An undocumented man’s stubborn search for work puts an unemployed college graduate’s experience into perspective
I first met Jose Naranjero* last July, in a dusty little Mexican town called Naco, which lies just across the border wall from Bisbee, Ariz. I was in the middle of a three-week stint volunteering for No More Deaths, a Tucson, Ariz.-based group that works to protect the lives and human rights of migrants. I was part of a team that left supplies of food and water in the Sonoran desert, where many border crossers have gotten lost and then perished from hunger, thirst, dehydration, and other causes.
In Naco, I retraced the steps of many to the door of an immigrant resource center run by folks from Bisbee, which assists people dumped on the Mexican side after being collared by U.S. Border Patrol. On my second day working in this tiny, crowded facility, two friends of Jose Naranjero showed up looking for him. All three men had tried to enter the U.S. two nights before, but had the bad luck to run into “la migra.”
As Jose’s fellow travelers sipped black coffee served by center volunteers, they spoke shyly, in slow stilted Spanish. Coming from the distant Yucatan, their first language is Maya. They had last seen Jose while they were in custody at Bisbee’s Border Patrol detention center, and feared their friend might be in more than the usual amount of trouble; he had been issued a black wristband, usually a sign that the wearer is suspected of being a convicted criminal or a documented repeat violator of U.S. immigration laws.
Within 24 hours, the missing man had been found. Jose himself came into the center with his two friends the next day; immediately, all three compañeros tried to slip across the border again, again without success.
Jose told me they were aiming for my own adopted city, San Francisco, where he had been working as a line cook at an Italian restaurant before he decided to return to Mexico to see his family. Like many people who came to the center, he had mistakenly assumed it would be as easy to get back into the U.S.
Each night that I stayed in Naco, Jose and his friends tried to re-enter Arizona. Each time, they were caught in the desert, returned to Mexico by la migra, and showed up at the resource center in time for coffee and a hot cup of noodles the next morning, saying “Hola, Alexandra!” “Otra vez?” I would ask, we would all laugh at the absurdity of this daily cycle of activity.
Jose’s friends gave up and headed back to the Yucatan, but Jose and I made a pact that if he did ever get back to San Francisco, we would meet up again to continue exchanging English lessons for tutoring in Maya. When I left Naco a few days later to catch my flight from Tucson to California, I seriously doubted that I would ever see Jose again.
In San Francisco, the struggle continues
Two days after I arrived home, I answered my phone and heard a familiar “Hola, Alexandra.” Jose was back in the Bay Area – but not without scars and debts accumulated during his latest passage. He had fractured his foot, but nevertheless immediately returned to work at the same Italian restaurant he had cooked at before. Only now, he owed $5,000 to the coyotes who had finally smuggled him across the border successfully. He was desperate to find a second full-time job so he could pay them off faster.
We soon met for his first English lesson, focusing on “vocabulary for the job seeker.” At my suggestion, Jose began attending ESL classes at San Francisco City College, but he soon stopped to devote more time to finding the second job. He had little time for non-income producing distractions. “We are here for a short time, just to work,” he told me. “We want to get back to our families as soon as we can.” He asked about my family in Massachusetts all the time, baffled by the fact that I choose to live so far from them when I don’t have any economic reason to.
One day on his way to work, a few months after his return to San Francisco, Jose was spooked when he bumped into a Border Patrol agent he recognized; she had caught him and his friends during that absurd week of nightly border hopping. The woman stopped on the sidewalk, Jose said, asking, “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?” “No,” Jose mumbled, and tried to walk away. But the woman persisted: “I do know you. I caught you in Arizona… Well, I’m happy to see you here. How are you doing? Are you working?”
Scared and shaken by this bizarre encounter, Jose didn’t tell her that he was working illegally in the kitchen of her neighborhood Italian restaurant. If this woman was so “happy” to see him in San Francisco, why did she and her co-workers make it so hard for him to get back here?
Jose’s run-in with this off-duty border agent reminded him of all the other times he has felt afraid in our country, like when he was riding a city bus and San Francisco police officers came aboard to check passes or remove rowdy passengers. For many other undocumented workers, San Francisco is not the “sanctuary city” it claims to be.
After months of searching, Jose called one day to report that he had finally found additional work at a “restuarante de sushi.” Now he prepares pizza and salad six evenings a week in his original job and sushi rice and chicken teriyaki, five days a week, on a morning shift at his second job. He has very little time to sleep or improve his English, but is grateful for two paychecks. Meanwhile, I’m still out of work, seven months after I started looking and six months after I returned to San Francisco.
Facing a flawed ‘labor market’
I try to regard this lengthy period of unemployment as a chance to help people like Jose, even if I can’t get hired to do it. No More Deaths, ESL tutoring programs, and other nonprofit organizations are not exactly flush with “stimulus” money these days. Since leaving Arizona last summer and walking San Francisco’s streets since then, with resume in hand, the basic injustice of our economic system – in which so many people, whether native- or foreign-born, have to struggle so hard just to make a living – is clearer to me than ever before.
My struggle for work has meant subjecting myself to the scrutiny of countless potential employers via the Internet and face-to-face interviews. Rejections often leave me feeling anxious and worthless. But at least I don’t have to watch my back every moment like Jose does. His struggle to answer “Help Wanted” ads in California has taken him across a physically and legally dangerous stretch of an increasingly militarized international border. He’s left his family multiple times, risking his health and life, and willingly accepted the arduous and precarious job conditions of America’s undocumented workforce.
In America and Mexico, flawed “labor markets” have left Jose and me and millions of others in a place we don’t want to be, whether it’s in an unemployment line or working illegally far from home.
*Jose’s name has been changed to protect his identity.