DENVER — The man who is not sure what to call himself — Mexican, American, all of the above, none of the above — no longer pays much attention to what happens in Washington, D.C, the land of los politicos who seem to understand little and do less.
He goes to his welding job five days a week. He is reliable and reserved and grateful for the $15 an hour. Decent pay, entry-level for the industry, not as much as he made in construction, but close.
If I could just become a legal resident, he says, I could get certified and work elsewhere. I could make $40, $45 dollars an hour. I could open my own shop.
Fourteen years have passed since he crossed the border illegally and he has learned not to dwell on what he does not have. At least not out loud. His wife, who dreamed of being a lawyer, has no patience for complaint. She followed him a year later and has worked at the same suburban fast-food restaurant for the past nine. She draws a fine line between aspiration and the kind of yearning that is never sated. Negativity serves no purpose, she tells her children. Ve siempre adelante. Cast your eyes ahead. If your path is blocked one way, find another.
So, when the president in whom they once had such faith declares immigration reform dead, again — as Obama did early this month — they notice.
Of course, they notice. They can see but cannot reach the opportunities available to legal residents. Then they shrug and move on. You do your thing. I’ll do mine. Have a nice day.
Here is the thing when Congress stops working: nothing else does. The debate over a comprehensive immigration bill has stalled out in Washington, but in the country, many immigrants at the heart of the issue go about their lives. Openly.
In the working-class neighborhoods that exist at the edges of Denver’s latest boom, families continue to root themselves in the spaces between piecemeal policies. They get up the next morning and go to work and pay the rent and buy groceries. They put money away for college and change into their uniforms for the evening shift and throw birthday parties, blasting music until the neighbor complains that this is a neighborhood, not a nightclub. The families on these streets of Mexicans and Americans and everything in between establish themselves in the corners of U.S. society to which they have access. They reinvent themselves, mutations of a dysfunctional system, existing in the expanding bureaucratic purgatory that is neither deportation nor legalization.
We know you’re here illegally but don’t know what to do with you right now.
Their youth huddle with more than half a million others beneath the umbrella of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-granted temporary protection against deportation. They help raise children orphaned by deportation or detention of a parent. Their U.S.-born children join at least 4.5 million others born to unauthorized immigrants, living, then, together but in differing degrees of legal status. Citizen, lawful permanent resident, unauthorized, temporarily authorized, here with permission to work, here without permission to work.
The welder, his wife and their four children now occupy three categories. Mom and dad are here illegally. Their two oldest children, 18 and 19 years old, were granted temporary permission to stay and work in 2013. Next year, they will have to reapply for another two-year interval. The two youngest boys, ages 4 and 6, were born here, and so they are citizens.
In the growing gulf between policy and day-to-day reality, the family has become a cultural hybrid. Socially Mexican. Economically American.
“Turn that down,” mom says to son, who watches Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video over and over on the family’s flat-screen smart TV. Parked in the driveway, gleaming, putty-colored, is the family’s latest purchase.
“You bought a Hummer?”
“Two weekends ago. My auntie had one and the boys really wanted one,” says Brenda, the 18-year-old welder’s daughter. She graduated from high school in May with a 3.5 grade point average. The 2007 H3 will cost the family $320 a month plus $87 monthly for insurance. “It’s kind of hard to live in the shadows when you’re driving a Hummer, isn’t it?”
They laugh and the father says: “I don’t feel like I live in the shadows.”
“We do what we are supposed to do,” his wife says. “We pay our taxes. We send our kids to school. We go to work. We’re not marijuanos. We’re not criminals.”
The president surrenders his promise of comprehensive reform on a Monday. On Tuesday, attorney Joy Athanasiou is in the backlogged Denver immigration court representing a father of two citizen children. His deportation case is continued. To Feb. 9, 2017.
In the days that follow, in the small northeastern Colorado town of Fort Morgan, dairy farmer Chris Kraft hires a new worker to hook up the cows to the milking machine — wage range $8-$12 an hour. He tells anyone who will listen that the current immigration system is “morally indefensible” and that for lack of a guest worker program, America risks its economic edge in the food industry.
In the city, immigrant allies hold a news conference noting that Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 72,000 parents last year who said they had citizen children. They launch a resolution condemning the separation of families as a violation of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
“Nobody lays down and says, ‘I give up.’ You can’t,” says 20-year-old Billy Rivera, whose mother was at the news conference and whose stepfather has for three years occupied a netherworld in which he has permission to stay here with his U.S. citizen wife and children, but not to work. “You have your family. You have a life, you want to become better. So, your hope doesn’t rely on a bill that one day may come out of Washington. Your saving grace now might be a good job. You find a way. You keep living.”
Do not tell the welder or his wife that the “system is broken.” They have come to believe it is working exactly the way the powerful intend. In this suspicion, they are not so different from the poor and working-class Americans who want them deported.
“I have 14 years here and nothing has happened,” he says. “It’s just the way they want it. We pay taxes but don’t collect Social Security. We work but have no health care.”
His daughter is now working in a daycare center to earn money to help pay for college this fall. When she is done there, she will go to law school. If nothing has changed in eight years, her father and mother say, they will deal with it then. Washington can do what it wants, he says. His family is not going anywhere.
For a long time, he says, he called himself “a Mexican trying to be an American.” He is that still.