleman who, after taking one look at us, told us to come back the following Monday at 9 a.m.
When we got back to the agency we were paid for the day. It was a Friday and I had enough money to contribute to the rent, which made my mother happy.
That Monday, I returned to the warehouse building at about 7:30 a.m. and waited outside for two hours. When it became clear that my two acquaintances weren’t going to show, I worked up the courage to enter the office by myself. The man from the other day asked me my name, where I came from, and if I liked to work. He told me I looked like a good kid and the job was mine. He didn’t ask for any ID and I didn’t volunteer any. (I would later learn that this office had a high turnover rate, with many new employees quitting after one day.) I started working the very same day—the new (and unionized) employee of a factory that made women’s clothing.
I started off tying bundles of garments and sweeping floors. I then moved up to assisting the fabric spreaders, and after that I was promoted to assist the factory’s production manager and pattern maker. A member of Workers United, I still work there full-time, while pursuing my bachelor’s degree at the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education. My union has subsidized my tuition. The medical benefits aren’t great, but they’d probably be worse if I were not unionized.
I am now a naturalized citizen of the United States. What’s interesting is that, after years of trying to creatively get by without proper documentation, being in this country legally feels somewhat surreal. I have the instinct to be creative when I don’t need to be. When I want to visit my family and friends back in Jamaica, I can’t get rid of the nagging feeling that I will have a problem reentering the U.S.
Going from undocumented to documented has been an adjustment—but one that I’ve earned.