Risky Business: Working Without Papers in the ATL

How undocumented people find, keep, and commute to jobs in a Southern boomtown patrolled by la migra.

What’s it like to live and work in one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States—without legal status? In metro Atlanta, to which 89,000 people moved last year, almost 14 percent of residents are immigrants; an estimated 250,000 of them are undocumented. Atlanta’s glut of new building projects and businesses means the city has a healthy job market for folks without work visas, since there are plenty of construction, service, and cleaning jobs to go around. But those jobs come at a price: this metro area of 5.9 million is also one of the cities where migrants are most likely to get deported.

Although immigration laws are technically the same nationwide, municipalities and states can still decide how much to communicate with US Citizenship and Immigration Services and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement—and Georgia almost always cooperates with their requests. In the Atlanta area specifically, the New York Times reported last year, the regional ICE office made 80 percent more immigration arrests in the first half of 2017 than it had during the same period the previous year, the highest increase in the country. Until recently, ICE was even able to use Atlanta jails as ad hoc immigration-detention centers. Georgia is also a “locked-out” state, meaning it has a policy of forcing undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition if they want to attend their own state’s public colleges and universities, and some schools might not admit them at all. (While it’s one of only a few places where this is official policy, the barrier to cheaper tuition is widespread—only 18 states nationwide consistently let local undocumented students pay in-state fees.)

There are plenty of construction, service, and cleaning jobs to go around—but they come at a price.

One of the most perilous aspects of living and working in Atlanta while undocumented is something the rest of us take for granted: the daily commute. The metro area is underserved by public transit, meaning many undocumented people—who can’t get Georgia licenses—are forced to rely on pricey ride shares or drive without a license, a jailable offense under state law. Police collaboration with ICE officials has been strengthened under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance prosecution policy: Georgia legislators allow local officers to question people about their immigration status, so being pulled over can quickly escalate to arrest and detainment. And in Georgia, that often means deportation: according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, immigrants detained in the region have recently been more likely to be deported than almost anywhere else in the country.

But the city of Atlanta is starting to resist Trump’s policies. In June, Atlanta’s new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who took office at the beginning of this year, signed an executive order banning city jails from accepting new ICE detainees and calling on President Trump to pass “humane” immigration reform. But nothing is likely to change on the state level until this November’s gubernatorial election. The candidates present starkly different stances on immigration: Democrat Stacey Abrams believes, as her website proclaims, that the “anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions of [the Trump] administration are cruel, inhumane, and must be opposed in the strongest terms.” Meanwhile, Republican candidate Brian Kemp won his primary with the help of an ad titled “So Conservative,” which featured Kemp driving a truck “in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself.”

Despite the danger, undocumented people keep moving to metro Atlanta, especially from Central America and Mexico; the state’s immigrant population is nearly 50 percent Latin American. This July, we spoke to some of the people who take the risk of working in Atlanta to find out what it’s like to search for, keep, and commute to a job while living in one of the most anti-immigrant states in America.

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity, and some have been translated from Spanish. Some names have also been changed. Thanks to the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights for its assistance with this story.


“Sometimes I joke that I get paid to exercise.”

Anonymous, 44

Country of origin: Mexico

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I used to work for an elderly woman, who died at 101 years old. I had taken care of her since she was 92. Now I work in cleaning. I’ve been at my job for a year and a half, more or less. I got it through a friend of one of my sons. When I got to Georgia, my husband and I signed my child up for school, and they made us see the importance of having a tax ID number. So now I have to look for work with tax ID only; I don’t have a Social Security number, and I didn’t want to buy or use a Social Security card that wasn’t mine.

I work at one of the biggest shopping plazas in the state. During the week, there are three people cleaning in the evening, and on the weekend we’re a team of seven or eight. I am a supervisor, so I ensure all the areas are clean, and if I see someone falling behind, or there’s something that’s out of place, then I tell my coworkers to address it. It’s my responsibility to clean the bathrooms, tables, sweep, clean the walkways. If there’s a clogged toilet, I unclog it.

It’s $75 per day for seven and a half hours. There’s the benefit of having work all year round. But it’s little, what they pay us, and the conditions aren’t always really adequate. The microwave at work broke just this week, and they said that people should bring their own microwave.

Sometimes I joke that I get paid to exercise: during the week, I walk between four and six miles per evening; Saturdays and Sundays, four and a half to seven miles. Sometimes people ask me, “Do they pay you well?” And I say, “Well, the important part is that they pay me to exercise, right?”

Raj, 38

Country of origin: England

I DJ for a living, and I do construction on movie sets when I can get it. I can’t join the union because I don’t have an American ID. I lost my British ID months and months ago. What I do have is friends who know me well enough that they just put me on. It’s nice to have good people behind you, but there’s only so much that can do.

I came from England to America when I was six. My mother was born in India; my father was born in Kenya. My dad’s health was not so great, and he could get his heart stuff taken care of faster in the United States. We moved here, he got his green card, and then he applied for my mom, my sister, and myself. But he died right before he was about to get citizenship, when I was 15. All the subsequent paperwork went away with him. Me, my mom, and my sister, we were in limbo. We were already here.

There was a grandfather clause at the time saying that if you had lived here for X amount of time, you would get citizenship, or at least permanent residency. But then in 2001, with 9/11, all that changed. I’ve done time in immigration holding cells; I did six months in 2008. I see an immigration judge once or twice a year. They ask me a bunch of questions, then they throw me right back into the wild.

I used to write a letter to Obama describing my situation every single day. When I got a response, it was basically him saying, “We’re going to work on it. We’re going to try to help guys out like you.” And he did. He made DACA. But then I was six months too old to qualify.

I have a Social Security number here—I’ve had one since I was a kid—and I pay taxes here. I qualify for Social Security, for the love of God. I studied biology at the University of Georgia. I wanted to be a doctor, and then I found DJing. I’ve opened for OutKast twice; I’ve opened for indie acts; I’ve made mixtapes for Jason Momoa. I can’t complain in that respect, because I have done some cool things. But freedom is one thing I would like. Say, if the independent life wanes—which it does, it ebbs and flows—I just need the option to be able to go work at a bar or a coffee shop, but I don’t have that option. And because of my education, a lot of places won’t even hire me. They’re like, “You’re overqualified.” But I’m too old to be leaving my home. I’m firmly planted and I’m staying.

“If you don’t have insurance in your own country, you get here and you don’t think about it.”

Carlos, 38

Country of origin: Mexico

A friend who was already living in the US told me and my cousin he had gotten us a job in construction here in Georgia. When we got here, he took us to the person’s house who would give us work and told us we’d live there and work. He would take us to the job site and we would do wood-framing construction.

Around 2010 to 2013, employers would most likely end up owing you months or weeks of salary. I kept working with people who I knew would pay, but I didn’t work much, because it was complicated: sometimes you’d have to go to other states to work, and you couldn’t leave and go back home, because they wouldn’t pay to keep you [waiting for pay]. I had a lot of experiences where people weren’t paying well.

The same man who would employ us would also give us transportation, but he would charge us—we’d have to pay for it out of our salary. If there were repairs, we’d pay for that. Sometimes we had three or four people riding together. Later, I drove a work van, but we had to pay all the costs of the truck: repairs, gas, all of that.

Most employers want you to work with them full-time. I don’t want that, because for ten years I’d work for 12 or 13 hours daily. When I stopped working after all that time, I thought about all the things I’d missed with my family and children. I’d only see them one full day each week because I’d leave very early and get back very late.

If you don’t have insurance in your own country, you get here and you don’t think about it either—because we’re young, most of us are healthy and strong. Sometimes you get hurt on job sites and they’ll take you to the doctor. They allow you to recuperate, but only for a short amount of time; they want you there working. That’s what I saw: if someone got hurt, they’d take them to the doctor and pay them for a few days to rest, depending on what the employer considered was necessary for recuperation, even if it was short.

I had to get a hernia operation, and I didn’t feel that was the responsibility of the employer. I paid all the costs myself. I felt it should be that way. I didn’t think I should have any help or anything like that. I didn’t think about those things; I worked, and I had my salary, and I felt good as long as they were paying me.

“Our parents would take us with them sometimes, and we would just walk behind them in the fields.”

Zaira, 19

Country of origin: Mexico

For a long time, my parents had to go work in the fields. We were like nomads: we would go from Georgia to Alabama to Florida to Michigan to Tennessee to Carolina, South and North. It was just wherever there was a harvest. You would go to Michigan during the colder seasons for pine trees, and Georgia, Alabama, or Florida for when there were oranges or blueberries or strawberries. During the really cold months, there were no jobs, so they would have to earn up just so we would have enough to get through.

I remember us living in one room in Florida—me, my sister, my mom, and my dad. My little brother wasn’t born yet. We would stay in there, and our parents would work and sleep and work and sleep and work and sleep. They would take us with them sometimes because we were small, and we would just walk behind them in the fields. Sometimes they had to leave us, or they would ask one of the wives of the many families there to take care of all of us.

My dad never wanted me to work. He would tell me, “You’re going to work all your life—just take it easy as long as you can.” But I didn’t want to keep asking them for money. I got a job at one place at this flea market where they only paid me $40 or $50 for nine hours of work. Everyone that works there is an immigrant. They don’t really get Americans who go in like, “Oh, lower than minimum wage? I’ll take it.”

But then, when I was 15, I was able to get DACA. Now I go to Eastern Connecticut State University, where I’m a triple major. It’s a lot [laughs]. I’m studying Spanish, criminology, and sociology. I want to go to law school—that’s the plan. The reason I’m able to do so much is because while I was in high school, I was kind of an overachiever; my senior year I did all dual-enrollment classes, so I’d finished a whole year of college already. I’m ahead.

Last semester I did an office job helping transfer students: I would explain how courses transfer over, what classes you should be taking, what your plan should be for the year. I also did community service. While I’m back in Georgia for the summer, though, I work in a warehouse. It can be physically exhausting. I work late hours: it’s 5:30 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. and I get paid $11.75 an hour. Next semester, when I’m back on campus, I’ll have a job as a student leader. I will be doing community service, leading a group of volunteers.

I’ve had to wait as long as eight months for my DACA to be renewed, and they only let you reapply four months before your permit’s expiration date—so you could literally be without anything for several months. That gap is the scariest, because in Georgia your driver’s license expires at the same time your DACA expires.

The scholarship I have is called TheDream.US. It’s very new. There are close to 200 people who have it, and we’re all undocumented. When Trump says all this stuff about getting rid of DACA, it’s very scary, because all of us depend on it. The scholarship people had a meeting with us, and they told us, “Look, the scholarship is yours. If you lose your DACA, it’s OK. You’re going to keep that scholarship, and you’re going to keep it for four years, because that’s what we promised you.”

María, 35

Country of origin: Mexico

I work in the office of an immigrant-rights organization, taking calls and doing intake for people who call for assistance. My husband and I participated in some events that it organized—rallies, marches, fund-raising events, informational events. We heard about it on the radio, and later we started coming to the weekly meetings and participating more. I think it’s been about four years total, but about two or three years that we started participating more intensely.

I used to sometimes clean houses with my sister, as well as doing some other things, such as computer work or translation. I’ve been at my job a few months. I feel good working here or volunteering. It helps me grow as a person and understand things about being an immigrant. What I’ve been learning at my job, and what I’ve seen, I think it’s priceless. And if I have to go out to pick up the kids, or I have to come in late because of a medical appointment, or I have to leave early, it’s OK.

I used to come to work in an Uber, or my husband would bring me. Without traffic, the drive to work would be 18 to 20 minutes. Sometimes he still takes me when he feels really nervous about me driving without a license. He has a license from another state, but he doesn’t have a Georgia license. Sometimes it’s really difficult for him to bring me.

I could still be using Uber now, but I’ve decided to drive instead. I have to pick up the kids 20 minutes away, then come back to work, then go home later. Sometimes I have to pick up my other child at 5:00 p.m., too. Those are high-traffic hours, peak hours. So it’s very expensive to take Ubers then. It’s difficult to decide sometimes; [the risk of being arrested] is something that’s always there ... it’s day to day. I know I’m not the only one who needs to drive without a license. I know the situation, the consequences of what could happen, the risk of having my family with me if I’m stopped. But it has to be this way. I consider it part of the struggle.

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