A worker without papers

Carlos paid a ‘coyote’ and crossed a desert for a job as a cook in Columbia
Sunday, July 22, 2007 | 8:59 p.m. CDT; updated 4:48 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Editor’s note: Carlos is an undocumented immigrant in Columbia. He agreed to be interviewed by The Urban Pioneer on the condition that his surname and his workplace not be published. Carlos is real, but the circumstances of his entry into the United States and the details of his story are representative of other Latino immigrants who are in this country illegally.

Carlos, a stocky 20-year-old with a caramel complexion, risked almost everything to live in the United States.

An undocumented immigrant from Chiapas, Mexico, Carlos (his real name) paid $3,000 to a “coyote” — one who leads small groups of South American and Mexican nationals across the border illegally for a fee — to guide him safely to a U.S. city.

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He walked across the Arizona desert, ran out of food and water and lost his guide. He waited for weeks to be squeezed into a truck with other immigrants anxious to travel hundreds of miles to anywhere in the U.S., hiding from authorities until settling in Columbia.

Carlos is one of about 9.3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to 2004 statistics from the Urban Institute, an independent organization that analyzes, researches and evaluates social issues and programs.

In Missouri, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates there were 35,000 to 65,000 undocumented immigrants in 2005.

Along the U.S. southern edge, Mexican residents scramble across the border, looking for a chance to prosper. They share a common plight, but each has a story to tell.

Mixing broken English into his conversation, Carlos, a cook at a Columbia restaurant, said his journey across the border began four years ago with his two brothers, Pedro and Juan. The three followed their sister, Betty, who arrived a year earlier in the U.S. and has since settled in Michigan with a child.

Carlos traveled by automobile to a small town called Nogales, just south of the border. There, he paid the coyote and began a treacherous walk to opportunity.

“It was no good,” Carlos said about his struggle through the desert.

Forty people joined Carlos in the initial trek from Nogales. And after days of walking through the sandy, arid climate, they heard cries ring out from their fellow travelers: “Hey, the trucks are coming over here!”

Border patrol vehicles had circled the group many times, and the original 40 people accompanying Carlos dwindled to five as the group scattered.

“We knew nothing about the desert,” Carlos recalled. “North, south, nothing.”

Separated from their guide, the small group wandered in the heat with no sense of direction for five hours.

“I thought we were walking back to Mexico,” Carlos said. Eventually, they had a chance encounter with a second coyote, who steered them in the direction of the border.

Once across the boundary, they hid in a small southwestern Native American community in Arizona as they waited for transportation to go farther north. And although the U.S. Border Patrol officials were suspicious of the activity in the area, they conducted no searches while Carlos was waiting and hiding.

Carlos said those who fled Nogales with him used simple phrases for the border patrol’s activity, often passing on the message that “immigration’s rolling.”

When it finally came time for him to be transported to the northern part of the United States, Carlos said he was placed in the trailer of a truck with 100 other people also hiding in the community.

He said he endured the cramped conditions for an hour as the group traveled to Phoenix. From Phoenix, he made his way to Columbia to accept a job.

Carlos said he often thinks about his family in Chiapas. He said he regularly and easily communicates with his parents by telephone, calling them every Sunday and speaking with them for about an hour at a time.

His job, he said, provides him with enough income to mail a significant portion to a bank in Chiapas for his parents.

Carlos said he has not experienced discrimination or resentment toward immigrants or undocumented workers because, he said, there is an incentive for employers to seek out such workers.

“We work the whole day,” Carlos said. “Extra hours and everything.”

He said working legally would be difficult because it requires official papers and identification. The language barrier also is a problem, but Carlos said he doesn’t need to speak much English as a cook in his restaurant’s kitchen.

Carlos said the physical distance between him and his family takes an emotional toll each day. But he said he believes the economic opportunities in the United States are much brighter than in Mexico. The advantages compel Carlos to remain here, he said, if only temporarily.

For example, in Chiapas, a worker earns about $130 a week on a construction job that would pay almost $500 a week in the U.S. In Mexico, he said, food and taxes eat up what little salary many people earn.

As for his future, Carlos said he hopes to one day marry and provide everything for his wife and children — a house and a “negocio” (a small business or store) he hopes to own one day.

His plans call for him to return to Chiapas in December. But he also intends to re-enter the United States illegally, despite the dangers he experienced four years ago.

When asked why he would choose the same route after his journey, Carlos said he doesn’t know how to enter legally.

He will risk it again anyway because he knows the benefits of work and the drawbacks of frivolity.

He told a story about his friend, another immigrant, who found a job and a good salary in the U.S. a few years ago. His friend spent much of his money on cars, alcohol and parties.

“He came here for fun,” Carlos said. When his friend returned to Mexico, “He didn’t have anything there — money, food, anything.”

Carlos said his friend quite often became depressed. Witnessing his friend’s situation, Carlos said he now understands that success depends on dedication.

Another reason he risked so much to come here to work can be found in his advice to immigrants — legal or undocumented.

“Don’t be distracted,” he said. “You need to work for (success).”

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