Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve made a bunch. It’s the ones that start small and seem insignificant that sneak up on you over time that are the ones that have the biggest consequence. The mistakes that lead to other people getting hurt are hard to confront. But the most pain comes when a mistake ends up hurting a child. I’ve done that.
I’m not writing about this to cleanse my soul (I wish it were that easy). I’m hoping that readers see this story and learn from my errors. I think my mistake has been made a few million times the past decade or so. It’s just time to discuss the consequences of our actions.
About ten years ago I was in need of a big hole. I have enough property to always need something. This time it was a drainage ditch and a dry well. I knew that there were workers looking for jobs in a nearby town. I’d heard about it from neighbors who had gone to a corner in Ossining, NY where day workers from south of the border came in the mornings. I didn’t think much of it at the time.
Sure enough, there were workers. Construction trucks were picking up guys. When I drove up a half dozen came up to me. They all talked a fast Spanish, they all wanted a job. For no particular reason I chose one. His name was Caesar. Two days later what I wanted done had been accomplished. A nice job at that. I paid cash for the work. It was $80 a day, plus I provided food.
I drove him back to where he lived at night; a not so nice apartment that he shared with eight others. I didn’t think much of it at the time.
He had my telephone number and called a few weeks later and said, “I need work”.
I understood that this was a cry for help from a guy who was having trouble getting food money. I had a ton of things that had been left undone. So I said, “Yes”.
So it became a few days a week. That lasted awhile. I introduced him to others. Everyone needed work done. It turned out that Caesar had many skills. He was a good mason and could lay up stonewalls. He was a painter, gardener, a decent mechanic and a pretty good rough and finish carpenter. He was from Quenca, Ecuador (small city outside of Quito). He had a wife, Ruth, and a daughter who was then three years old. He left his family to come to America.
We talked while we worked, I spoke “Spanglish” he spoke broken English, we understood each other perfectly. He, of course, was here illegally. He had made the long trip from Ecuador to NY via the Texas border. He came to the US because (his words) there were no jobs an no future in his home country. We became friends of a sort.
After a year or so, Caesar had saved up some money. He sent $10,000 (via Citi) back to Ecuador. This was the payoff money to the Coyotes who would transport his wife to the Texas border. She made the trip in the back of a box truck. She was raped on the way.
She was dumped, (with 20 others) in the brush country outside of Brownsville, Texas. She walked to the lights of the city and took a bus to NY. Thousands of “Ruth’s” made this trip.
Not too long after she made the long journey she was pregnant. This may have been the result of two devout Catholics and a long separation. But it was also a defensive move on their part. They knew that a child born in America would automatically become a citizen. They believed that if they were the parents of a American child they would never be deported. A common belief that has led to many children being born to illegal workers.
They named their son Danny. A healthy and happy child. Life was good for the family during the early part of the decade. There was steady work for both of them. Housekeeping for Ruth, Caesar worked construction. In 2003 they had a combined income of $60,000. A number that made them “rich” compared to the world they had come from. They were living the same dream that millions of immigrants had when they came to the US over the years. The difference, of course, was that they were illegal and had no right to be here. They bought fake Social Security cards (easy to get back then).
They lived in an area that was exploding in population of men and women who had come from Ecuador. Word travelled back to Cuenca that work and money was available. Over the course of just five years the illegal population exploded in the towns of Ossining, Peekskill and Mt. Kisco. Bodega’s and restaurants popped up.
Danny grew up fast. I saw to it that he had the medical attention he needed and later pulled a string or two to get him into the local schools. There were birthdays and holidays that I contributed to. He came to my home and I taught him to swim. Unlike his parents, he took to the water and swam like a rat. He called me, “Grandfather”. I was okay with that.
Danny was as much an American boy as any you could find. He spoke English perfectly (much to his parents chagrin). He liked American football, he didn’t play soccer. He loved basketball. He did fine in school. He made many friends. He was invited to the birthday parties of his classmates. He was a very happy kid.
Around 2005 my feelings on what was happening began to change. What had started innocently enough was now morphing into something that was no longer innocent. It was clearly a population explosion that would end up with a bad result. I slowly changed my views. I saw the risks that were developing for all that were involved. This change of heart was influenced by people who knew I was helping a family out. Some made it clear that I should not be helping the “Browns”.
I tried to make things right. I hired a lawyer and sponsored Ruth to become a US citizen. Her application was accepted in 2005. The formal notice that she was “in line” to become legal was a source of a great celebration. Six years later her application had still not gone anywhere. Not one single applicant from Ecuador was given immigration status (Green card) in all those years.
I saw to it that Ruth kept a record of all of her income. She paid taxes on what she made, the same as anyone would do. I thought this was important. It would prove that she was playing by the rules. I thought that the tax records would support her request for citizenship. It never mattered at all.
I no longer hired Caesar. I wanted him “on the books”. So he found work where no one asked questions about his legal status. If he had a SS card (illegal or not) there was plenty of work to be had. Somehow that quasi-legal status made it “right”.
Things fell apart for this family starting in 2008. The recession killed the construction industry. With that went the jobs the illegal’s had come for. The unemployment rate for the illegals went from functionally zero to at least 50%. Caesar was only able to find “pickup” work a few days a week.
I saw what was happening. I urged them to go back to Ecuador. I offered them the money to buy plane tickets. They wanted none of that. They stuck it out in the hope (like so many others) that the US economy would turn around. It never did.
Around 2010 there was a new challenge emerging. The local police began targeting the illegals. They stopped the cars they drove in to work. The cops were clearly profiling (they swore they were not). ICE (Immigration, Customs Enforcement) raided a few businesses that hired these workers. Jobs disappeared as a result. To make things worse the illegals were subject to random attacks. One was beat to death while in the custody of the police. A once happy immigrant community was scared to walk the streets.
Ruth, Caesar and Danny stuck it out as long as they could. But Caesar was stopped by the police and was given a summons to appear in court.
I was gone last week. When I got back there was a message on the phone from Danny. He was leaving the next day. He was crying. He wanted to see me before he left. When I got back I went to his home. He was already gone.
Think what it must be like for a ten-year old boy who is American as any of us to be forced out of the country. Think what a strange life he faces in a country that bears no resemblance to what he grew up with. He will not fit in. He doesn’t speak Spanish fluently. His parents are back in a place that they know. They are also back in a place that has no opportunity for them and their son.
I know in my heart that I’m partially responsible for Danny’s plight. There is not much I can do about it. I will find him someday. I’ll try to make this right. But the damage has already been done. There is a ten-year old American boy whose life has been ripped apart. That’s a fact that is very hard for me to come to grip with.
There is little to celebrate this Labor Day. There are so many Americans who have no work or are doing jobs for little pay and no upside. The illegal workers who came here in the good times are leaving in droves. In 2007 there were 12mm in the country. The endless recession has reduced that number to 8mm in just a few years. The depression we are living through has hurt many families. The ones that are on the bottom of the rung are paying the biggest price. Families like Danny’s have been hurt the most.
I know that many readers will think that my participation in this story was all wrong. That Danny and I deserve the pain we have. I expect a fair bit of criticism for this. Trust me, no words you can write would make feel worse than I do. I think of Danny all the time. I pray that this American child is safe.