by Rebecca Ellis

The Occupie

Jose’s 15 inches of resistance for protesters at Wall Street.

Jose, whose last name and place of employment have been withheld to protect his identity because of his immigration status, is more focused on what he calls the  “the Mexican dream” rather than “the American dream.” Instead of buying a big house in the suburbs, Jose looks forward to the day when he can go back to his home country and be with his children.

“I am not afraid to say I am illegally here,” Jose said. “I came like all Mexicans who come here, to work.”

Jose is one of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, according to recent Pew Hispanic Center findings.

His journey was relatively easy. He arrived in 2001 from Tlaxcala by plane, leaving a wayward and troublesome youth behind. He came to the U.S. in order to provide better support for his two kids, who are still living in Mexico.

Jose has lived and worked in the U.S. for eighteen years.  He separated from his ex-wife Columbo, shortly after he arrived to the U.S. But he still sends money home to his kids.

“I advanced more than I probably could have in my own country,” he said.

Jose works 55-56 hours a week as a full-time chef at a downtown pizzeria. He does not receive overtime pay, but says his employer treats him well. Unlike many other undocumented workers, he earns the minimum wage. “Like citizens of the United States,” he said.

One of his specialties is a 15-inch pizza with pepperoni around the edges and lined down the middle, a popular item among the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. The pepperoni is arranged in the shape of the universal protest symbol, served up piping hot to hungry and freezing Wall Street occupiers.

Jose said he does not see how the Occupy Wall Street protests will affect his personal situation as an immigrant in the United States.

Although statistics on under-the-table work are hard to capture, economic motives are inextricably linked to immigration, legal and non-legal.

The World Bank estimates that last year, Mexico received a total of $22.6 billion in remittances from immigrants living in the United States. Since Mexicans make up 55 percent of undocumented immigrant population, according to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement data, it is safe to assume that under-the-table work would account for roughly half of that amount.

“I believe there’s been a decrease in all kinds of immigration in the past two to three years. The economy is trending downward, and these numbers have also gone down,” said David Katona, Chair of the New York chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Indeed, remittances have gone down slightly since 2008.

Like most people from Mexico, without a student visa or relatives who can afford to be sponsors, legal entry on a tourist visa into the United States is next to impossible.

“Immigration law assumes people want to stay. The applicant has to overcome this presumption of wanting to stay by bringing proof of strong social and economic ties to their country,” Sarah, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State Visa Office, explained. She did not want to give her last name, because she is “not a press advisor.”

An immigrant visa, which is an application to legally stay and work in the United States long-term, is even harder to obtain.  Section 214B of Immigration and Nationality Act outlines the procedure for obtaining an immigrant visa to the United States. Mexican citizens have to wait over ten years for the Bureau of Consular Affairs to issue visas to be reunited with their families in the United States. And the visa doesn’t come cheap, especially for many low-wage workers in Mexico who make as little as $450 a month. The visa costs over $1000 after legal and administrative fees.

Jose said that many workers from Mexico come to the U.S. and experience discrimination.

“Here in the United States, the fresas work like us when they come here,” Jose explained. He was referring to people who perceive themselves to be better off in Mexico called fresas, (a slang term which literally “strawberries,” figuratively meaning something akin to “hipsters” or “yuppies”). He emphasized that many fresas, when they get here, have the same social status as working-class Mexicans.

One of the biggest challenges, he says, is holding on to his culture as a Mexican living in the United States. Jose elaborated, this time on broader terms.

“There are many types of cultures,” he said.  “The culture in this foreign country is very different than our own. So we are trying to make sure we don’t lose our culture here. That’s why we try to remember Mexico when we can.”

Asked if he missed Mexico, the conversation snapped back into self-reflective focus. “Of course… My family, my mom, my kids, my country…” Jose’s voice grew soft.

Listen to Jose’s story:

Special thanks to Jose for sharing his story and to Billy Simon for the voice overs.