They lived in fear of deportation, now they’re going into politics. Who are “the undocumented”?


They live quietly and discreetly, doing the jobs that others don’t want, usually in the grey economy and for poor pay. They learn to avoid risks: they go home late and don’t stay in too long, in order to avoid any migration service visits. But despite the risk, or perhaps because of it, many are choosing to become politically active. These are their stories.


This piece was written as part of the Transatlantic Media Fellowships programme, in which the Heinrich Böll Foundation supports engaged journalism and provides scholarships for journalists to travel to the United States. Anna Kiedrzynek, a Newsweek journalist and recipient of a “democracy and human rights” scholarship, visited New York and Washington, gathering reports on the subject of women active in US politics.

Catalina was five years old when she saw a man murdered outside her home. Next to him stood a two-year-old girl, his daughter. Catalina's mother pulled her into the house and hid her. It was 1988, and their hometown, Colombia’s Medellín, was not a place to live, but to die: the city was being shaken by Pablo Escobar, by the explosions of bombs and gang warfare. Catalina's mother, a nurse in a city hospital, saw the victims up-close on a daily basis – shot, torn apart, bleeding. When that man died on her own doorstep, she told her daughter, “Enough; we’re leaving.” They landed in New York, officially as tourists. The heavy, suffocating fear they had felt in Colombia lifted and eased. The fear they felt in the US was different – more subtle, not so crippling. The fear of deportation is like a quiet companion: it is always beside you, but it isn’t constantly demanding attention. Catalina grew up with this fear, she made peace with it wordlessly and without unnecessary negotiations.

All on her own she imagined worst-case scenarios. When her mother, who was employed as a cleaner in the US grey economy, did not return home from work on time, the alarms went off in Catalina's head. Lateness might have meant the subway had broken down, but that is not what the mind of a child living undocumented in the US is likely to run to first. Catalina knew very well that if her parent was deported, she would have to take care of her younger siblings; after arriving in America, her mother had given birth to three more children. Catalina was fifteen, and she felt under her skin that she had to be prepared for the fact that at any moment she might become her sisters’ and brother’s sole guardian.

“The undocumented” – that is how people in the US refer to people like Catalina and her mother. Many of them crossed the US border legally. And stayed. Without citizenship, a green card or a valid visa, they have lived in the US for years, and by no means on the sidelines: they have grown into the social fabric – they study, work and function almost like “regular” Americans. It is estimated that, across all the states, a total of just over ten million people are living without the right to reside in the country. Most (66 percent, according to the Pew Research Center) came to America ten or more years ago. Eight hundred thousand of those ten million entered the United States as children.

The undocumented live quietly and discreetly, doing jobs that others don’t want, usually in the grey economy and for poor pay. They learn to avoid risks: they go home late and don’t stay in too long, in order to avoid any migration service visits. The children of the undocumented go to public schools, but if they plan to go to university, they have to deal with the fact that most states afford them no right to scholarships, or to social assistance of any kind.

“The fear of deportation is obvious. But I was afraid of something else: that I would become a statistic,” says Catalina. “Growing up without documents, in poverty and anxiety, you can easily stumble and fall victim to bad influences. Especially in a city as huge as New York. It can happen that the sons of illegal immigrants end up in gangs while their sisters, deprived of proper sex education, fall into violent relationships and unwanted pregnancies. I didn't want to end up that way.”

Catalina put herself through college, and then law school, while working full-time. In 2003, she married an American, which opened up an avenue to citizenship. She began her career interning in the offices of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, where she worked in protecting the rights of low-paid employees – people in a similar situation to that of her mother. When Cuomo won the governorship in 2015, he entrusted the management of his offices to her. Earlier, she had also worked as a legal consultant at the New York city council and in state administration. She worked on what was closest to her – the problems of illegal immigrants, including the lack of health insurance and exploitation by employers.

Her mother still had no documents, but Catalina, who eventually became a lawful US resident in 2009, could begin the process of sponsoring a visa for a family member. “It was very strange, but we only started talking about the risk of deportation when my mother had already gotten her green card,” Catalina recalls. “She didn't have citizenship yet, so I remember when I pressed my business card into her hand and said, ‘Remember, if they ever stop you, tell them your daughter is a lawyer.’ A few years later, I told her to take my business card again, but this time I said, ‘If they stop you, say your daughter works for the governor of New York.’”

The girl from Queens

Working in the administration, though prestigious, does not usually mean a life in the spotlight. Just a few years ago, Catalina did not think that her name would soon hit the columns of American newspapers. “I was thinking about running in local elections sometime, but I was in no hurry. I was giving myself five, maybe ten years. But 2016 changed everything. After Trump's election victory, I realised that I had to give up my own comfort and start making the changes that I care about.”

Catalina Cruz decided to run for the New York State Assembly. She won in Queens – the same district in which she had spent her childhood and where her mother, to make some extra income, had sold hand-made empanadas (Colombian pastries) in the parks. And so it was that she became the first formerly undocumented person to go on to win a seat in the New York state authorities.

Queens is New York’s largest and most ethnically diverse district, Faa concentration of immigrants – including those living in the US illegally. Catalina addressed her campaign to them, which at first glance seemed paradoxical – after all, no papers means no voting rights. However, knowing the realities of life in Queens, she knew perfectly well what she was doing. Families of illegal immigrants living in the United States are often “mixed-status families”, in which, as in Catalina’s case, the parents and the oldest child do not have residence, but the younger siblings, having been born in the United States, have always had US citizenship. Such families face a particularly difficult situation, because in the event of deportation they are brutally separated: the parents and older children return to their country of origin, and the younger ones go to a foster family. “When I emphasised the importance of immigrant rights and protection against exploitation before the election, I knew very well who would listen to me most carefully: those now-adult children that had been US citizens from birth, and who were still afraid for their parents. I let them know that the fate of their mothers, fathers, older siblings, aunts and grandparents, though they had no voting rights and were ‘invisible’, is important to me. That I want to defend them against the current administration and inhumane treatment by officials and employers.”

The local-level legislative changes that Catalina has been trying to push through since taking office in 2018 show that she is still a Queens girl and understands the problems of the environment she comes from. From the beginning she has been fighting to increase the number of transport connections between her district and Manhattan, where every morning a whole army of low-paid cleaners, nannies, housewives and construction workers go. Many do not have a permanent contract and are paid by the hour, which is why a late train and not getting to work on time automatically means less pay for them. Recently, Catalina also presented a bill that would allow non-paying employers to be prosecuted under the Criminal Code, and not under civil law as it is today.

Political drive

Deyanira Aldana came to the States aged four. She is Mexican by birth, but has spent most of her life in New Jersey.

“I was very lucky,” she says. “I flew in by plane twenty years ago. Others had it worse. My mother's friend's daughter came to the States on foot from Guatemala. Later, I took her to a shopping mall. She bought several pairs of shoes, a size larger than the ones she had worn before. Her feet were still very swollen. It was a few weeks since she had crossed the US border.”

Aldana is twenty-four years old and studying at university would cost her several thousand dollars per semester. Her grades would qualify her for a scholarship, but she won't get one, because, as with Catalina above, she is not a US citizen. Thanks to Barack Obama's 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), she can work legally and is not afraid of deportation. 

For now; because Donald Trump is doing a lot to overturn the law protecting the children of undocumented immigrants from being thrown out of the US. The case is temporarily stuck in the Supreme Court, and people like Aldana are anxious. She herself is safe – under the current law she can apply for an extension of protection and a work permit – but the “freezing” of DACA has meant that her younger siblings are currently not able to apply for the first time.

Trump’s stubbornness over DACA, and his efforts to repeal the policy, are all the more incomprehensible because it was designed to favour so-called “good immigrants”. Protection against deportation can only be granted to children who have never had any trouble with the law. DACA also implies an economic benefit to the state: the young people covered by the regulation (about 800,000 people) can work legally and pay taxes despite not having documents. One of Aldana's sisters, who is also protected, has set up her own small business.

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“In the state I live in, tuition fees for undocumented students were triple those for US citizens until recently,” says Aldana. “On top of that, we cannot apply for a driving license. It’s all a burden, but it was bearable because of DACA, which at least allows us to work and live peacefully in the country where we grew up and which we are attached to. Now that Obama's policy is threatened, the situation has become much more dramatic.”

Aldana has political drive: she often speaks at demonstrations and is able to mobilise like-minded people around her. For now, she can only dream of running in elections – or even of an ordinary vote – but that doesn't mean she is wasting her potential as a civic activist. In 2016, she started working at United We Dream, a powerful organisation of young, undocumented US residents. Aldana and other members strengthen young immigrants with training, workshops and developing the leadership and organisational skills, which they can use to plan demonstrations and campaigns to protect the rights of undocumented persons.

“I am proud that we were able to drive two thousand young immigrants to Washington to take part in a demonstration”, she says. “We also managed to train another two thousand and instil in them our passion for action, such as actively supporting a local politician with a progressive programme. Myself, even though I can’t vote, I have the right to walk the street and hand out leaflets for a candidate who has pro-immigrant points in his programme. And that's what I'm going to do. Act. With or without documents.”

This text was first published on 24 July 2019 in Newsweek Polska.

Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.