Real Life | Real Issues

witf's Real Life | Real Issues is a multimedia series devoted to providing several angles on a single issue of interest to Central PA each month. The goal is to provide in-depth coverage of the topic on all witf media, including witf 89.5 & 93.3, witf TV, Central PA Magazine and Real Life | Real Issues also engages listeners, viewers and readers on witf's Facebook and Twitter accounts to discuss the issues with members of the community.

"I Came Here to Work" – Real Life | Real Issues, November 2010

Written by Tim Lambert, witf Multimedia News Director | Nov 4, 2010 1:40 PM

Sitting across the table, “Luis” is flipping his cell phone end over end in his hands. He’s an affable guy, smiling and laughing as he rapidly fires off stories in his native Spanish. He’s wearing a new, white Adidas ball cap and a polo shirt and sipping on a beer.

But Luis isn’t the 38-year-old Mexican’s real name. He agreed to be interviewed under the condition his name and where he works remain anonymous, because he lives and works in Central PA illegally.

Luis has spent more than a year in the region, making his way to Harrisburg after crossing the border from Mexico into Arizona. He says he left behind his wife and kids and now works six days a week, 12 hours a day at a Dauphin County bar/restaurant, and that his pay is $8 an hour.


He agreed to share his experiences so Americans have a better understanding of why people like him enter the United States without the proper paperwork looking for a better life than the one they left behind.

His story is the jumping-off point this month for WITF’s Real Life | Real Issues series, which is focusing on illegal immigration and its impact on Central PA.

The first time we met, we “talked” off-the-record for more than two hours, even though I don’t speak Spanish. We used the iTranslate app on my iPhone, and a friend of Luis’s tried his best to serve as an interpreter. The next time we chatted face-to-face, I brought a colleague who speaks fluent Spanish, and the conversation stretched past three hours. It was clear he was happy to have someone around who understood completely what he was saying.

LAMBERT: Why did you want to come to the United States?

LUIS: The reason Mexicans are here — I’m making a generalization — there’s work for them. They come here and people are like, “OK, we’ll give you a job.” It’s that easy. In Mexico, we don’t have opportunities like that. Plus the dollar value is much higher than in Mexico. So, $1 here is about 2.12 in pesos.

What were the living conditions for you in Mexico?

I’m from the city of Coatzacoalcos, Vera Cruz. The life there is similar to life here. It’s calm and not overpopulated. However, the towns surrounding it are not nearly as good. There is no water, no light, no electricity. People are starving. The quality of life, especially in those smaller towns, is not very good. The people suffer a lot. Sometimes, they don’t eat for one or two days. If they do get something to eat, it’s very little — maybe a small tortilla, if they’re lucky.

How much did it cost you to cross?

It depends on where you’re crossing and how you’re crossing. To cross at the point where there’s a bridge, they’ll give you a false ID and everything for $3,500 to $4,000. They will get you across in 10 to 20 minutes. Others still need to pay between $2,400 and $3,200. Then, you have to walk across the border. When you get across into the United States, you have to run and hide — what a lot of people imagine border crossing is like. Those with a family member in the United States, who can pay for you to come here and make a deposit, then it doesn’t matter where you’re going anywhere in the United States, they’ll get you there.

How did you get across the border?

We ... spent the entire day in the bushes and the brush waiting to cross because there was a lot of border patrol movement. Those ushering people across the border know the schedules of the patrolmen and are able to time things appropriately, so they can get through without being caught. There isn’t anything when you cross the border into Arizona except for a wire fence, and there are sensors in this wire fence. We had to crawl through this wire fence, and there’s about a foot and a half maybe of space for us to crawl through. We started walking as soon as we got through.... By the second day, we were out of water. So, what we did was take water from troughs that animals drink out of, very unclean water, and puddles. We filled our bottles and drank it through a cloth.

The last day, we walked from 3 in the afternoon until 5:30 in the morning until we found the truck that was going to drive us.... My legs were so cramped from having walked that far, I could barely move. I don’t know who these guys were. They were kicking us and telling us that we had to get up and start running to the truck right now. We all jumped into the truck like sardines packed in there, about 16 of us. Imagine the person on the bottom of all of that. The person on the top, he’s got it good!

I didn’t know where I was. It didn’t matter — I was in the U.S.! ... They dropped us off at a motel. I had to stay in my room; they wouldn’t let us go to the windows. They wouldn’t let us go outside, open the doors. There was a specific way of communicating — a special knock or a special way of saying a name that they told us ahead of time that was our cue that we could open the door for that person.

They brought me clothes. Imagine wearing the same underwear, the same pants, for nine days in the desert. It’s the worst stink you’ll ever imagine. When they brought me new under­wear, pants and a new longsleeve shirt, I felt like the president of the United States.

So, I’m here in the United States. The million-dollar question now is, how do I communicate? I don’t know how to say the word cup, chair, knife. I know how to say hello — but, that’s it.

I know you’re trying to learn English. How is it coming?

(Luis goes to his car and brings in a number of books.) I’m not taking formal English lessons. I buy books, CDs and tapes. There’s a girl that comes over for two hours every week and works with me. There’s someone at work who spends a couple of hours working on pronunciations with me. I want to learn English so I don’t have to depend on a third person to communicate with someone.... I want to learn English to be able to be self-sufficient, so that I can, if I stay, move up in the world. I don’t want to be a dishwasher forever.

Why did you come to Pennsylvania?

I have a family member in Pennsylvania. My brother-in-law was the first to come here. So, I contacted him, and this is where I ended up. Now, I’m [working] as a dishwasher for a man who graciously opened his doors to me. He pays me $8 an hour. I’m here to work. That’s it.

How did you find your job?

I got work as a dishwasher just by going around with a friend of mine to different restaurants. Someone gave me the name and address of a place and I went there. I met with the chef and he said how many hours a week do you want? I said I’ll be here seven days a week if you need me. So, he gave me a schedule.

How difficult has it been, since your family is still in Mexico?

I’ve gained a lot, but I’ve also lost much more. I don’t speak English. I can’t go anywhere. My family tells me they don’t have money — but neither do I. Because I’m in the United States, they think that I can just pick money from trees, but that isn’t the case.

When I first came here, my family in Mexico sent me text messages. But, how would you feel if you had gotten a text that says, “We’re finished. I’m with someone else. Don’t contact me anymore”? I was out of work and didn’t even have food to eat.... I didn’t have a job at the time. I thought of going to the police and having them deport me, so I can go home. But, my destiny is different. I had come here to buy a home for my family for my kids and I don’t have my family any more. So what do you think? Did I win or did I lose?

You’ll find stories like mine all over the place — different methods, different stories. I will show my wife and my son that I will accomplish my goal.


Does it bother you to be here illegally?

It does bother me. I can’t go to the bank and get money out. I can’t save money in a bank. I can’t get a car in my name. I have to be very careful what I do. I won’t carry false documents and put someone else in jeopardy. I wish the government would make some provision to allow people to get a green card if they’re contributing to the economy, if they have no trouble with the police or the authorities. I am Mexican. I came here to work. I don’t steal. I’m not here to cause a problem. The only thing they can do is send me back to my beloved Mexico. I don’t have any reason to hide. To the contrary, I want to contribute, pay my taxes, buy my house. If this country would achieve immigration reform one of these days, do you have any idea how much money the federal government would get? Many millions. But I don’t pay the income tax you pay because I don’t have a green card.

How long do you want to stay in the United States? Do you want to get back to Mexico eventually?


I’m here for three years. October I was here for one, so I have two more to go. If, within that time, the government implements some sort of immigration reform and I can stay, I will. I’ll try to find my kids and bring them here. I’d love for them to grow up in this country. If within the next two years that doesn’t happen, I’ll go back.

How closely are you following the immigration issue?

When we first crossed the border, we paid more attention. I don’t really pay attention to it anymore because it’s all politics. But now, there’s not really much there for us. They lead us on and say [immigration reform] is coming, and then it’s not. It’s just easier to ignore it. More [Mexicans] will come. If we were to go to the border right now and get in a helicopter, I could point out all of the key points where people are constantly trying to cross the border.... There are millions of people trying to cross. Today you kick me out, tomorrow I will return. Today you kick me out, tomorrow I’ll return. Who’s going to give up first? You trying to catch me? Or me trying to cross? You have to take care of yourself, you have to sleep. I won’t sleep, and I will cross. Please forgive me for entering your country without documents, but I only came here to work.


Morning Edition host/senior reporter Tim Lambert is leading WITF’s Real Life | Real Issues project. The series is focusing on illegal immigration and its impact on Central PA throughout November. This article is an excerpt from a longer interview. Click here to read the full text.

Published in Real Life | Real Issues

Tagged under

back to top

Post a comment

Support for witf is provided by:

Become a witf sponsor today »

witf's Public Insight Network

National Edward R. Murrow Awards

DuPont Columbia Awards

Support Local Journalism

Latest News from NPR

Support for witf is provided by:

Become a witf sponsor today »