Beautiful Illegals

By Rochelle Oliver

They didn’t come in a bus or stow away on a train. They didn’t come in the night or sneak past desert borders. They didn’t even wash ashore in a tattered boat. They came by planes with passports and visas and they’ve chosen to stay illegally in the United States of America.

Of the 11 million undocumented workers in North America, 40 percent came into the country legally and chose to overstay their visas. This is the story of two women who came here for a better life and are now caught in the crossfire of the national immigration reform debate.

~Angelita’s Story

Her curly hair is raven-black and spirals below her shoulders. Everything in her home seems placed with a purpose and trained to remain smooth and clean. Her living room chairs, her magazines and the red wine glasses she sets on the table – all impeccable.

Angelita, who preferred not to give her last name, is the type of woman who wants you to be comfortable and feel welcome. She serves snacks on white dishes with gold trim, something a mother would save for special occasions. At age 35, she doesn’t aim for perfection, but even in cotton-spandex workout pants, white t-shirt and a pearl necklace, her effortless perfection simply is. She greets you with a kiss and asks how your day is even before you think of asking
about hers. She asks about your mom, your sister and your skin.

“Your face is looking really smooth. It’s getting so much better,” the native Brazilian says before pouring a glass of Shiraz. Angelita is a cosmetologist at a premier salon and spa in the heart of South Beach. Her employer sponsored her to come to America five years ago.

Amidst the beauty and refinement of her visible life lurks an ugly truth; her work visa is expired. Everyday, Angelita faces a decision: go home or stay illegally in the United States. Leaving might mean never returning.

Angelita’s visa expired Feb. 18. Because she’s lived in the States for five years, the government allots a 180-day grace period to make moving plans and leave. So far, there are no boxes in her apartment – just Sid, a one-year-old puppy, and Claudia, a friend from Brazil who has been living with her for four months.

“I’m just asking to work, pay taxes and be a normal person. If I break the law, then send me home. It’s very frustrating,” says Angelita.

She’s exhausted all possible means of getting a visa. She has an immigration lawyer, a job sponsor, an education – but no visa. A marriage miracle is the only option she has left in order to stay—legally that is.

“For those who don’t fall in love, they have a very difficult decision to make,” says veteran Miami immigration attorney Michael Bander of Bander and Associates. “This is possibly the most important decision they’ll make in their lives.”

He believes successfully staying illegally is really all about luck. “If you have good luck, you’re not going to be caught,” he says. “If you have bad luck or a bad accident, then that’ll cause you to be deported.”

Currently, staying in America illegally is not a crime. But some legislators are trying to change that. According to his official website, Oklahoma Congressman John Sullivan believes that people like Angelita, who have overstayed their visa limit, should be “apprehended, detained, and removed as soon as possible.”

“He welcomes people who come here through legal means; he doesn’t believe that people should be allowed to stay here illegally,” explained his press secretary, Christina Tuff, in a phone interview.

Sullivan has weighed in against granting amnesty and removing the illegal status.

But other leaders, such as Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, are more understanding of illegal immigrants. Descended from Irish immigrants, he has benefited from a national relocation.

“We are a nation of immigrants,” said Nelson at a town-hall meeting at the Tower Theatre on Miami’s famed Calle Ocho. “Immigration is the fabric of this country.” Still, he admits that he’s unsure how he will vote on specific measures headed to the Senate floor.

For people like Angelita, staying means living without any governmental protection – unable to travel outside of the country, get a job legally or hold a driver’s license. The list of inconveniences goes on.

Even before Angelita’s visa expired, she had to give up aspects of her American dream. In November, she tried to buy a home, but after learning that her visa extension was denied, she cancelled the closing.

“We’re not asking for much,” she says, pain stressing her melodic accent. “I’m working. I’m not stealing. I’m not killing anybody. We pay taxes, we pay rent, we buy things, we have good credit scores.”

Her American wages have allowed her to buy a car, rent a one-bedroom apartment in Miami Beach and send money to her mother, father, sister and two brothers in Brazil. If Angelita were to go back to Brazil, she’d likely earn less than $100 a month, the official minimum salary.

If she must leave America, Angelita says she’ll go back to Italy, where she lived for fifteen years before coming to America and helped her brothers immigrate to as well.

That journey began at age fifteen, when she decided to save her money and run away to a place where she could make a better living and see a world outside of poverty. She left with only a phone number to call when she arrived. In Italy she learned to speak Italian, French, Spanish and English.

Angelita still loves Brazil, but says problems there are deeply imbedded in the economic culture.

“Brazil is a very complicated country,” she says.

Her friend and guest Claudia helps her list their country’s countless resources, and greatest drawback.

“Brazil is huge. It has gold. It has petroleum. It has fruits,” Claudia says.

“It’s rich in minerals, in diamonds,” adds Angelita.

“It has everything…”

“The Amazon…”

“But there is so much corruption.”

“But there is so much corruption.”

Corruption back home is a unifying theme for immigrants who battle the same conflicting question: stay or leave? It might be the explanation for Angelita’s childhood – so poverty-ridden she couldn’t attend school until the age of seven. Her family couldn’t afford the necessary books for her to go to class.

To finally receive an education, Angelita and her siblings worked each summer in the fields picking cotton. Angelita recalls those months being the hottest of the year, comparable to North America’s August. They were paid daily depending on how many pounds of cotton they collected.

She remembers the good along with the bad. “I remember liking to go to school because we had lunch at school. We didn’t eat breakfast. Lunch was really good.” And seven-year-olds never had that much homework, but that meant she didn’t have many books to read, either.

“That’s something that I always missed as a kid, books to read… and they were so expensive,” Angelita says.

Food in her family wasn’t something you were given, it was something that you had to earn. Even at age seven, Angelita understood that. “No one had an obligation to put food on the table” she says. “In my family, when you sat at the table to eat, you had to know that if you didn’t work, you weren’t allowed to have that food.”

~Natasha’s Story

Natasha, who also wishes to keep her last name secret, comes from a country far from Brazil. She was born and raised in Poltava, Ukraine, where the government is also stifled by corruption and an unsteady economy.

“The average job brings in about $70 or $80 a month,” said Natasha. “The [Ukraine] government doesn’t care about people; they just care about how to get stuff for themselves.” Taxes are set at 24 percent, making it hard for people to improve their lifestyles.

So Natasha makes coffee and sandwiches while getting paid under the table. At 19, Natasha works and lives in Miami illegally.

Natasha’s lifestyle in the Ukraine wasn’t ridden with poverty; it’s the bleak future that she’s trying to run from. She first came to America more than a year ago, at 17, for a three-month university study abroad program. The blue-eyed blond found her independent American lifestyle alluring and decided returning home wasn’t an option.

She places her hands in front of her, trembling, and explains how her body felt when she called her mother with the change of plans.

“My mother was about to leave the house to pick me up at the airport when I told her I wasn’t coming home,” Natasha says.

Her mother screamed and cried. The three-month dose of America had intoxicated Natasha beyond adult reasoning. Both her parents called for weeks, begging her to come home, but she refused.

She compares her new life with her old life in the Ukraine, where she says “everyone has to be on the same level, you can’t be yourself.”

She struggles to find the proper wording, explains and re-explains before finally taking a breath.

“No one judges you here. You can be yourself,” she says. Her blue eyes stare into mine; she wants to make sure I understand her.

Beyond the liberation and independence, Natasha sees a chance to make her dreams a reality.

“I want to go to school. Get a degree. Get a job,” she says.

In the Ukraine, Natasha studied English on full scholarship at a local university. She said it’s very uncommon for a middle-class citizen without government connections to get a full scholarship and be able to attend a university, but her test scores were the highest among the incoming students who applied. Still, she was surprised when she got the full ride. But while getting into school was one thing, she didn’t think getting a job after graduation would be so easy.

Roughly six months before Natasha decided to leave home, a study by Ukranian professor Natalia Lakiza-Sachuk of American University in Kiev, Ukraine, showed that almost 70 percent of the registered unemployed in the Ukrainian workforce were women. “Women are the first to be fired and the last to be hired,” Lakiza-Sachuk wrote.

Eventually Natasha hopes to return to Europe, possibly spending some of her time at home. “Maybe I’ll live in Europe half the time and the other half in the Ukraine,” she says.

Of course, for now these are distant dreams for the 19-year-old, but she has a determined smile and nods in self-approval when she talks.

“In America, you can afford to be independent,” says Natasha. “You can make enough money to pay your rent, eat and buy clothes.”


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The Producer

I produced and directed two commercials that aired online and nationally on Current TV. I produced and booked national guests for Miami Herald’s leading online show, The World Desk with John Yearwood. Through my production company, I developed online public service announcements including the Halloween Hoodie Campaign, which became a viral sensation and gained global attention. I have also worked for ION TV – the largest broadcast company in the world – where I wrote scripts for radio and TV broadcast.

The Journalist

Rochelle Oliver is a Journalist with nearly 10 years of experience in creating captivating cross-platform storytelling. Among her many successes, she has successfully launched four news Web platforms for Tribune, one of the country’s leading multimedia companies.

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Rochelle Oliver Publications and Productions LLC., aims to create entertaining content with journalistic integrity.