Illegal Immigrants: For Many, Journey Begins at Road's End
DEYO NOTE: As you read through this article, keep in mind that illegal aliens are a HUGE cause for concern throughout America - not just the border states. As soon as they sneak across the border, many head north shown here and also in this graphic. With the growing number of children born to illegals receiving automatic citizenship, it is turning the U.S. into Amexica. Though this article paints a sympathetic attitude toward illegals, the truth is they:
- over burden our hospitals
- strain social services
- water down the work force
- slash your children's education by 50% with lessons in English which then must be repeated in Spanish
- encourage flagrant disrespect for our laws by entering illegally, ignoring court summons and seeking "amnesty" for their lawbreaking
- disrespect property and belongings
- and terrorize citizens
BEFORE you cry foul on the last two points re-read this most astounding piece Under Siege! It will truly open your eyes to the less-aired aspects of this growing problem. If you're tired of giving away America, let your Congressional representative know your feelings. And last, we have a duty to the rising hunger and poor in America before taking on another country's problems.
December 3, 2005
By EDWARD HEGSTROM
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
The freight train took a curve near Milby and the view opened on downtown Houston in the predawn darkness, a sight unlike anything Ricardo Palacios had ever seen.
Photo: Carlos, a Honduran, is one of the lucky ones, quickly finding a steady job that included a place to live. Months after arriving, he was ordered to appear in immigration court and decided to fight to stay legally in the United States.
The skyline, a magnificent wall of light and steel, was so massive it had to be one continuous building. After many months and thousands of miles of travel, it uplifted Ricardo in ways he struggles to describe, something "like a sixth sense."
At the border, men he met told him to hop on the train after the last checkpoint and ride it until he saw the tall buildings. That was how he would know he had reached Houston. They said the skyscrapers were a sign he could finally relax and stop worrying about being caught. No one in Houston pays attention to illegal immigrants.
"The police there won't even look at you," they told him.
Ricardo thought of this as he jumped off the train near Minute Maid Park and slipped into downtown just as dawn broke and the sidewalks started filling with people on their way to work.
He carried nothing except the clothes on his back, and they were fouled with 10 days of South Texas soot. His tongue ached from chewing cactus to slake his thirst. His wallet was empty, save for a well-worn card bearing the image of Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, which he kept in the clear plastic slot normally used for identification.
It had been a long, hard road, but Ricardo had made it: 1,500 miles, mostly on foot, from his home in Mejicanos, a tough neighborhood north of San Salvador. It had taken him eight months, quite a hike for a 46-year-old. He came north looking for success and respect and dignity simple things that had escaped him back home, where his life was a string of repeated failures fueled by drugs and drink.
After a long walk down Washington, as he at last approached the door of Casa Juan Diego, a sanctuary on the near west side for newly arrived illegals, Ricardo felt he had little reason to celebrate. Getting here would mean nothing if he failed in America, too.
The real journey was just beginning.
One of the millions
Fear is the newly arrived illegal immigrant's constant companion. As Ricardo took stock of his surroundings at the Casa, the fear of failure was uppermost in his mind.
It was all around him on the corners. Among the men waiting for work: some were homeless, some drunk, some desperate enough to sell their bodies as well as their labor. Not everyone survives.
Photo: After failing to make a success of himself in El Salvador, 46-year-old Ricardo sought a new start in the United States. He traveled 1,500 miles in eight months to find that life in Houston could be just as tough.
When Ricardo's life in America began in May 2004, President Bush was trying, without much success, to sell a program to control illegal immigration to a nation grown somewhat weary of it, but which was unable or unwilling or both to do much about it.
They are here by the millions, though no one knows for sure just how many million. The federal government has not issued a count in years, and the private sector estimates the number at anywhere between 7 million and 20 million. Lawmakers have filed dozens of bills aimed at addressing the problem, but few make it into law. The need to urgently address the issue of illegal immigration largely remains an academic discussion.
Ricardo was oblivious to the debate, spending his first months in El Norte waiting for work with the other esquiñeros, or day laborers, on the corner near the Casa, picking up odd jobs that ranged from digging ditches in a garbage dump to rearranging furniture in the campaign office of an incumbent U.S. representative.
There would be weeks of injury and despair, days when he would consider giving up and going home. But during the next 18 months there also would be times of pure euphoria when, flush with pay, he began to feel so at home he seemed to forget he was here illegally.
"As an immigrant in this country, I can never become president," Ricardo said with a smile last summer when he made more than $300 in a week. "But I can become a millionaire!"
The estimated half-million people who come to the United States illegally every year don't do so expecting to become president or, for that matter, millionaires. They come because, though their labor is cheap, it earns them more than a lifetime of toil would at home. They come in part with the understanding that any children they have here automatically are citizens. They bring their children knowing that their lack of citizenship will not deny them an education in U.S. schools.
But perhaps more than anything, they continue to arrive here in astonishing numbers because it is easy to stay. They find work even though employing them is illegal. There is a vast and powerful network of safe houses, churches and civic organizations that enables them to gain a toehold on a life in America, however tenuous.
The marketplace, too, has learned to love illegal immigrants, not only for their work but because they are consumers they rent apartments and buy food, clothes, furniture, phone cards and even homes.
And there are a handful of cities with substantial Hispanic populations, including Houston, where it is official policy not to enforce civil laws against illegal immigration unless a felony has been committed.
A place to start
Casa Juan Diego is widely known in Central America and Mexico as a safe house, one of the first stops of refuge for illegal immigrants in Houston. Several times a day the guard at the men's house, a nondescript white complex of clapboard buildings near the corner of Washington and Shepherd, answers the door to find a newly arrived immigrant outside.
Most are simply looking for a place to stay for a night or two on the way to their final destination a cousin in Chicago or a job in North Carolina. All they may need is a bed and a meal before moving on.
For others, Casa Juan Diego is the destination, a place they have heard will give them 10 days of free lodging and help them find work and a decent place to live before they have to move out.
On rare occasions, the administration at Casa Juan Diego will let a guest become a staff member, which means they can stay in the house indefinitely in exchange for one day of work per week.
Ricardo, who is gregarious and charming, quickly landed a job as a cook at the Casa. There, and on the dusty street corners, he befriended other esquiñeros two guys from Mexico City known in the neighborhood simply as Los Chilangos, a common nickname for people from the Mexican capital. He also got to know three Hondurans named Carlos, Edwin and Dagoberto.
For the next year, for better or worse, this was Ricardo's universe.
Successes and failures
Casa Juan Diego gave Ricardo structure, stability, and free room and board. After a few weeks, the street was providing some steady work. He began sending money home, sometimes as much as $200 a week, dispersed between his wife and ex-wife, his seven children, and his aging father.
A grandfather, Ricardo's short black hair tinged with gray gives him a look of responsibility. He has a round, inquisitive face, and he chooses his second-hand T-shirts carefully no holes, no stains. His face does not show many signs of his hard life, except when one of his frequent, hearty laughs reveals three missing molars.
Within weeks, so proud was he of his new life and friends that he bought a Polaroid camera on the street for $2 to take pictures and mail them home. He wanted his family to see the class of people he had befriended.
Some of those friendships did not last long. By July, Los Chilangos were broke and broken. Cheated out of their wages by a landscaper, disillusioned and evicted from their apartment, they went back to Mexico.
Benjamin, a quiet, polite young Salvadoran, lasted less than a week. It had taken him eight months to get to Houston, but days after, when he excitedly called home to say he had arrived, he got news that a relative had been involved in an auto accident. He turned around and headed back home.
In June, one of the esquiñeros beaten by despair, drink, disillusionment or mental illness lay down on the tracks near Washington and Shepherd in the path of a slowly approaching freight train.
And then there were those who went home for no apparent reason, other than they had simply given up. Ricardo, who says he fought with the FLMN guerrillas during El Salvador's bloody civil war, has little sympathy for them.
"The problem with these vatos is that they are not realists," he explained, using one of the many local Spanish slang terms he had picked up. "They come thinking it is the land of opportunity and that things will be easy here."
But some of Ricardo's new friends possessed the greatest asset of the streets luck. Carlos had it. In spades. Ricardo, who gives nicknames to everyone, called the cool and confident 17-year-old "el Pequeño Schwarzenegger" because of the well-chiseled physique he usually showed off with tank tops or tight-fitting T-shirts. Others called him chaparro, or "shorty," because he stood not an inch taller than 5 feet.
Not long after arriving, Carlos landed the Holy Grail of the esquiñeros a steady job. A Houston homeowner randomly picked Carlos out of the crowd on the corner to do some work in the yard and ended up offering him a place to stay in exchange for doing odd jobs in his spare time. Less than two months after arriving, Carlos had a regular job and was living in an $800,000 home on Ella Lee in River Oaks.
His oddest job was walking the family's small dog along the neighborhood's leafy boulevards.
Learning the ropes
As the summer of 2004 progressed, the men's fortunes waxed and waned. Life on the corner was hot and dusty and full of surprises.
Carlos' older brother, Edwin, arrived a couple months after him. The owners of the River Oaks home let Edwin stay there. The brothers talked of settling in Houston for a while, of saving money to help their widowed mother buy land and a home back in Yoro, the city in northern Honduras they came from.
In August, Carlos found a message waiting for him at work. It was from Edwin. It said simply: "I went to Minnesota."
Edwin had been standing on the corner when a man pulled up in a van and said he was a labor contractor who needed men to work construction in Minnesota. Edwin didn't hesitate and in a couple of hours, before he had time to talk to his brother, he packed his few belongings and headed north.
Ricardo told Carlos not to worry, because the labor contractor who picked Edwin up had been seen on the corner before and was known to be a good guy. They later learned Edwin had made it there safely.
Ricardo was especially loyal to employers who treated him well. He spoke glowingly of a ceramic artist who hired him off and on for about a month over the summer, paying him $7 an hour for light work and treating him to lunch at Burger King every day.
But he had no kind words for those who did not.
"There's the Ecuadorian," Ricardo said, as a pickup approached one sultry morning. "He won't even give you water to drink."
Male prostitutes work the same street corners as the esquiñeros, who say they have been propositioned more than once by supposed contractors who begin by asking for workers but later reveal that what they really want is sex.
Most esquiñeros complain incessantly about the drinking, drugs and prostitution along Shepherd, particularly when they go days without work and begin to feel they are wallowing in depravity.
But just when Shepherd can begin to seem like a den of iniquity, an esquiñero will get hired for a good job, which might take him to one of the more important addresses in Houston.
The Chilangos set up booths outside Minute Maid Park for the 2004 All Star Game. Ricardo once went to the upscale Post Rice Lofts to move furniture for an attorney. He also worked a few days at a downtown mall, and a caterer once hired him to work during a lavish birthday party for a guy named Tom at the Houston Country Club, perhaps the most exclusive club in the city.
One day late in August, Ricardo was sporting a big smile.
"We are now very important," he said. "We worked for a senator named Sheila Jackson."
The business card he dug out of his pocket bore the name of U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston. Ricardo and Carlos had been waiting on a Saturday when a man in a van picked them up and took them to Jackson Lee's campaign office, where they moved some computers and furniture.
Jackson Lee, a staunch defender of immigrant rights, said neither she nor anyone in her campaign had "any knowledge" of day laborers being used to move furniture. But then she quipped: "I'm glad they're engaged in the political process."
In September, Carlos had more family news.
"My uncle is here," he said, in his typically laconic style. "He's at (Casa) Juan Diego."
His name was Dagoberto, and like Carlos, he came from the north of Honduras. But in many ways, the two were from different worlds. Carlos grew up in Yoro, a small city, but a city nevertheless. Dagoberto lived his entire life in a mountainous village outside the town of Mangulile, where he lived off the corn, beans and cows on his land.
A devout evangelical Christian, Dagoberto never swore a rarity among esquiñeros. He treated others with respect, usually speaking in a formal Spanish. He greeted friends with a gentle smile and a two-handed handshake. "Cuanto gusto," he would say. What a pleasure.
A 47-year-old father of seven, Dagoberto wore a mustache and usually looked reasonably neat, even though he often wore the same second-hand pinstripe wool pants with splotches of paint on them. He carried a little blue copy of the New Testament everywhere he went, keeping phone numbers and whatever cash he had tucked inside.
Not surprisingly, Dagoberto would have more difficulty adjusting to Houston than Ricardo or Carlos. Humility and tenderness may be excellent traits, but they do not make for a good esquiñero.
The fall was approaching and Carlos had little time to tend to his uncle. His girlfriend, Kenya, had called and said she was on her way north. That was the good news, or as it turned out, the better news.
A letter had arrived at Casa Juan Diego, an official envelope from La Migra, U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement, ordering him to appear in immigration court in Harlingen in late October.
In May, on his journey north, Carlos had been fished out of the Rio Grande by U.S. Border Patrol agents, who had let him go after giving him a piece of paper allowing him to travel to Houston. It was routine practice. Mexicans were rounded up and sent back across the border, but it cost too much to send other illegal immigrants home, so the cash-strapped government began releasing them, a practice dubbed "Catch and Release" by its critics.
But as Carlos came to learn, the Catch and Release program, which the federal government has since said it will discontinue, has a downside. Before releasing the illegals, the Border Patrol takes their names and fingerprints, and orders them to appear in immigration court. If they fail to do so, a judge issues a warrant ordering them deported, which becomes a permanent black mark on their record and could prevent them from becoming a legal resident years later if the opportunity arose.
If, on the other hand, they show up for their court date, they face the likelihood of being ordered deported by the immigration judge.
But for Carlos, it was a huge dilemma.
Should he, like the vast majority of people in his situation, ignore the summons, or should he face the risk of immediate deportation?
He went to see an attorney at YMCA International Services, who advised him that it would be in his long-term interest to appear at the court date.
Ricardo gave different advice.
"Don't be stupid, Enano," Ricardo said, using another nickname that means Shorty in Spanish. "I say don't show up."
Even Carlos's mother in Honduras advised him to skip it.
As the October court date approached, Carlos turned fatalistic. "If they deport me, that's fine," he said. "If they don't deport me, that's fine, too."
The YMCA attorney had written a letter for Carlos asking for a change of venue to Houston. But the court never responded, so he caught a bus to Harlingen and spent the night in a $10 room above a pawnshop.
He arrived early at the courthouse. It was empty, which was not surprising since the immigration court in Harlingen has the highest no-show rate of any in the country more than 80 percent of the immigrants fail to appear for their scheduled hearings there.
Judge David Ayala told Carlos that he had received the letter requesting a change of venue to Houston, and then he said he would grant it. He urged Carlos to hold on to his court paperwork, which he would need to get past the Border Patrol checkpoint between Harlingen and Houston on the ride home.
"You have a nice day, sir," the judge said to Carlos as he left. The whole proceeding took less than 10 minutes; it took Carlos two days to get there and back.
On the way back, Carlos got a call on his cell phone. It was a relative with news from Kenya. She had gotten separated from her friend while traveling through Mexico and had been assaulted.
Kenya had apparently hoped Carlos would do more to help her get north. "Now she's mad at me," he said.
Carlos already had fathered a son with a previous girlfriend, Jessica, whom he rarely mentioned. Now it seemed he was ready to put Kenya behind him as well.
Asked a few weeks later if he had heard from her, he said: "The past is past. I have to live in the present."
'Addicted to money'
Back in Houston, Ricardo was all smiles.
"You're not going to believe this, but I finally have a steady job," he said.
He had gone to work for someone who buys old houses and fixes them up. He was already finishing his first week, and the owner gave him a verbal commitment of long-term employment.
After five months as an esquiñero, the steady work transformed Ricardo in sudden and remarkable ways. More than ever, he marveled at his progress.
"I never never thought I would get my life together in the United States like I'm doing," he said. "Now I can see my future." In El Salvador, he said, he was addicted to drugs. "Now I'm addicted to money."
He began sending $200 to El Salvador every week without fail. In no time, he had paid for his children's tuition for the entire year.
Ricardo had always said that he planned to work furiously until Christmas 2005, when he hoped to have $10,000 in a Salvadoran bank account. Then he would cash it in and go home. Now he was having other ideas.
"Maybe it's better to bring the family here," he said.
He continued to live and work at Casa Juan Diego, which meant he was now required to oversee Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three nights a week, as well as cooking two meals for more than 70 men every Monday.
Early one morning in November, Ricardo walked into the Juan Diego kitchen and found a mess. Another resident and volunteer, the one Ricardo called "The Mummy," had made his own breakfast and failed to clean up. Words were exchanged, which were not kind. Then The Mummy came to life, clocking Ricardo in the forehead, which sent him to the ground with a bloody gash.
Mark Zwick, the Casa's director, a follower of the pacifist Catholic Worker's Movement, rushed to the kitchen to establish order. Ricardo was sent to the Juan Diego clinic to have his cut bandaged. Zwick also planned to enforce the house zero-tolerance policy on fighting, which meant kicking out both Ricardo and The Mummy.
Ricardo had left his cell phone at the Casa while he went to the clinic. When it rang, an agitated Zwick answered it.
"Ricardo doesn't live here anymore," he said curtly to the anonymous caller. "I need someone who can cook frijoles. Can you cook frijoles?"
At first, Ricardo made excuses for his performance in the fight, talking about how his slippers kept him from getting good footing. But he later admitted that he had gone down "like Holyfield against Tyson."
Ricardo seemed unfazed about being kicked out of Casa Juan Diego. "I have a ton of friends who will let me stay with them," he said.
He went to Milton's, a convenience store on Washington, and bumped into an acquaintance named Oscar, who agreed to let him move into an apartment he shared with three others. That afternoon, Ricardo went back to Juan Diego one last time, because he thought Zwick planned to give him money. Sure enough, Zwick gave him $300 cash.
Ricardo went straight to the Western Union around the corner to wire $200 to El Salvador. He kept the rest for expenses.
"Farewell, Casa Juan Diego," Ricardo said, as he gathered his belongings and left for the last time. "I will never see you again."
He would keep his word, at least for a time. Though the bus ride from his new apartment to his job required him to pass Washington and Shepherd, he didn't stop there again. He looked at the esquiñeros as he rode by, glad to not be among them.
"Thank God I have steady work through the slow months December and January," he said. "I would not want to be esquiñando now."
The edge of survival
Dagoberto was not so lucky. After finishing his 10 days at Juan Diego, he went to one of the nearby flophouses, where he paid $50 a week for a rundown room he shared with two strangers. His roommates drank too much, so Dagoberto moved again, to another house with people he could maybe trust.
He found odd jobs that took him around the region. He cleaned gutters in Galveston and dug ditches at a garbage dump near the Louisiana border. He worked for a week in October for a Mexican who had a remodeling company, but who didn't pay him. He says he is owed $360, but he never found a way to get his money.
Dagoberto was not particularly good at getting work on the corner, where only the fittest survive. His problems worsened in the holiday season, when the work all but dried up.
"Things are getting serious," Dagoberto said in December. He considered going home, but didn't know how he could face his family and admit he failed. "If I go now, I'll return just the same as I left with nothing. I have to wait. I have to work."
Ricardo and Carlos grew impatient with Dagoberto's failings. Ricardo started giving regular pep talks to make him tougher, so that he wouldn't let anyone take advantage of him.
"If you don't watch out for yourself, who's going to do it, Dago?" Ricardo asked. "In this country, you're not going to have friends. Do you know who is your only friend here? El señor dolar." Mr. Dollar.
Dagoberto had not talked to his family in more than a month. The only phone in his village was not working, so to contact his wife he had to call a Honduran radio station and ask them to broadcast the message so that his wife could hear it and get to a telephone in Yoro at the appointed time the next day.
Besides, he had been putting off calling his wife until he could tell her he was sending money, which he had not yet been able to do. But the holidays, his first ever away from his family, brought so much nostalgia that he decided to call the first week in January. Ricardo helped him place the call from a pay phone.
His wife informed him that she needed 15,000 Lempiras, or about $800. Dagoberto said he couldn't come up with that kind of money. "Do you think the United States are mine?" he asked.
His wife asked how he had spent Christmas. "Alone," he said. "I went to bed crying and I woke up crying. I've cried many times here."
Ricardo, who was standing nearby, snorted derisively.
No time for injury
A couple of weeks later, Ricardo was lifting a large concrete block at work when he felt a sharp pain in his back. He kept working, but it hurt. The next morning he could barely walk.
While at Casa Juan Diego, Ricardo had gotten a Gold Card, which allowed him to get nearly free medical care through the Harris County Hospital District. Though it hurt him, he walked the few blocks from his apartment to the nearest clinic.
"I've never felt a pain like this," he said, while sitting uncomfortably in the waiting room. He had his hands on the seat behind him, so he could elevate his buttocks slightly. "If this pain keeps up, I'm going to El Salvador. What am I doing here? I'm here to work, not to be sick."
He wondered if he might lose his job. Then he considered the matter and decided it wouldn't be wise for his boss to fire him. "If the damn bolillo gives me problems, I'll sue him," he said of the boss. (A bolillo is a Mexican roll made with white flour, and it has become slang locally to describe Anglos).
It was the first time he had said anything harsh about his boss, whom he had praised repeatedly for giving him steady work.
After waiting three hours, Ricardo was examined by a doctor who spoke an accented Spanish Ricardo could not understand. He lifted Ricardo's leg and quickly concluded he had a sprained back. He wrote a prescription for ibuprofen and a muscle relaxant.
"Did the doctor say I can't work for three days?" Ricardo asked afterward. "That's impossible."
The next day, he went back to work.
The price of honesty
At the end of January, Carlos faced his second court appearance, this time at the immigration court in Midtown Houston.
The Houston court was far more crowded than Harlingen. Seven immigrants were making their initial appearance before Judge Jimmie Benton, and the judge decided to take all the cases at once. A Spanish-speaking assistant went around the room asking the seven if they planned to ask for more time to find an attorney. Everyone said yes.
The judge informed the seven that they had the right to obtain an attorney at their own expense, and he advised them to do so.
"If you speak for yourself (at the next hearing), in all likelihood I will order you deported from the United States," Benton said. All seven were told to come back in March.
Carlos took the judge's advice. His attorney suggested he apply for political asylum. She advised him that he was not likely to win the case, but that simply applying probably would get him a work visa and allow him to stay in the country for a couple of years while his case wound through the courts.
For her work, the attorney said she would need $2,500. When Ricardo and Dagoberto heard this, they were amazed at the sum.
"Sometimes I can't even afford toilet paper, and this pinche Enano has his own personal attorney," Ricardo said.
Dagoberto, meanwhile, had managed to save $400 after picking up various jobs over nearly two weeks. He didn't want to keep the cash in his apartment, where he knew one of his four roommates might steal it. So he gave it to Carlos, whose River Oaks landlady put his money in the bank for him.
Over the weeks, Dagoberto kept asking for the money back. Carlos kept making excuses, mumbling about how la señora wasn't available to get the money out.
It was not lost on Dagoberto that Carlos needed money for his attorney. Though neither talked about it, the experience clearly strained relations between uncle and nephew.
Distance divides families
One day in late February, Dagoberto was walking down the street when he saw an odd sight. It was Ricardo, the tough guy, the one who eschewed softness and nostalgia. He was crying.
Ricardo had just gotten off the phone. He learned that his wife in El Salvador had found another man.
Ricardo was sullen for a few days, but then he seemed to recover. "Amor de lejos; amor de pendejos," he said. Love from afar; love for fools.
He decided to stop sending money to his wife and children, and vowed to not speak to them. Just weeks earlier, he had talked with great satisfaction about being being able to pay for his children's tuition, and of how he enjoyed hearing from his 12-year-old daughter, his youngest.
"Yes, but that was past," he said. He had pieced things together. Over the previous few weeks, when he called home, his children would tell him vaguely that their mother was not available.
"They were accomplices to the crime," he said.
He vowed he would never speak to them again.
Ricardo continued to communicate with his father, who arranged to deposit his money in El Salvador. By early April, he had more than $5,000 deposited. His goal had always been to return when he had $10,000 in the bank in El Salvador and enough to buy a pickup he could ship home.
Dagoberto, meanwhile, spoke more about his family every day.
"In Honduras, my family treats me like a king," he said. "I get home from work, and my wife gets me hot tea and my daughters get me my slippers.
"Here, I'm nobody."
Just as the loneliness and unemployment seemed to overcome him, Dagoberto started spending his days talking with a woman named Dina, who lived in one of the apartments near Washington and Shepherd.
Dina came from Honduras as well, arriving late in the previous year to be with her son. Dina didn't work, so on the days Dagoberto couldn't find work on the corner, he would give up at about 11 a.m. and stop by to chat with Dina.
At first, he denied any romance. But after less than a month, he and Dina moved into a tiny shack apartment together.
A few weeks later, Ricardo, Carlos and Dagoberto gathered and the subject turned to women. Ricardo revealed he had become amorous with a black woman who lived in his apartment complex, though he insisted it was not anything serious.
The three men all left women and children behind when they came to Houston. After a while, perhaps inevitably, loneliness trumped loyalty.
"I can't live without a woman," Dagoberto said simply.
Becoming an 'absconder'
Like Carlos, Dagoberto had been caught by the Border Patrol and released with an order to appear in court. In December, he traveled to San Antonio for his first hearing, where he said the judge was very kind.
"He congratulated me for showing up," Dagoberto said. The judge agreed to transfer Dagoberto's case to Houston.
The experience left Dagoberto feeling buoyant. But when he appeared for his first hearing in Houston in March, he saw a very different side of the court system.
Dagoberto's case was assigned to Judge Philip Law. Even before his hearing began, Dagoberto could see that Law was not as cordial as the judge in San Antonio. He grilled the immigrants, reminding them they were under oath. Law even angrily lectured the prosecutor at one point.
By the time his name was called, Dagoberto looked frightened and distracted. He absent-mindedly dropped his hand during the swearing in.
"Raise your right hand, sir!" Law said with indignation.
The judge then asked Dagoberto to tell him where he lived. Dagoberto fumbled and looked for the address of Casa Juan Diego on his court records.
"Sir, without looking at the document, tell me where you live," the judge said.
Dagoberto said something about Casa Juan Diego, and then "Washington," to indicate the neighborhood. The judge grew impatient and ordered Dagoberto to fill out a change-of-address form before leaving the building.
Law also reminded Dagoberto that the government alleged he was an "alien" in the country illegally, that he was in removal proceedings and that if he did not appear at the next hearing with an attorney, he probably would be deported.
Dagoberto did not fill out his change-of-address form. After leaving the building, he shook his head in disbelief.
"I regret changing the court from San Antonio," he said. "The judges are nicer there."
He did not appear at his next hearing, which meant he was on his way to becoming an "absconder," one of the 400,000 illegal immigrants who disappear after being ordered deported.
Dagoberto was not entirely naive. He knew he entered this country illegally, and he accepted it as reasonable that the government had a right to remove him.
But he also knew that many who swam the Rio Grande before him found a way to stay here legally. He knew that Hondurans who snuck in before 1998 got work permits under a Temporary Protected Status program implemented after Hurricane Mitch. He was aware that President Bush had repeatedly said he wants to make it possible for illegal immigrants to stay here legally.
So Dagoberto initially thought good things would come from following the law as best he could, appearing at his court hearings without fail. He hoped America would eventually welcome him.
The experience with Law changed this profoundly. It did not make him angry Dagoberto never seemed to get angry but it did leave him resigned and maybe close to defeat.
Throughout the fall and winter, Dagoberto had urged Carlos to attend his hearings. In April, when the subject of Carlos's next court date arose, Dagoberto took a very different stand.
"It's ignorant to go to those hearings," Dagoberto said. "This country is for others. It belongs to the bolillos.
"This country is not ours."
Crackdown on the corner
In the spring, Dagoberto and his girlfriend, Dina, moved into a slightly larger apartment near Washington and Shepherd, though it still had only one room with a shared bath and kitchen.
Then a call came from Honduras. Dina's mother was sick. She went to the Honduran consulate to get an exit visa, which she could use to get an airplane ticket home, even though she had no other photo documentation. In May, she caught a plane to San Pedro Sula, in the north of Honduras.
Dagoberto turned his attention to making money. He got consistent work, first for a landscaper and then for a man named Charlie, who has a business doing drainage repairs at landfills around East Texas. The work in the dump paid $70 a day, though it also increased his laundry bill his clothes stank at the end of every workday.
The consistent work took Dagoberto away from Washington and Shepherd at a tumultuous time. The Chevron station where he used to wait for work was torn down to make room for an upscale mini-mall, part of the gentrification of the area. Police patrols also increased in response to complaints from local businesses, and officers began photographing esquiñeros to identify those who had been warned against trespassing.
People who live and work in the neighborhood had complained for years about the men loitering around Shepherd and Washington. Business owners claim they scare away customers and make the area unsafe.
"It's absolutely unbelievable what we have to put up with," said Kenneth Wayne Jeanes, who owns Vogler Roofing on Shepherd near Washington. "I should know, because I had to shoot and kill one of 'em."
One night three years ago, a man broke the window of the trailer on the Vogler lot where Jeanes was sleeping, and then attempted to climb in. Jeanes shot and killed the man, who was later identified as a day laborer from Central America.
In August, a standing-room crowd of more than 70 neighbors turned out for a community meeting at a shopping strip on Shepherd, where many railed about the inability of police to control the problems associated with day laborers. Some in the crowd turned indignant, accusing police of "aiding and abetting" illegal immigrants because of a Houston Police Department policy forbidding officers from enforcing immigration laws.
Others spoke of how the day laborers eroded their quality of life. A soft-spoken woman named Leslie Hawrysz described how she used to ride the bus to her job in the Medical Center, but she came to dread waiting at the stop because she was perpetually approached by the men there.
"I've been harassed many times by the day laborers," she said. "They walk with me for a block. They ask me for my phone number."
Sometimes Hawrysz was so scared at night that she walked past her home and came in through the rear, so the men would not see where she lived.
Dagoberto watched the news of the community meeting that night on Spanish language television. He had heard that the Minuteman Defense League, a citizen group out of Arizona, planned to film and photograph day laborers in the area, and he mistakenly assumed the community meeting was part of the organizing. The news was making Dagoberto and other day laborers jittery.
One day, rumors circulated that "la Migra," or immigration, was rounding up immigrants at Shepherd and Washington. It was not true; the immigration service has not done a general roundup of day laborers in Houston in about a decade. But the talk persisted, and Dagoberto hunkered in his room for a day.
In the midst of the problems here, Dagoberto got news of a land dispute back home. A neighbor had started fencing in property Dagoberto claimed. He spent many nights on the phone with his wife, strategizing how to resolve the issue. He asked Ricardo if he knew how to buy a pistol here to send it to his family in Honduras, though it proved unnecessary.
Dagoberto eventually convinced his wife to go to the police, who intervened and resolved the issue without violence. Two months later, his wife used nearly $2,000 he had sent to buy more land. He thought it was about 10 acres or more.
For months, Dagoberto had made the mountains of northern Honduras sound like a peaceful Arcadia, with grazing sheep and verdant, rolling hills. "I don't even have a lock on my front door," he said.
But details were emerging that made his native hills seem less pastoral. Carlos had been born in the same village as Dagoberto, but the neighbors turned against Carlos' father and murdered him, so the family had to move to the nearby city of Yoro. Carlos said one of his older brothers also was murdered, though he didn't offer details.
There was more. Before leaving, Dina complained of how Dagoberto lacked money because he was trying to raise cash for his brother, who was imprisoned in Honduras for murder. Dagoberto confirmed this as true.
The subject of violence came up in reference to Carlos' court case, since he planned to apply for asylum based on the fact that his father had been murdered. But an asylum claim requires facts and details, and Carlos said he did not have them, because he was about 5 years old when his father was killed.
"My uncle knows what happened," Carlos said. But he never asked Dagoberto about the murder, perhaps because he feared the answer.
The stories of violence from Dagoberto and Carlos's native village did not surprise Ricardo. "They're from the country," he said. "They solve everything with a pistol out there."
In late July, Carlos got bad news about his application for asylum. After charging him $2,500 for the application, his attorney now wanted an additional $2,500 to complete the case. Carlos figured he was being blackmailed, but he didn't think he could complain.
He began to wonder if going by the book was worth the time and money. Should he find the cash or should he just disappear into the shadows?
Besides, he had other needs for cash. Never a slob, Carlos had begun to pay even closer attention to his appearance. He wore clean white tennis shoes, fashionable shirts and gold chains. If he were a little taller, he might have looked like an off-duty athlete. Through friends, he met young women from as far away as Austin and Lake Jackson, where he sometimes worked a second job on the weekends.
It was all good , except for the humiliation of the little BMX bike that was his primary means of transportation.
One day in August, Carlos showed up at Dagoberto's apartment in a 1993 Ford Thunderbird with peeling red paint he had bought for $1,000. This surprised Dagoberto, since Carlos did not have a driver's license and had never driven before.
After showing off the car in the driveway, Carlos confidently shifted it into reverse, revved the engine, lurched backward and slammed into the fence of a vacant lot across the street. He got out and surveyed the damage, realizing there was little to his car and none to the fence. Undaunted, he got back behind the wheel.
"You're going to kill yourself!" Dagoberto yelled as Carlos drove off.
Later that day Carlos rear-ended a car in front of him at a traffic light. He was lucky it was a big SUV and that his car hit the bottom of the bumper. There was no damage to the SUV and the driver left, but the Thunderbird's front end was smashed and a light no longer worked.
Shaken by the experience, Carlos drove slowly to work, where he parked the car at the back of the equipment storage lot. He made plans to fix the damage and sell it.
A slow unraveling
Despite his humble roots, Ricardo grew up at the edge of a major city, and he has educated relatives. He sometimes complained about how many of his fellow day laborers were campesinos, or peasants, like the Hondurans with whom he was sharing an apartment.
They drank too much, Ricardo said, and he hated their music, which was mostly Ranchero and Norteno Latin American's country music. He made fun of the lyrics from a song they played incessantly: "Reynalda, Reynalda, quitate la mini-falda." Reynalda, Reynalda, take off your miniskirt.
Ricardo tried moving in with his girlfriend and her two daughters, but it lasted only a couple of months. She spoke no Spanish, so they got by mostly with sign language and the few words of English he had learned. He claimed the woman was after his paycheck, so he left abruptly after an argument.
In July, Dagoberto helped Ricardo find a place near Washington and Shepherd. It was a tiny free-standing shack, perhaps 7 feet wide by 12 feet long, including the toilet. But it cost only $150 a month, and it was a place Ricardo could call his own.
The novelty didn't last. He soon noticed that the toilet backed up and stank, and mosquitoes got in through the porous walls. He started calling the place his "matchbox."
He quit working for the bolillo, explaining that the grueling labor was too much for his back. That left him no choice but to go back to the corner.
But he was adamant he would keep the promise he made to never return to his original corner at Washington and Shepherd. He found a more suitable corner several blocks north, at 11th, where there were fewer drunks and more contractors looking for labor. He marveled at his luck.
In May, a Mexican contractor picked up Ricardo and put him to work building town houses. Before long, he had a leather tool belt and a helmet. He was trained to nail weatherproofing and cut siding on a power saw. The contractor was somewhat understanding, assigning work for Ricardo that would not require excessive back strain. He was the oldest on the crew, but he was determined to work harder than anyone.
Then the heat arrived. Though it was Ricardo's second summer in Houston, it affected him more than the first. Sometimes, while on a scaffolding 30 feet up in the hot sun, he would grow dizzy.
"I look down and see the ground spinning," he said.
By early August, his fellow workers were becoming frustrated with him, his back was killing him and his throat was swollen from what appeared to be the onset of a virus. He took a few days off from work. Then he stopped showing up.
A couple of weeks later, he sat on a concrete block at Durham and Maxie, just a few blocks from his old stomping grounds at Washington and Shepherd.
"My self-esteem is very low," he said plainly.
He thought of what he had accomplished. He had more than $7,000 in a Salvadoran bank, but even that worried him. He had heard stories of Central Americans who returned from the United States rich, and then partied until the money was gone, leaving them nothing but a hangover. He wondered if the same fate awaited him if he just quit and went home.
His shirt was ripped. His pants were stained with bleach and paint. His face had turned leathery from too much sun. After 15 months in Houston, he was pretty much back where he started.
He denied anything was wrong.
"I'm taking a vacation," he said. "I've almost reached my goal" of $10,000, "I can take it easier now."
But even friends started to notice that Ricardo was looking worse. The belly he grew in his months in Houston was gone, as was his sense of humor. He looked gaunt and perpetually nervous.
"Have you seen Ricardo?" Dagoberto asked one day in late August. "Have you noticed how skinny he is? Do you see he's back on the corner?"
Too close for comfort
Like Dagoberto, Ricardo had heard rumors of immigration agents in the area. One day in September, he was waiting on the corner when a man in a late-model pickup drove up and said he needed painters for $11 an hour. Ricardo and about five others jumped in. Then he got a funny feeling.
"The truck was too new," he said. There were no paint splotches, and no tools. "No paintbrushes, no rollers, no paint cans, no ladders nothing."
Ricardo jumped out again and said he was not interested.
His intuition served him well. It turned out to be a sting operation by a Houston Police Department tactical unit responding to the complaints of crime in the area. The esquiñeros in the truck were taken to a city jail on Mykawa, where they were held for about 12 hours before being released. Some were charged with soliciting work in the roadway, a misdemeanor, but others said they were never charged.
When word of the sting operation got out, angry immigration advocates held a meeting with HPD Chief Harold Hurtt. The chief promised officers would not do it again.
Ricardo, whose "matchbox" could barely house one person, took in a roommate, a newly arrived esquiñero. The guy needed a place to stay, Ricardo explained, when asked how a room that was too small for him alone would accommodate two.
The charity didn't last. The roommate stayed up all night, smoking crack. Ricardo kicked him out, and set about turning things around.
He put on weight. His clothes were clean. And perhaps most tellingly, his humor returned, particularly in times of adversity.
When Hurricane Rita approached Houston in mid-September, Dagoberto and Carlos grew nervous. They got work a few days before the storm stacking sandbags around a mansion in the Memorial area. As half the city took to the freeways to escape the storm, they fretted; they wanted to evacuate but couldn't.
Ricardo took it in stride. He complained that only a little convenience store was open the day before the storm, and the owners had jacked the prices up.
"A couple bottles of water, two bags of ramen and some chips for $9!" he said.
He worried that the winds would tip over his narrow shack apartment. He masked his concern by joking about it.
"If the water comes, I'll turn my damn shack over and use it as a canoe," he said with a hearty laugh.
The storm passed. Those who fled returned to find the city essentially unharmed.
Ricardo started finding occasional work again. In the first week of October, he moved to a cleaner, more spacious apartment a few blocks away, which he shared with three Guatemalans.
Once again, things were looking up. Once again, Ricardo was dreaming of a better future.
"I got bored with that life," in the shack, he said. "Now I'm going to be better."