A Never-Ending Journey: The Life and Times of Worcester’s Undocumented Immigrants

August 22, 2019 Worcester Magazine

Henry Hernandez left his home in El Salvador at the age of 15 to to reunite with his mother in Worcester. Hernandez made the month-and-a-half-long trek alone, and left his younger siblings and grandmother behind.

In order to get to Worcester from the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, Hernandez joined four others in a crammed and beat-up Kia Rio for the cross-country trip. By the time they reached Ohio, the car had broken down. There, Hernandez’s guide left the four migrants alone in a rest stop while he went to call the tow truck and get the car fixed.

“We waited for eight hours with no food,” Hernandez said. “I did have some money, but because I didn’t know English, I couldn’t buy anything.”

After a failed attempt at ordering from Taco Bell, Hernandez was lucky to snag a bag of potato chips to feed the four people for eight hours. The rest of the trek was not any easier. Originally from the equator, the harsh northeast winter did not provide a warm welcome for the migrants, especially when the car’s heat stopped working in Philadelphia. At this point, the guide reached out to Hernandez’s mother to pick him up and take him back to Worcester, because there was no way they could finish the journey.

Hernandez acknowledges that his journey to the United States was relatively smooth sailing compared to most migrants. He was not detained at the border and Immigration and Customs Enforcement never caught him.

“There are other immigrants who have it worse,” Hernandez said. “Women who have been raped on the way here. Families that have been kidnapped and killed. There are different kinds of stories.”

Hernandez, who left El Salvador in November of 2009 and is now a U.S. citizen and Worcester organizer for Neighbor to Neighbor, is just one of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

News about the migrant crisis has largely centered on the border, but it is also an issue in Worcester. Many migrants who cross the border, seek asylum or apply for refugee status are relocated to Worcester. According to a study by the Seven Hills Foundation, it is estimated that there are 5,790 undocumented immigrants in Worcester today.

The undocumented immigrants of Worcester

To profile the entire population of undocumented immigrants in Worcester is a near-impossible task because of the city’s diversity. Undocumented immigrants can be found in the public school system, Worcester’s many universities and somewhere behind the roughly 35% of foreign-owned businesses.

Although many recent migrants are from the Northern Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — many also exist within mixed-status families of older immigrant populations in Worcester such as those from Ghana or the Dominican Republic. Another notable population would be those from Iraq who fled violence and terrorism. That being said, it is important to note that not all undocumented immigrants come from these countries, and not all people from these countries are undocumented immigrants.

“We’re seeing people try more creative ways of getting to the United States,” said Ailish Donovan, senior program manager for Ascentria’s Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program.

“We see kids from Bangladesh travel to somewhere in South America and then travel all the way up to the southern border,” Donovan said. “We’re talking about people who travel through oceans and 20 different countries. Other times, they may cross from Canada or be apprehended off a plane.”

“Undocumented immigrant,” explained

The term “undocumented immigrant” is incredibly broad, but is generally understood as someone with no immigration status. To understand the undocumented population in Worcester, immigration lawyers like Dayanna Moreno at Ascentria Care Alliance prefer to think of it in terms of a continuum of status.

“The term ‘undocumented’ is oftentimes inaccurate,” Moreno explained, “because if someone entered on a tourist visa and overstayed, they’re not not undocumented, they’re out of status.”

For the remainder of this article, what are generally understood to be “undocumented immigrants” will be referred to as “those without status” or “out-of-status migrants,” meaning those who have no formal immigration status.

Conceptualizing immigration on a continuum of status allows us to include what immigration lawyer Alex Mooradian at GSK&G describes as a “very delicate immigration status.” Although not a legal term, “delicate” immigration statuses are a helpful way of describing immigration statuses that are temporary, under threat or might be in a state of limbo. Such statuses include but are not limited to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and those with pending visa or green card applications.

The push and pull factors for migrants

The biggest factor pushing people to migrate to the United States is violence. Such violence often takes the form of gang violence, domestic violence, persecution on the basis of an identity, sex trafficking, torture, terrorism and slavery. For children in particular, they may also experience abandonment and neglect.

“I don’t think people in this country fully comprehend the level of violence these people experience,” said Donovan.

“There are a lot of neighborhoods in these countries that are taken over by gangs, so people live in fear of the gangs,” Donovan said. “Once a youth gets to early adolescence, they are recruited into the gang. If they refuse to join, they are killed or their family members are killed.”

Another factor many cite is a weak or failing economy, but Mooradian would have people be wary about the economy being a primary reason.

“I think the narrative that people come here for economic reasons is misleading,” Mooradian said. “Many undocumented people will tell you they’re coming for economic reasons, but part of that is they’re afraid to tell you anything bad about their home country because of cultural taboos and fear of retribution. Their home country is also the site of their first experiences and first joys. Many still have family there, so there’s an operation of guilt.”

That being said, many of these countries are deeply impoverished. As with violence, Donovan said, “There’s a level of poverty people in this country don’t fully comprehend.”

“People live on less than one dollar a day, so when kids turn a certain age they’re leaving school to work,” Donovan said, “because your parents can’t afford school, they can’t even afford to put food on the table.”

This was Hernandez’s experience. Coming from a rural and impoverished area of El Salvador, his grandmother’s home did not have electricity, water or a toilet. Because there was no public transportation and they could not afford private vehicles, Hernandez and his siblings would walk 1½ hours to get to and from school.

“One of the main reasons I left was because of my mom,” said Hernandez, whose mother was in Worcester sending money back home. “It got to the point where I was knowledgeable enough to understand she was never going to come back. I always wanted to break the cycle of my family of not having an education and I wanted to continue that.”

For Hernandez to continue his education in El Salvador he would have to come into the city, which is three to four hours away from his grandmother’s house. The city was also a hotspot for gang activity and recruitment, which Hernandez did not want for himself.

Life at the border

On his journey to Worcester, Hernandez was lucky not to be caught by ICE or Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The majority of migrants who cross the border, however, are apprehended and held in detention facilities.

Countless news reports have shown that detention facilities at the border are unprepared, under-resourced and lack basic necessities. One of Mooradian’s clients was an unaccompanied minor from Central America who was detained by CBP. When Mooradian called CBP, they were unable to locate the child in the detention center designed for temporary stays.

“I was being told that there was a 21-day processing minimum,” Mooradian said, “but that would be a violation of federal law.”

The Flores settlement of 1997 mandates that migrants can be held in detention centers for a maximum of 20 days, but the backlog of migrant cases and the lack of resources does not make this a feasible practice. Two other clients of Mooradian’s were held in detention centers for over 14 months.

“The client was suffering significantly from a cognitive impairment and from serious mental health concerns based on childhood trauma,” said Mooradian. “He ended up signing off to remove himself from the country after 14 months of prolonged detention.”

Like this client, many migrants who arrive at the border come with severe trauma that detention centers are ill-equipped to handle and, because of poor conditions, actually aggravate.

Those in detention centers not only lack basic resources, but also access to the justice system, which prolongs many migrants’ stays in detention centers. Many migrants do not have strong English language skills, but are expected to navigate the justice system, find a lawyer and present their case in just four hours before the court session.

“These detention centers are in the middle of the desert and as far from services as you can possibly get,” said Lisa Laurel Weinberg, an immigration lawyer at De Novo Center for Justice and Healing. “It’s an epic deprivation of their rights to due process.”

Mooradian thinks that the idea that detained people have access to proper representation is a fiction. “Without representation,” he says, “the chance of success goes way down and oftentimes they do sign off on their own removal from the United States, because the conditions of the detention can be so unfavorable and so inadequate, particularly around the mental health issue.”

Many migrants, however, do not choose to deport themselves, but instead face the threat of removal. An abducted child soldier from South Sudan and client of Mooradian, for example, was detained at the border and was almost returned to South Sudan. But because of the level of violence there, the child was almost relocated to a third location to which he had no affiliation.

“He could have been dropped off at this third location, which is tribal,” Mooradian said. “He would have been put in a tribal area to which he is not a member, which would have exposed him to a significant risk of murder.”

Instead, the child was able to enter the country and make a home in Massachusetts.

The threat of deportation

Very few migrants detained at the border are lucky enough to win their case and be relocated to places like Worcester. Instead, many migrants in Worcester face a serious threat of deportation, and that fear permeates through the entire community.

“We recently had a referral from the mayor’s office of a child who told one of their teachers that they may not come back to school next year because they had an order of removal,” said Moreno. “This was a second-grader. If you think the emotional and mental state of this second-grader during the school year doesn’t affect other children in the classroom, you’re mistaken.”

In theory, the City of Worcester is welcoming to migrants. In a public statement, Mayor Joseph M. Petty said that “the City of Worcester and all of its departments are committed to creating a welcoming environment for all of our residents regardless of immigration status.”

Worcester has what Mooradian calls an “unnamed” sanctuary policy, in which the Worcester Police Department will never ask a person for their immigration status. That being said, Worcester is not a sanctuary city.

“The practical problem with not having a heavily publicized and promoted sanctuary policy is the underreporting and non-reporting of crime,” said Mooradian. A 2018 report from the American Civil Liberties Union has confirmed that fear of deportation not only prevents people from reporting crimes and exploitative housing and work environments, but also prevents people from participating in court proceedings.

ICE previously had the power to wait inside immigration courts to identify and deport out-of-status migrants. In Worcester, however, immigrant, civil and family court are located within the same courthouse. Because of ICE’s presence in the courthouse, those out of status are fearful of coming to court, which in turn makes it difficult to enforce laws. Back in April, the District Attorneys of Middlesex and Suffolk counties joined public defenders in an unlikely marriage to sue the federal government over this practice. The case is still pending, but in the meantime, ICE agents are prohibited from entering Massachusetts courthouses.

Even those with delicate immigrant statuses are concerned about deportation, such as those under Temporary Protective Status. TPS is given to nationals of countries affected by armed conflict and natural disasters. Since many of these countries have been unable to address these dangers, many TPS recipients have been in the United States for over 20 years.

“They are not temporary,” said Hernandez, who does organizing work for TPS recipients on his own time. “They are homeowners and business owners. They have car loans and student loans. They have children who are U.S. citizens.”

Another delicate immigration status susceptible to deportation are those with pending deportations to countries that previously did not accept deportees. Vietnam, for example, does not accept deportees, but the policies between the U.S. and Vietnam are undergoing change.

“People have had their deportations on hold for a long period of time, and now they have a risk of actually being removed from orders of removal from many years ago,” said Mooradian. “They built their entire life here, but now they are at risk of being returned to a country to which they no longer have ties.”

Why don’t they just apply for status legally?

Many may wonder why these out-of-status migrants do not ever try to gain legal status the right way, but doing so is harder than it may seem.

“There is no mechanism for the majority of undocumented people in Worcester to obtain a lawful immigration status,” said Mooradian. “Probably half of the people that consult with me come in seeking a way to rectify their immigration situation after a long term of residency — no criminal history, they’re paying taxes — and there is no option available for them to obtain a lawful immigration status.”

“The myth that you can just marry your way or have a baby to obtain status is prevalent and wrong,” said Moreno. Although those options do exist, it is not as simple as it seems.

Moreno has seen several cases of out-of-status migrants marrying a U.S. citizen and applying for legal status only to realize they do not qualify for a variety of reasons, one of the more common reasons being the permanent bar, which prevents anyone who has entered the U.S. illegally, left and then returned illegally from obtaining lawful status. In several cases, out-of-status migrants will go through this application only to have outed themselves and be placed on removal proceedings.

Many who do seek lawful immigration are often exploited by those practicing law without a license. Patricia Doherty, the director of the International Student Support Office at Clark University, has heard several cases of out-of-status students’ families being exploited by such people.

“One student’s family was taken advantage of by an attorney who told them to lie on their green card application,” said Doherty.

“Another student’s family came to the U.S. legally but overstayed their visa,” Doherty explained. “Overstaying is legal if you apply for asylum, so they went to a lawyer who filed their case along with other families from the same country.

“The lawyer filed the paperwork for all of them and they all paid this lawyer money,” Doherty went on, “but the lawyer used a boilerplate application, which is legal but not ethical. Their cases were denied and they were in the appeals process for eight to ten years.”

The struggles of out-of-status migrants in Worcester

Hernandez was fortunate to not be exploited in such ways, and instead obtained Special Juvenile Status and went on to become a U.S. citizen. Despite this straightforward path, Hernandez’s life as an out-of-status migrant was not without its difficulties. Hernandez arrived in Worcester with minimal English and living in poverty. He attended a school in Main South for its bilingual program, but eventually transferred to Doherty Memorial High School. As a high-schooler, Hernandez just wanted to fit in, but had trouble doing that given his limited English and low-income background.

“I remember one time coming home and I asked my mom for a cell phone,” Hernandez recalled. “My mom was like, ‘Unfortunately I can’t get you a cell phone. If I get you a cell phone, I won’t be able to afford its monthly payments, I have to support your siblings in El Salvador and I’m paying so much in rent’.

“I felt excluded, like a nerd with reduced technology skills,” said Hernandez. “I felt excluded because of the language barrier and my skin color.”

Those who grow up out of status are less likely to be privy to the knowledge and resources that allow people to succeed, since their parents are unfamiliar with the system. “I didn’t know I needed a good GPA in high school to get scholarships,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t know I could get scholarships for playing soccer, I didn’t even know how to get involved with playing soccer.”

Once he graduated in 2012, Hernandez spent five years obtaining his associate’s degree in information technology from Quinsigamond Community College. After having trouble with the school’s testing policies, he was finally able to graduate in 2017.

“When I was happy and posting pictures of graduation for my associate’s degree,” said Hernandez, “my high school classmates were posting graduation photos from their bachelor’s or master’s. I thought to myself, ‘Where have I been?’”

Outside of emotional well-being and academic success, out-of-status migrants and migrants with a delicate status also have trouble with finding housing and transportation. Many struggle to meet the criteria necessary to rent a home in Worcester: pay the first and last month of rent, put down a security deposit, have a credit score over 600 and pass a background check. Because of this barrier, out-of-status and delicate migrants are often homeless or living in poor housing conditions.

Many are also unable to obtain driver’s licenses, which is a problem close to Hernandez’s heart. With Massachusetts’ new Real ID policy, TPS recipients will no longer have a valid driver’s license.

″(My mother) is not going to be able to go to work, own her car, bring my grandma to appointments or do her shopping,” said Hernandez. Without a driver’s license, many like Hernadnez’s mother lose their right to move freely.

Now a U.S. citizen, Hernandez has been empowered to fight for the rights of migrants regardless of status. As part of Neighbor to Neighbor, he organizes for affordable housing, free public transportation and increased diversity in the education system. On his own time, he has been part of campaigns for the SAFE Communities Act, which would make all of Massachusetts a sanctuary for migrants, and Drive Families Forward, a campaign for the Massachusetts State House to give out-of-status and delicate status folks a driver’s license.

Before and after the Trump administration

Success stories like Hernandez’s are refreshing and inspiring, but the lives of migrants are not getting any easier. Although the Trump administration did inherit an incredibly backlogged immigration system from the Obama administration, they have also implemented policies that further complicate the situation.

Such new policies include but are not limited to those that discourage out-of-status migrants from applying for lawful status (such as sharing information of applicants with ICE even if they are rejected) and the decrease of the cap on refugees allowed into the United States.

“Under the Trump administration, we’re seeing the elimination of longstanding, generally agreed upon principles of immigration law,” said Mooradian. According to international law, which the United States has signed onto, people have the right to seek asylum upon arriving at a country, but the Trump administration has made this process more difficult and inhumane, particularly for those who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The administration is also targeting specific countries,” said Weinberg, in reference to the administration’s third-country agreement with Guatemala, “which is not in the spirit of the law.”

With the Trump administration, immigration lawyers are seeing the immigration process get more complicated in a variety of ways. First, the Department of Justice has narrowed the scope of asylum law, leaving fewer cases eligible for approval. Second, judges have less and less discretion with the cases they see, meaning they cannot rule in favor of sympathetic cases. Third, under Attorney General Sessions, the Department of Justice directly intervened or changed certain rulings. Fourth, complicated enforcement policies create slowdowns and administrative delays that prolong the migrant crisis.

“It’s like trying a death penalty case in traffic court,” said Mooradian of the immigration system.

Final thoughts

When discussing the reasons migrants leave their home country, Donovan recited a line from the poem “Home” by Warsan Shire: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

“In Worcester, we have a lot of shining examples of people who have overcome extreme persecution, physical abuse, torture, domestic violence, poverty and discrimination,” said Mooradian. “If people understood the actual history of these individuals, it would be a lot easier to make an immigration policy that protects national security, the economy and reflects human values.”

Those who flee their homes often carry with them intense baggage. “I finally made it to the United States, but I kept thinking about my siblings,” said Hernandez. “I had that trauma for quite some years. I could see my mother and eat in restaurants, but I knew my siblings back home were struggling.

“I wanted to be something better and break the cycle of poverty and a lack of education,” said Hernandez. Now that his family has been reunited, Hernandez is inspired to fight for his people. “I try to kick some ass now through civic engagement.”