How Documents Matter in Migrants’ Lives
José is a Brazilian man who, at the time of our interview in 2008, had lived undocumented in the United States for twenty years. As a nurse in Brazil, he struggled to support his family, ultimately making the difficult decision to leave his wife and infant son for the United States in the hopes that his remittances from abroad could sustain them. When the tourist visa he used to enter the United States expired, he found himself unauthorized to work, reenter the country, or legally sponsor his family to join him. To make a modest living without a work permit, and to avoid the mistreatment he received from employers who exploited his legal status, he painted houses as an independent contractor. As we spoke, he took his wallet out of his paint-splattered overall pockets to show me his individual taxpayer number, describing the irony of paying taxes on money that he was forbidden to earn. He also showed me his driver’s license, expired in 1988, which he could not renew without a social security card. “Everything you want to do,” he told me, leaning over the table that separated us in the dark church hall where we conducted our interview, “you depend on a document you don’t have.” Having been reunited with his wife and son, who made the life-threatening illicit journey on foot across the Mexican border, he held out hopes for a moment of political amnesty. He held out for papers....
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