An outspoken advocate for the local Hispanic community suggested that I speak to her neighbor. I met with Nina over lunch at a local Guatemalan deli in Brewster. Though Nina was nervous and tearful, she spoke forcefully and with conviction. “This is my country,” she said, “and I’m not leaving!”
Here is Nina’s story, in her own words:
Over the past few months, my life and the lives of my husband and children have changed drastically. We’ve stopped going to church. If we go to the store, we walk.
There are no more doctor’s appointments for my son, who has asthma; no kindergarten for my daughter. My husband takes the county bus to work and back, and what was a 15-minute trip by car now takes him an hour and a half each way. We’ve agreed: no driving! A burnt-out taillight or random traffic stop could fracture our family and send either me or my husband into the grasp of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and into a cell, waiting to be deported.
I came to the States in 1994, at the age of 7, with my mother and sister. We came to live with a relative in Jersey City after my father, who managed a pharmacy in Guatemala City, was murdered by anti-government rebels who demanded drugs and money.
We came with nothing but the clothes on our backs. As a single parent, it was hard for my mother to raise me and my sister in a new country. She worked 12, sometimes 14 hours a day, seven days a week, sacrificing to support our education and put food on the table and a roof over our heads. She was always exhausted and overwhelmed after work; she was frequently sick, but never missed a day.
My sister and me grew up just like all the other immigrant kids in our neighborhood. We went to a parochial school for the first few years until we learned enough English to get by, and then we transferred to public school, “spoke American,” joined student groups and played on several sports teams. We were really good students and received many honors and awards. And we both had a dream to someday go to college.
During my senior year in high school, I was filling out a college application that asked for a Social Security number. I didn’t know what to write, so I asked my mother. Her response was confusing. She said we came to the States on an emergency tourist visa and stayed. It was 2005 and I wasn’t exactly sure what being “undocumented” meant. And then, a week before graduation, my mother died from pneumonia after she refused to go to the emergency room until it was too late. A week later, my sister and me moved to upstate New York to live with my aunt and her family in Brewster.
At first, I had a lot of difficulty finding a regular job and I couldn’t get a driver’s license. Even though I was now living in New York, I had to pay out-of-state tuition at community college because I was undocumented. I felt really discouraged, but I slowly figured things out and forced myself to be strong. My mother sacrificed for me and I wasn’t going to disappoint her. I worked my butt off, day and night, and three years later I graduated with an associate’s degree in early childhood. I then got a teacher’s assistant job at a preschool, working with severely disabled children.
I met my husband six years ago at a church dance in Peekskill. He’s an expert mason, but he’s also a good carpenter and knows a lot about landscaping. He coaches one of the youth soccer teams and, for fun, plays in a small Ecuadorian metal band. Jorge worked for a local contractor until January when, all of a sudden, the owner told him that he’s sorry, but he can’t give him any more work. He had been paid well and treated well, but then, out of nowhere, after five years: “We’re sorry, we can’t employ you anymore.” There were other workers without papers—a couple of eastern Europeans with fewer skills—but the boss kept them on.
We own a small house just south of town that we put up for sale last week. The tension is just too much. I also got passports for our kids, in case something should happen to us. My sister married a guy who was born here, so we can depend on her. What happens if we’re both arrested and they send me back to Guatemala and him to Ecuador? This is our home. We’ve both been here for more than 20 years.
We just rented an apartment in the North Bronx, and we’re going to move at the end of the month. I know I can get a preschool job; I think I’ve already got one lined up. Jorge is not worried about finding something decent; he’s got a lot of skills. The elementary school has a good reputation and it’s just around the corner and down the block. It also has a pre-k program, early drop-off and afterschool, so I know my kids will be safe.
We love living up here and wish we could stay. If we were Irish or Polish or even Russian, we’d be invisible. But Putnam County is a conservative place; we’re Hispanic, and Trump has poisoned the water by calling us crooks and rapists. The atmosphere around here’s changed so fast and for the worse. We’ve already committed a crime by overstaying our visas and regardless of whether it’s serious or not, I don’t trust the sheriff or local police to help us out.