Although it is no longer front page news, thousands of New Yorkers are still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But one group of New Yorkers has gone unnoticed in the recovery: undocumented immigrants. As a former undocumented immigrant myself, this group’s plight is something that I can’t ignore like many New Yorkers seem to. Here are some facts about undocumented immigrants that many people are unaware of: they do not get financial aid for school or food stamps or free health care. They are exploited and they accept it because it is still better than what they left to come here. But their experience needs to be reflected on, because how we treat undocumented immigrants demonstrates a lot about us as a society.
The day after Hurricane Sandy, my husband and I went to the nearest diner for brunch. We sat down and our waiter took our order. This is just an assumption, but it is more than a little bit likely that this man was undocumented. And even if our waiter wasn’t, the guys in the back washing the dishes and making our food surely were. The fact is that these types of low-paying service jobs in New York City are almost exclusively held by undocumented immigrants because, let’s face it, how many Americans actually want to wash dishes, clean toilets, and do other menial jobs for 7 dollars an hour—or less—with absolutely no rights or benefits?
Many men and women—just like the waiter, the dishwashers and busboys at the diner—went to work the day after Sandy, taking care of people’s children, cleaning strangers’ houses, taking care of other people’s grandmothers and grandfathers. Regardless of whether their own homes were flooded or washed away, these undocumented immigrants had to go to work the next day. And what’s more, when these men and women go back to their own hurricane-damaged homes, no one will help them. FEMA won’t be there to assist them, so they will have to rely on local shelters and local donation centers that don't care about their immigration status. Unfortunately, many of these immigrants might not even know about this option because of how poorly news travel in their circles—especially the non-English speaking ones.
Coney Island—which is heavily populated by undocumented immigrants—was decimated. Homes were flooded and people’s things were washed away. Interestingly, as devastating as that would be for most people, for many immigrants, it’s not the end of the world. After all, most immigrants come here with just a few dollars in their pockets and somehow find a way to make it work. The mentality of immigrants today is the same as it was when being an immigrant was not a crime: We work hard for the best future possible; you can sleep when you’re dead. With that said, it is still a major setback and most of the undocumented immigrants are too afraid to say anything or to ask for help for the same reason that they have not tried achieving legal status. They fear getting caught and deported.
I grew up in Coney Island and lived there for five years. I saw the neighborhood last week and it was heartbreaking to see how badly it was hit. I took itpersonally. This neighborhood and the people in it shaped who I am today. I found out recently that the building I used to live in was flooded. And I wondered how immigrants living there now could handle a situation like this or how my mother would have handled a situation like this.
You might be wondering why landlords would even rent to undocumented immigrants to begin with. Well, the truth is, landlords love undocumented immigrants. We pay cash and we never complain—not about a leak, not about peeling paint or no heat and, more than likely, we wouldn’t even complain about a hurricane. I’m not saying all landlords are scumbags—some of them have to be decent—but a lot of them, in certain parts of the city, exploit immigrants because they know that their undocumented tenants will never dare hold them responsible for anything.
In my experience, there are two types of undocumented immigrants. There are the ones who keep their heads down and stay silent forever. And then there are the ones who proudly go out there to say that they’re undocumented, even if it means that they get deported. This second group tend to be younger, and eligible for the DREAM Act, emboldened by their possible new status. My mother and I belonged to the first group. I never went out when I was younger because that way I could never get in trouble. I carefully chose my friends so that they wouldn’t be the type to get me in risky situations. I never told anyone of my situation until I was sure that I would be able to achieve legal status. Even then I was still careful. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if my mother and I had been flooded while still illegal. I suppose we would have tried to find a friend who would let us stay with them. The problem with that, though, is that most undocumented immigrants keep their social circle small and are normally only friends with people that live in the general same area, which would mean that all our potential friends could have been flooded too. As a last resort, we could have tried looking for a new place, but that’s a time-consuming and costly decision that I’m not sure my mother would have been willing or able to make right away.
Undocumented immigrants may not be police officers or firemen, but they are as essential as anyone else to the survival of this city. They are the reason your friend who just had a baby can afford a babysitter and is able to come out with you instead of staying home. They are the ones who take care of your elderly parents or grandparents when you can’t. And they do these jobs—that Americans never tend to want to do themselves—for very little money and no benefits or vacation days.
The people I am describing are not troublemakers. And most of them, contrary to popular belief, do not send everything they make back to their home countries. Much of the time, they use their money to better the lives of the children they have here, who won’t ever qualify for financial aid but still want to get a quality education. These people would gladly pay taxes and go for jury duty. They gladly do low-level jobs for any amount of money. They deserve to be recognized for this work and have the opportunity to work without a cloud of fear constantly hanging over them. So, today, when you go into your deli and order a coffee, think about the guy on the opposite side of the counter and what his life is like Post-Sandy. Because, unfortunately, no one else is.