Living Day-to-Day 

Life is a constant struggle for Memphis' undocumented immigrants.

Chioma Diallo,* along with her husband and three children, moved to Memphis from Africa in 1994 in search of the American dream. What she got instead was an American nightmare.

*Names of undocumented immigrants have been changed to protect identities.

Diallo's been waiting for a green card for 14 years. Without permanent residency status, she's been denied work and health care.

"My husband moved us here so he could go to school. He had a career to pursue," says Diallo, a soft-spoken woman with a heavy African accent. "We had an application for a green card, and they told us it'd take about 10 years. But it's been 14 years now and still no green card."

The family entered the country legally on a temporary visa and applied for a green card through a relative who is a U.S. citizen. But the card wasn't approved before their visa expired. Now the family are considered illegal "overstays."

Without a green card, Diallo's husband was denied reentry into the U.S. after he left to visit family in Cameroon six years ago, leaving Diallo to raise her three children alone.

"I'm very limited because I've been here all these years without a Social Security number," Diallo says. "Everyday, basic family needs are a big struggle. I depend on other people. They give $100 here or $200 there, but it's never enough to support a family."

Without a Social Security number, Diallo has been unable to find work. She can't apply for TennCare, even though she desperately needs medical insurance to deal with the breast cancer she contracted a few years ago.

"So many hospitals have turned me away, but I finally found a doctor who allowed me to make payment arrangements," says Diallo, as her eyes glaze with tears.

Two of her children will finish high school soon, and though many of their friends are looking into colleges, Diallo cannot afford to send her children to college.

"Back home, it's a big dream to come to America. It's the land of opportunity, but when you get here and encounter so many obstacles, your dreams start to fade and die," Diallo says.

Diallo's situation isn't uncommon in Memphis, where thousands of undocumented immigrants face daily struggles ranging from denial of social benefits to exploitation in the workplace to fears of being deported.

"Many of these people are leading lawful lives and their only crime is the way they entered the country. Some even entered legally and simply overstayed," says Pablo Davis, director of Latino Memphis, a nonprofit advocacy group for both documented and undocumented Hispanic immigrants. "Yet they're often treated as criminals. They're here working and paying taxes, and in many cases, they're not getting the benefits."

Immigration Nation

Immigration reform has been a hot national topic for years. In 2006, President George Bush signed a bill authorizing a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border. In June, a comprehensive immigration reform bill that called for establishing a guest-worker program and higher penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers was pulled from the Senate floor. Meanwhile, workplace raids on illegal immigrants have been stepped up.

click to enlarge Africa Gonzalez helps local immigrant women at the YMCA. - BY JUSTIN FOX BURKS

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain recently spoke to Latinos at the National Council of La Raza in San Diego about their immigration reform plans. Obama favors fining illegal immigrants and making citizenship easier for those who are already here. McCain's focus is on strengthening border security.

There's a common perception among politicians and the mainstream media that most immigrants are Mexicans who've illegally crossed the border. But many immigrants, like Diallo, enter the country on temporary visas as visitors or students and stay after their visas expire.

The immigrant community in Memphis is largely Hispanic but also includes a sizable population of Africans, Asians, Indians, and Middle Easterners. They come to Memphis for a variety of reasons. Many seek better working conditions and financial stability. Others move here to join U.S. citizen family members, and some relocate to escape war or oppression in their home countries.

"Some people say they should get in line [for citizenship]. But there is no line," says Moses Villarreal, the West Tennessee organizer for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), a group that lobbies at the state level against bills they consider anti-immigrant.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the American economy relies on 485,000 new, low-skilled immigrant workers each year, but the U.S. immigration system only issues 5,000 visas in a typical year. At that rate, it would take centuries for all the country's illegal immigrants to gain legal residency status.

Innocent Criminals

On a mild April afternoon, a mix of Latinos, Caucasians, and a few African Americans are gathered at Gaisman Park, located in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood near Summer and Graham. Each person is holding a white candle with a cardboard base. Their heads are bowed in prayer.

"We know, God, that you know our pain. Your son Jesus was an immigrant," prays the Rev. Rebekah Jordan, a United Methodist minister and executive director of the Workers Interfaith Network. "We pray for those who would exploit those workers, that they would repent. We pray for those who were victims of the raids. Let them know they are not alone."

Jordan, along with several local ministers and immigrant-rights advocates, are leading a prayer vigil in response to recent workplace raids at five Pilgrim's Pride poultry processing plants around the country.

The mid-April raids, one of which took place at a plant in Chattanooga, netted 280 immigrants. Some were accused of stealing Social Security numbers to gain employment at Pilgrim's Pride, but others were apprehended for being in the wrong place at the right time. Those determined to be in the country illegally but not guilty of identity theft will eventually be deported.

In another raid in March, federal agents arrested 34 suspected illegal immigrants, all Mexican men, who were working on the new Tennessee Air National Guard base at Memphis International Airport.

The airport raid was the largest in Memphis recently. Workplace round-ups are common in other parts of the country, but are rare here. Still, no matter where they occur, the raids have a ripple effect on the local immigrant community.


"Memphis receives Fox News and national talk-radio programs. It's difficult to expect people to be able to separate local issues from national issues. When these raids happen, it sows uncertainty among the [undocumented] people here," Davis says.

The Memphis Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, which serves a five-state region, focuses most of its resources on illegal immigrants who commit crimes or fugitives who've ignored orders of deportation.

Last year, the Shelby County Sheriff's Office signed on to ICE's Criminal Alien Program (CAP), which requires jail booking staff to ask all arrestees a set of questions to determine residency status.

"We ask where you were born and if you're a citizen of another country," says Steve Shular, public affairs officer with the county sheriff's office.

If an inmate is suspected of living here illegally, jail staff calls on ICE to make the final determination. Though the program successfully roots out serious criminals, some immigrant-rights advocates worry that those guilty of misdemeanor crimes may fall victim to deportation as well.

"There are many people falling through the cracks. People are going to jail for driving without a license, not having insurance, or even for a broken tail light," Villarreal says. "They need to adjust the CAP program so that only real criminals are deported."

During a recent preliminary hearing at the Memphis Immigration Court, a middle-aged woman from the Philippines faces Judge Lawrence Burman, as her husband and baby boy sit in the back of the courtroom. She entered the country on a temporary visa in 2006 but never left. Last year, she was jailed for domestic violence, and though the details of the charge are not discussed in court, she accepts an order of deportation from the judge.

Despite the fact that some are deported for misdemeanor crimes, illegal immigrants have a better chance of evading deportation in Memphis than they do in Nashville, where police are trained to act as immigration agents through ICE's 287(g) program.

"In some places with 287(g), they're pulling people over because the tinting on their windows is too dark, or they've started enforcing jaywalking," says immigration attorney Greg Siskand of the Siskand Susser Bland law firm. "In some cases, it's become glorified racial profiling."

While some police forces actively seek out all illegal immigrants, Shelby County sheriff Mark Luttrell has stated that officers are primarily interested in seeking out undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes.

"We're not using our day-to-day resources to do round-ups of people violating the residency status of this country," Shular says. "We don't go to the work-crew sites and check statuses. We don't have the enforcement power to do that. Our day-to-day task is to stop and prevent crime."

Living In Fear

Even though local law enforcement has vowed to go easy on immigrants who don't break the law, many are still afraid to call the police when they're victims of crime. Since immigrants are unable to open bank accounts without a Social Security number, they tend to carry large amounts of cash, making them easy targets for robbery.

A team of three Hispanic officers from the Shelby County Sheriff's Department and one Hispanic liaison in the Memphis Police Department team up for regular community meetings to educate immigrants about calling police despite their residency status.

"When we're called to a crime scene, all we ask is name, age, and phone number for the report. We don't discriminate by asking someone's legal status," says Shelby County deputy Marco Yzaguirre.

Despite local police outreach efforts, immigrant advocates believe plenty of crimes against Hispanics go unreported.

"The sheriff's office has been good about stressing the importance of reporting crime and calling the police, but many immigrants still see [just] a badge," Villarreal says.

In some cases, reporting crime doesn't always benefit the crime victims. Africa Gonzalez, director of Immigrant Women's Services at the YWCA, works with domestic violence victims, and she says some immigrant women fear losing everything if their abusive husbands are deported.

"What if the abuser is the provider for you and your children? You've never been able to work because you live in a cycle where he doesn't empower you. You know if you call the police, he'll be arrested and deported," Gonzalez says. "Then you find yourself alone with three kids. You don't speak the language, and you don't even know how to drive. So instead of reporting, you think, 'I'll just let it go on.'"

Through her program at the YWCA, Gonzalez empowers abuse victims so they can learn to support themselves and leave abusive situations. She encourages women to report the abuse but often hears that not only are the women afraid of the police, they avoid all authority figures.

"There's a panic right now in the immigrant community, and a lot of people don't want anything to do with the authorities," Gonzalez says. "Unfortunately, they even see doctors as authority figures."

Cheap (and Sometimes Free) Labor

House painters Jose Garcia* and Carlos Martinez* each spent about 70 hours per week in April on a painting project. When the job was complete and the men attempted to cash their paychecks, they were told their employer's checks were no good.

Garcia and Martinez turned to the Memphis Workers Center, a new rights organization run by the Workers Interfaith Network (formerly the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice).

The workers center helps immigrant laborers organize to improve labor conditions and hosts weekly workshops to teach workers their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

At a recent Thursday night meeting, Garcia and Martinez share their story, and other Latino men speak about similar situations in which employers refused to make good on wages. Alfredo Pena, a Hispanic man with a jovial demeanor, uses an easel to explain workplace rights in Spanish.

Pena says all workers, regardless of residency status, are guaranteed a minimum wage, worker's compensation, the right to organize unions, and overtime pay when applicable.

"Not being paid for working overtime is one of the main problems," Pena says. "Some employers will work immigrants more than 40 hours a week, but they pay them cash, so there's no record of them working overtime. Being new to this country, some immigrants don't even know what overtime is."

Another common problem, according to Pena, involves temporary agencies refusing to pay hospital bills when immigrant workers are injured on the job. Sometimes, such as in the Garcia and Martinez case, employers simply refuse to pay wages at all.

Several months ago, the Memphis Workers Center took on a case in which 12 Hispanic workers from the Phoenix Recycling plant in North Memphis claimed they hadn't been paid in months.

"They were getting paid in the beginning, but after the Christmas holidays, they began having problems collecting their wages," Pena says. According to the center's research, the company owed the workers $20,000 collectively.

The Flyer covered the story in April, and at the time, owner Leonard Alexander admitted that he owed the workers some money, but he contested the amount. Alexander claimed he owed the workers about $3,000.

"The company is not doing well at all," Alexander told the Flyer. "I want to pay them their money if I can stay in business."

Since then, Pena and Alexander have attempted to work out a payment plan. Though some payments have been made, Pena says Alexander still owes $8,000. The workers held a prayer vigil outside the plant last month, and the next day, Alexander informed Pena that he would try to take out a loan from the bank to complete payments.

Crushing Dreams

Twenty-year-old Gabby Castillo* moved to Memphis with her family when she was 6 years old. She barely remembers her early childhood in Mexico, and though she takes pride in her Hispanic culture, she thinks of the U.S. as home. Castillo excelled in high school as an honors student, but when it came time to enroll at Southwest Tennessee Community College, she ran into a problem.

"Even though I've lived here all my life, I had to register as an international student," says Castillo, whose family has been in the process of adjusting their illegal status for five years. "I'm paying three times as much as a regular student, and I can't get any federal money."

Only private scholarships are available to Castillo, and though she earned a few, she's struggling to pay the rest of her tuition. Castillo was a big proponent of the now-defunct DREAM Act (an acronym for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), a piece of federal legislation that would have provided legal residency status for children of illegal immigrants who wished to attend college or join the military. The bill failed in the Senate last October.

Last year, she and a few fellow sociology students produced a documentary about the struggles faced by seven undocumented Memphis students who aspired to attend college.

"We interviewed a set of twins who were recruited for Southwest Mississippi Community College as soccer players. The day they spoke to the recruiter, they were told they'd get scholarships, but then they got a letter in the mail saying they wouldn't be admitted [due to their residency status]," Castillo says.

Before the DREAM Act was voted down, Castillo presented the documentary at several conferences and high schools. She even traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby in support of the bill. Though it didn't pass, the bill is expected to make a comeback with some revisions next year.

As an undocumented immigrant, life hasn't been easy for Castillo. In 1996, her dad was nabbed in a workplace raid, and a co-worker called immigration agents to report her mom's illegal status. Both parents were ordered deported. Castillo was in the third grade when her family was forced back to Mexico.

"I'd already learned everything in English, so when I got to school in Mexico, it was so hard. [In the States], I'd never had a grade lower than a B, so I was freaking out," Castillo says.

The family moved back to the U.S. three years later, and Castillo and her four siblings had to readjust again. Now that they're here, Castillo says she and her parents can't visit relatives in Mexico, because they won't be allowed back into the country. Instead, they send the three youngest Castillo children, who are U.S. citizens.

In addition to missing relatives in Mexico, Castillo struggles with quality-of-life issues. She can't get a driver's license, so she has to catch rides to school and work.

"And it's hard to find a job, especially now that employers are getting strict," Castillo says. "Once you find a job, you have to stay because you don't know how hard it will be to find another one."

Though her freedom is at risk, Castillo believes standing up for immigrant rights is a necessary gamble.

"The last time we presented the documentary at our school, there were border patrol officers recruiting people there. The other presenters were like, 'Gabby, maybe you shouldn't do this.' But we presented it anyway," says Castillo, who also helped organize an immigrant-rights march in front of the National Civil Rights Museum in 2005.

"You can't be scared all the time. If you don't speak up, nothing is going to happen," Castillo says.

Unfortunately, rather than speak up, she says many undocumented young people give up on higher education.

"Some students don't strive because of barriers they're facing, and they tend to drop out of high school and give up," Castillo says.

Those dropouts often end up working in the same low-wage jobs as their parents.

"In 10 years, we may have a comprehensive immigration reform bill. But we'll have all these children of immigrants who didn't go to college. That will trickle down and have an effect on the economy," Villarreal says.

Without immigration reform, undocumented residents continue to wrestle with day-to-day inconveniences that U.S. citizens often take for granted. They'll take jobs with harsh working conditions and pray they don't break a bone. They'll continue to pay into the Social Security system without reaping its benefits. They'll avoid calling police even if their life is danger.

"I know immigration is a big issue right now because people took advantage of the system to hurt people on 9/11," Diallo says. "But I wish [the politicians] could try and see how these laws are affecting regular people. We cannot live in this condition forever."

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