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Strangers in a Strange Land

Getting familiar with struggles on both sides of the border


Long before controversial political topics are served up on televised news debates, it can seem like the human aspect of the issue has often dissolved into bureaucracy. Hot button issues--abortion, gay marriage, gun control, affirmative action, capital punishment, illegal immigration--become strong public entities themselves, separated from the faces of those who they affect, and defined not by the people behind the issue, but by political analysts, religious texts and economic statistics. As Idaho enters into national debate over the controversial issue of illegal immigration, we enter a debate in which the people creating the issue--illegal immigrants and workers--have been replaced with caricatures and comparisons to terrorists.

Last year, Canyon County manipulated racketeering statutes to file suit against area agricultural businesses accused of employing illegal workers, and media outlets have been asking politicians, lawyers, farmers and citizens for response. While there are an estimated 35,000 illegal workers in Idaho, their voices that are often noticeably absent from the discussion. Though they've been dismissed as drug dealers and gang-bangers, the majority of illegal immigrants are just here performing the jobs Americans shy away from. Boise Weekly looks into the faces of Idaho's illegal workers from Jalisco, the Mexican state that 10 years ago, Governor Phil Batt established as Idaho's "Sister State," and asks, who are the illegal workers washing dishes in Idaho's restaurants, landscaping our yards and harvesting the state's crops? Under what economic and social circumstances does an entire family leave their lifelong home to live at risk in another country? And are they aching to go home?

A sk 19-year-old Eduardo how he ended up living in Idaho and his answer is brief.

"By jumping the border," he says.

He stands at just over five feet tall, and with his somewhat shy demeanor, it's not easy to visualize the teenager navigating illegally over international lines, dodging border patrol surveillance and jumping the fences separating Mexico from the United States. But at age 16, that's exactly what he did.

Eduardo's story is that of a typical illegal immigrant. He crossed the border and traveled north to Idaho with the help of "coyotes," guides who run underground human smuggling operations. When he arrived in Idaho, he spoke no English. His identification is forged, he works under a stolen Social Security number, and he drives without a driver's license or car insurance. He has no medical insurance for trips to the doctor, and he relies on a network of illegally operating businesses to provide him work and cash his paychecks.

As he enters his senior year at a Boise-area high school, three years have passed since Eduardo left his hometown of Guadalajara, Jalisco, to join his mother and siblings who were already living in Idaho. In many respects, he's very similar to his American classmates. He speaks English laced with teen slang, has a girlfriend and a job, is taking an American government class and in May, expects to accept his high school diploma, despite already having earned the equivalent in Jalisco. If he had his way, college would be the next step for him, but he also understands that he was born under the flag of the wrong nationality to have educational privilege simply handed to him. Three years ago, jumping a border seemed like Eduardo's biggest hurdle, but today as he struggles for opportunity for his future, his biggest obstacle may still be ahead of him.

When he was a young child, Eduardo's mother divorced his alcoholic father and then struggled to care for Eduardo and his four siblings. Eduardo contributed to the family's earnings by working all morning before going to school in the afternoon. One night Eduardo's mother told him she was moving to the United States with his younger siblings. Because she could not afford to take him, he was told to stay in their house by himself, where his uncles would occasionally check in on him. She left the next day. Eduardo was 14 years old.

For two years after his mother left him in Mexico, Eduardo lived in the family's house alone. Each morning, he rode his bike a half hour to and from work, returned home to change his clothes and then went to school in the afternoon. He recalls how his teacher made an example of him in front of his classmates by pointing out his unwashed clothes and body odor, warning other students not to be "stinky" like Eduardo, but to take a shower before coming to school. He remembers going hungry when the two pesos he had would only buy him bread and water. And when he talks about his loneliness during those two years, he wipes away tears.

"It was sad. Life was sad," he says. "I remember at Christmas, I didn't have anybody. I knew a couple of friends, but they did drugs and I didn't. And my uncles were really mean to me." After his mother settled in Idaho, she called a few times and sent him small amounts of extra money when she could. But she was working at McDonald's, walking to work because she couldn't afford a car, and providing for her three kids on her $6.25-an-hour fast-food job. There wasn't usually much money left over for Eduardo.

"That's why my uncle decided to let me borrow the money to bring me here," explains Eduardo. "Sometimes, when I was in Mexico, I talked to my brothers and asked them, 'Did you learn anything in English?' and they'd say, 'Yeah, we learned the colors and we can talk to people.' So I told my mom that I wanted to know how it is in the United States and to learn English and to go to school." Even before he left his home state, Eduardo felt that learning English was an essential means to an end--an end that he says isn't in Jalisco. "I don't want to lose my opportunity. Everything there is in the United States, we do not have in Mexico."

From Guadalajara, Eduardo took a three-day bus ride to a border town with a man he calls "his partner," someone he knew in Mexico who was crossing into the United States to join his wife.

"When you get off the bus, the coyotes ask you if you want to cross the border," he explains. Eduardo and his partner struck a deal with the coyote offering the lowest price--$2,000, the entirety of the sum he'd borrowed from his uncle.

He left his small backpack behind and followed the coyote with only the clothes he was wearing and a bottle of water into the desert, where he and his partner were among a small group of people who spent several hours waiting for the coyote to scope out the border patrol and return. As he lay there, he watched the lights from the passing patrols and decided it was too difficult to cross that night. The risk was too great, he says, there were too many police. When the coyote returned, he and another man helped Eduardo and his partner through a swiftly moving river and helped them to jump a fence in which they had cut holes.

Just after they jumped to the U.S.-side of the fence, a border patrolman drove by and the group re-crossed into Mexico to avoid being caught. For another hour, Eduardo lay in the desert, disheartened that they'd been forced to turn back. He was frightened by the reality of crossing the border and by the possibility that he could be caught. The stretching landscape of desert between Mexico and the United States may be only cactus and a river as far as nature is concerned, and crossing an imaginary line in the sand is a nebulous concept for someone who's spent years hungry, poor and lonely. But as Eduardo waited to cross a second time, the border was no longer a concept. It was a fence and a platoon of patrolmen, and while he was waiting to cross a second time, he says the fact of what he was doing became real.

After they waded through the river and jumped over the fence a second time, the coyote led the group on foot through the desert for several hours until they reached a neighborhood on the outskirts of a small town. The pregnant woman who had crossed with the group was too tired to continue and stopped with her husband to wait for the police to find them. The rest of the group hid for several hours in a playground before crawling into a broken-down van outside the home of a woman who worked with the coyotes.

Later the group was moved into the woman's home, where they ate and waited to be moved again. Eduardo and his partner were picked up by a man who shuffled them back and forth between gas stations and public parks before they were transferred into another car and taken to a hotel where they were able to shower and eat again before being moved into an abandoned house. Though Eduardo had 500 pesos (about $50), he spoke no English, didn't know how or where to change his money into dollars, and more importantly, had been instructed to stay in the house and away from the windows. He remembers being so hungry that he ate an onion he'd found in the pantry.

Over the course of the week Eduardo and his partner were hidden in the house, new arrivals were dropped off each day, until they'd been joined by nearly 100 people. When the house was too full to accommodate anyone else, the coyotes loaded the people into a van in small groups and took them to a nearby airport. Here, the immigrants hid in bushes until a group of about 200 were loaded into the back of a refrigerated semi-truck. The coyotes loaded boxes in around them to hide the crowd, and the coyotes gave cell phones to several people in the group so that if anyone in the trailer were in danger or dying, the driver could be called and the truck emptied.

Eduardo says that the truck drove for five hours with the group in the back, and was pulled over several times by police and border patrol. Even though the officers opened up the semi for inspection, they never saw the castaways and always allowed the truck to continue. The semi stopped in a lemon orchard farm in California, where cars quickly arrived to retrieve as much human cargo as they could carry. Eduardo and his partner spent the next few days bouncing around houses, working in the fields to earn some quick cash and making arrangements through Eduardo's mother to drive to Idaho, which cost another $500.

Two weeks after he left home, Eduardo arrived in Jalisco's sister state. He went to work right away. His mother knew someone who provided him with a fake alien registration identification card and for $150, he purchased a stolen social security number. Eduardo says that in his experience in Boise, employers often know that the social security numbers of immigrant workers are false but don't care. "They know that all Mexicans work like that, but Mexicans are good workers," he says. "They let you work and get the paycheck but all the money you pay in taxes goes to someone else." Eduardo says he knows of illegal workers who've been fired for Social Security fraud only to be hired back the next day by the same boss at the same job with a new social Security number.

When he arrived in Idaho, Eduardo started high school as a sophomore to learn English during the day while working at night to pay back the money he borrowed for his journey. He used to walk to his job as a restaurant dishwasher, but he recently bought a car--though he says he tries not to drive because he's afraid of being pulled over, and because it's unsafe and he feels guilty for not having a license or insurance.

When school lets out next May, Eduardo will be faced with many of the same life decisions as his classmates--except that unlike them, his first task is getting American citizenship. It's an obstacle that seems so insurmountable, he's even considered going into the U.S. military--even though he doesn't want to go to war--because he's been told that he can get citizenship that way.

Ask him what he'd do with his life if he had his diploma and his American citizenship, and he doesn't have a simple answer. It's as if no one has ever posed the question to him, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" He has a hard time even hypothesizing about having those options available to him. First, he says he would like to concentrate his efforts on helping his family become legal. He talks about how difficult it's been for his pregnant sister to get medical care and to pay for the hospital bills she's incurred without medical insurance. He says he likes Idaho and wants to stay here to go to college, but the people he's already talked to about college have discouraged him because it's too expensive.

Finally, he offers a simple answer, of the one thing he feels he can be in Idaho that he couldn't in Jalisco: "I want to be something."

F or Fabian and Alejandra, also from Guadalajara in Jalisco, their reasons for immigrating to Idaho are far less idealistic than Eduardo's. For them, the decision to leave Mexico was motivated by economic factors, and was necessitated by Fabian's simple need to feed and house his family.

In Jalisco, Fabian was an accountant and a teacher at the University of Guadalajara. He holds the country's highest degree in accountancy, which equates to a Master's degree in the United States, and has several professional certifications in his field. Five years ago, however, he was let go by his employer when he refused to be transferred to another city.

With her layered hair and sleek black sunglasses, Alejandra looks much younger than her 45 years. She worked at several different jobs in Guadalajara, including being a teller at a bank and a secretary at a car dealership, but her employment was not enough to sustain the family financially.

"It's very difficult to get a job in Mexico after you turn 35," Fabian says through a translator. "The unemployment rate is very high and there are many people competing for positions." Fabian, now 49, says that employers start forcing out aging employees in order to avoid having to pay pensions to employees who will soon retire.

"This is not just true for accountants, but for any position," Alejandra adds.

For eight months after losing his job, Fabian looked for new work, living off his three-month severance pay and--more than anything else--his credit cards. Finally, he and Alejandra decided that he would travel to the United States to find work. Of course, he had no illusions about what he was doing.

"I knew that the type of job I'd get here would be in a restaurant or a job like that," he says. In Mexico, he worked 8-hour shifts, six days a week. In the United States, he says, he has averaged 14-hour days.

Using a tourist visa to get into the country, Fabian worked in California for eight months as a dishwasher before moving up to Idaho, where his sister lives. He has spent the last three and a half years in Idaho, while Alejandra and the couple's three children continued to live in Jalisco. Several months ago, Alejandra and their youngest child joined him in Boise--although much of her family was opposed to the move.

"My mother said, 'Sure you'll make more money, but you'll spend more, too," she recalls. Likewise, Fabian's relatives told him, "If you're [screwed] in Mexico, you'll be [screwed] there, too."

Unlike Eduardo, Fabian and his family did not have to rely on the imprecise and dangerous network of smugglers to enter the United States. While the couple will not disclose the exact way that they have figured out how to turn their 90-day tourist visas into a three-year residency, they both readily admit that they live in a fear that borders on paranoia. Recently, when Alejandra went on a walk with their son, a police officer walked by.

"I kind of froze and didn't know what to do," she says. "We don't know what's allowed, and I was afraid [the officer] would stop me and ask, 'What are you doing walking with your son when it's dark?'"

Accustomed to being in well-respected social and professional positions in Mexico, both Fabian and Alejandra are dismayed at the response they've met with while living in Boise. Alejandra says that the neighbors in their apartment complex refuse to speak with her and often return to their apartments when they see she and Fabian outside. When he was working as a janitor at a downtown office building, Fabian was often treated badly by workers still in the building and was even shut out of offices by people who were reluctant to trust him.

However, helping Fabian cope is his confidence that he will return to Mexico. Working in the United States, he says, was his only option, and it's one he's reluctant to fully embrace. He is not the optimistic teenager that Eduardo is, nor does he hope to one day become an American citizen. Both he and Alejandra miss their life in Mexico. There, they regularly ate, shopped, danced and went to hot springs with their friends and family. Now their family has been separated, with their oldest children living in Mexico, and their social lives are consumed by work.

They say that they do not appreciate being referred to as criminals for being here. They may be working illegally, says Fabian, but they are in this country legally and the jobs that they hold here (Fabian holds two jobs in restaurant kitchens and Alejandra is a cleaning woman), are not jobs Americans want. "The people who think immigrants are criminals only create racism and discrimination," he says. "We aren't taking jobs from Americans because these are the jobs no one wants."

And though they say they're both happy to do the jobs they have, continuing to work menial jobs for which they are far over-qualified creates much frustration. When Fabian started applying for jobs in the United States, he listed all of his degrees and qualifications, but found employers reluctant to hire him because they assumed that given his experience, he'd soon quit jobs like dishwashing. At a job he recently started, Fabian listed only his relevant kitchen experience on his application and works for managers who don't know his former career in Mexico. However, for a man with few choices in employment, disregarding his past accomplishments is sadly necessary.

"Somebody asked me to help at a wood shop," Fabian recalls. "They asked, 'Do you know how to hammer a nail?' and I said, 'I know how to hammer a nail, but on top of that, I know how to do taxes, and inventories,' and the guy didn't say anything."

Despite being able to laugh about their situation in Idaho, Fabian and Alejandra say they have struggled with their current situation. Both admit that their move out of Mexico has been very difficult for personal and professional reasons, and yet, they agree that if it were possible for them to remain in Idaho, work legally and travel back to Mexico to visit family, they would stay only for the sake of their son's opportunities for the future.

Right now, however, the family is on a three-year plan to move back to Jalisco. Their goal is first to pay off the debts they incurred while living on credit cards and traveling between the United States and Mexico over the last four years. Second, they hope to save enough money to open a pastry shop or small restaurant back in Jalisco. While she's in Boise, Alejandra is studying English so that she can practice with their son, who attends school in Boise and is also learning to speak English. Like Eduardo, Fabian and Alejandra see their son's fluency in English as an important key to his financial future. When they return to Mexico, they intend to enroll him in a bilingual school because they feel that English might be the tool that prevents him, too, from having to immigrate to the United States to work.

In the meantime, they live in a precarious financial holding pattern that is similar to that of many Idahoans--overworked, struggling to build savings, uninsured and one medical emergency away from financial ruin. Through a contact Fabian developed while working as a janitor, they know where to get seen by a doctor for free. Asked about more serious scenarios, Alejandra crosses herself.

"We'd go to the emergency room and pay however we can," Fabian says.

However, while the pair are confident in their three-year plan, Fabian does not offer much enthusiasm about the future of Jalisco and Mexico. For him, Mexico's failings are a combination of many factors that boil down to decades of political corruption coupled with discrimination in the workforce, and those two things together create high unemployment rates, which, in turn, create high rates of illegal immigration into the United States.

With respect to conditions in Idaho's sister state, the couple say they feel it's unlikely that things will change for the better any time soon. But in regard to immigration issues between the United States and Mexico, Fabian favors regulation so that people can work legally for a period of time, stay free to travel back to Mexico to keep ties with home, and then return home or renew their work visa once their time is finished.

"If the government can do that, it's best," he says, referring to a program that would allow temporary legal work stays, "If the United States kicks 40 million people out of the country, the fields will be empty and the work won't be done. But if [Mexico and the United States] could sit down and work it out, it would be best for both sides."

Almost like family, you could say.