Imagining undocumented life

During the last month, I’ve spent a lot of time on visas. I need visas to enter certain countries and to establish residency in a new country. Without the visa I can’t rent a flat – at least not formally, I can’t apply for a job, and I can’t make any sort of long-term plans. I’ve lived in countries from which I can’t actually fly home if I don’t have an exit visa.

So these days I’ve been keenly aware of the value of documents. A birth certificate, a passport, a bank account, a visa. Something I can pull out at any time that proves to people that I am who I say I am, and I have the right to exist.

During this month of waiting for visas, I’ve been staying in Northern Virginia, an area with thousands of undocumented residents – mostly migrant workers from El Salvador and other Central American countries. I don’t want to comment here on whether they have the right to be here or not. What I want to comment on is their attitude.

I walk down the highway near our house and I see clumps of men sitting in the sun. I try not to make eye contact, because I’ve heard that in their culture girls who make eye contact may be asking for more. And, if I’m completely honest, they look scary to me.

But I glance at their faces, and I see a steely courage. I see faces of people who have suffered, who have seen unthinkable things. A middle-aged man who  showed up early in the morning and may sit on the side of the road all day, hoping, just hoping, some white guy will pass by and hire him to do a day’s worth of lawnwork. But that’s nothing for him compared to what he’s dealt with before.

He has a family depending on him, maybe a wife and children, maybe parents and a disabled brother or cousin. He’s going to try to find work and make some money. It may happen or it may not happen – that’s what life is like.

And because he’s undocumented, he pays double rent what another person would pay. He has to pay cash for the bus, which costs more than buying ahead. That guy who hires him to do lawnwork may or may not pay him, and that’s just the way life rolls.

Regardless of my opinion of immigration rules, I decide I need to respect a man who is willing to live a life that I’m not. Seeing him makes me want to crawl back into my comfortable, documented, world. He has to do it, but he does it with heart.

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