Maria Córdoba lost her job in March 2020 when the pandemic hit, and had to move in with a friend's family in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

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This story was produced for The Oaklandside in collaboration with El Tímpano, a local Spanish-language reporting lab serving Oakland’s Latino and Mayan immigrant communities.

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On his first day in office, President Biden unveiled a sweeping immigration reform package that, among other things, would provide a pathway to citizenship for nearly all of the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Congressional leaders plan to bring piecemeal immigration bills to the floor this month while strategizing a way to pass comprehensive reform. 

Such reform, if passed, would bring about significant changes for immigrant communities in California, where one in every ten workers is undocumented. El Tímpano asked its audience, mainly Latino and indigenous Mayan immigrants living in East Oakland, how immigration policy affects their lives, and what they hope to see in reform. 

Many noted the pain of being away from their families due to the inability to travel freely. Others described the difficulty of finding good jobs, and the frustration of paying taxes but not receiving benefits like unemployment or social security. Several spoke about the omnipresent anxiety of living without legal documentation. These are a few of their stories, told in their own words.  

Consuelo Pérez*  

Consuelo Pérez is a 52-year-old house cleaner who has lived in Oakland for 15 years. 

I lived in a village called Apopa, in San Salvador. I came here because the wages were really, really low. I was the bread-winner of the family, and it wasn’t enough. Each day the situation got worse—the crime and the debt. There was a moment when I just felt like I couldn’t get out of debt. And that’s how I decided to come here and leave my children. One was six years old, and the other was 14. 

When I left, a gang was trying to recruit my oldest son. Because I was able to send money back, they were able to get out of there, leave that village.

I told myself that in two years, I’ll pay off my debt and save a little and return. But those two years came and went and I didn’t even notice. 

Imagine 15 years without seeing your family. It’s difficult for them and for me. 

I feel like, enough already. I’m desperate to see my people, my sons, my mom. My father passed away six years ago; I was never able to see him. My mom is 86 years old. 

I used to talk with my sons more often. These days, hardly at all. They have their own lives now. They work, one studies, and they’re busy. Now my oldest son is 29 years old. He graduated with a degree in graphic design about three years ago, and I was so proud. The youngest one has been at the university for four years. He’s studying communications, and he works. They’ve made the sacrifices worth it. 

I hope they fix everyone’s status. Many people have been here for years, and it’s like they’re neither from here nor from there anymore. They pay their taxes. I think it’s time. They deserve the opportunity to get their papers. 

José Luis Caicedo

José Luis Caicedo at his home in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

José Luis Caicedo, 41, is an Ecuadorian immigrant who has lived in Oakland for the past three years. He works as a medical interpreter and is also El Tímpano’s translator. For this interview, José Luis shared the struggles of his father in obtaining legal status. 

Fortunately I succeeded in obtaining U.S. citizenship. My mom is a legal resident, and on the way to apply for citizenship. My brother and my sister, they are also U.S. citizens. The three of us have been able to attain better education that allowed us to advance in this country, attain careers, be able to have a family and maintain a decent life. 

But my father’s situation is different. 

My father used to work in a sweatshop in the Manhattan garment district. It was typical that immigration would conduct raids at the factories there. One day they made a surprise raid, and my father, instead of hiding, let them arrest him. 

He didn’t have good legal help and made the mistake of signing a voluntary departure, but he never left the country. 

For a long time we tried reopening his case to change his legal status but the immigration laws are complicated and always changing. At this point, he’s unable to renew and resolve his case so he can retire and receive the social security pension he has earned from so many years of paying taxes. 

It affects him. Emotionally, it affects him a lot because he feels like someone who does not have value. He feels like a second-class person. It also affects his mental health. And obviously, it affects his economic situation by not having any income, now that he has stopped working. 

I hope to see immigration reform. It would be a phenomenal change. An opportunity for him to do all of the things he used to enjoy but can’t, due to immigration policy. Like travel—getting on a plane and going from one state to another without fear. Get a license and drive a car. Return to his country to see his family, or those who are left. Enjoy the benefits of his retirement, his social security. And be able to feel like a normal human.  

Maria Córdoba

Maria Córdoba in front of her home in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Maria Córdoba, 43, came to the United States alone from El Salvador five years ago. She spent two years in Houston before moving to Oakland. 

My intentions coming to this country have always been to make progress, to do something productive. Most of us who come here come to work, to work hard for this country. 

The work for undocumented people is the worst paid. It’s the most back-breaking. We don’t have many opportunities to get a good job. What’s more is that they withhold taxes from our checks, and we don’t receive any major benefits from that.

I began by washing dishes when I arrived in Houston, and that was fine. I was happy because at least there was work, right? When I came to Oakland I also found a job washing dishes at a café. I was paid minimum wage. Back then it was about $13.25. Most recently I was getting paid $14.14, but not anymore. 

I haven’t worked since the pandemic hit. One day I received a letter that said, due to the pandemic, I was being laid off. I haven’t worked since March of last year. 

Because of that, I haven’t been able to pay the rent on my own. I’ve moved in with some friends. Their daughter has said to me, “Look, this company is hiring, this other company is recruiting.” But as someone without papers or a work permit, I can’t apply for any of it. 

It would be a great opportunity to at least have a work permit so that we could work legally and not be afraid. Blessed be to God if they gave me an opportunity to obtain papers. How wonderful it would be to be legal in this country. 

Dulce Escalante

Dulce Escalante, 38, came to the United States from Mexico on her own 14 years ago, leaving behind her sisters and her three-year-old daughter. She has lived in Oakland for the past 10 years. 

My life has been a bit sad at times. It’s been sad because I can’t have my family with me. I can have a lot of things, I can help my family, but I can’t hold them. That becomes a scar—not being able to see your family. 

I was raised in a humble place with my grandmother and my parents. From a young age I took care of my siblings and I also went to school. My father died. So as the older sister I have always had this obligation, as if I were my mother’s spouse. My mission has always been with my family. I want them to be well. That is how I have, in a way, forgotten myself. My sisters have graduated from school. I feel satisfied. I didn’t do that myself, but they did. My sisters grew up in better conditions than I did thanks to me coming to this country. 

But sometimes, when I need something, like to talk with someone, I feel that they are far away. And that’s when I feel the wound; I get sad and cry. There, they support one another and hug each other because they are together. But here, I don’t have any of them. 

It ‘s been a long time since I’ve seen my family. There have been relatives who died, who I wanted to see and couldn’t because of my legal status. Immigration reform would completely change that situation.

I pay my taxes. I don’t have a criminal record. And I think that we immigrants are part of this country. Passing an immigration reform would be like recognizing our value. They would be recognizing that we exist, that we’re present. I hope to see an amnesty to improve the quality of life for immigrants who have not been able to see our families. 

Names followed by an asterisk (*) were changed at the request of the interviewee, out of fear due to their legal status.

Interviews were conducted by El Tímpano’s Madeleine Bair and edited by Madeleine Bair and Daniel Marquez.

Madeleine Bair

Madeleine Bair is an award-winning journalist and media developer. She is the founder of El Tímpano, a Spanish-language reporting lab designed in collaboration with Oakland’s Latinx and Mayan immigrants, and described as an “outstanding innovation model” in the 2019 Latino News Media report. Madeleine is proud to have begun her career in journalism as a kid in a youth media organization based in a church attic in downtown Oakland. Since then, she has taught radio production to teenagers, worked on a morning show at Chicago Public Radio, produced multimedia for Human Rights Watch, and collaborated with media activists from around the world. Madeleine’s stories have appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Colorlines, and broadcast on public media programs including PRI’s The World and Independent Lens.