No one knows how many illegal immigrants there are in Western North Carolina. Statewide, the total immigrant population is estimated to be just over 600,000; 50 to 65 percent of them are believed to be here illegally. Perhaps 80 percent of the state’s immigrants are Hispanic.
Traditionally, many immigrant workers have been absorbed into North Carolina’s agricultural sector; more recently, however, the state’s building boom has claimed many of these workers, who now account for some 29 percent of the construction labor force.
This story is about two of those workers. In this country illegally, they also perform illegal work: Both under the age of 16, they are nonetheless assigned tasks forbidden by child-labor regulations, such as roofing, using power tools, and being on ladders and scaffolding 10 feet or more from the ground.
In exchange for their stories, the young men were promised anonymity, as was the guide who led us to their homes in Jackson County’s migrant-labor camps. They are identified here with pseudonyms.
This report does not attempt to give a comprehensive picture of the conditions faced by migrant workers in WNC. Instead, it offers a firsthand look at two boys who live in our midst.
Our first stop is a migrant camp down by the river; two rows of beige trailers lead up to the water’s edge. Some are empty and derelict; others are occupied and derelict. Windows are broken out and have no screens. In the winter, we’re told, there’s no heat. And after the last flood, some flooring was simply covered over with plywood, mold and all. For this, the occupants pay $450 a month, according to our guide, who works closely with the migrant community.
We’ve stopped here on our way to the scheduled interviews because “Dora,” our guide, needs to visit a client, but the woman isn’t home. Her young daughter greets us instead, holding a plump, smiling baby brother with a thick shock of black hair and cheeks reddened by a skin condition (the baby later gets free cortisone cream from a nonprofit health service). A bright patch of flowers blooms defiantly around the door of the dingy singlewide.
Illegal immigrants, Dora explains, don’t qualify for the safety net designed to protect American citizens. They are not allowed food stamps, cannot normally receive health care through Medicaid, and are ineligible for federal housing assistance. So they live in whatever housing they can find—and it’s often substandard and overpriced.
After waiting awhile longer, we drive to a second migrant camp for our first scheduled interview. The family we’re here to visit used to live in a camp much like the one we’ve just left. But the mother worried about the drug activity around them and found a way to move her children to a better place.
The contrast between the two camps is significant. This trailer has a good amount of yard around it and a wooden deck in front where several children are gathered and a friendly black dog is tied. Other trailers ranged behind and to the sides also seem to be in much better shape. There’s a feeling of community here; Dora says the residents have even started their own church.
“Luis” isn’t home yet. His sister greets Dora and her accompanying intern with an enthusiasm we see repeated everywhere we go. Toward us—three strangers, one carrying a camera—the migrants are polite but suspicious. But once Dora vouches for us, they accept our presence in good faith.
A man comes out of the trailer, shakes hands all around, and quickly sets up chairs for us on the deck before disappearing back inside, where a televangelist is preaching at full volume in Spanish. We chat with the children and neighbors while we wait; Dora asks them about various family members and friends. Across the road, children are doing what children do on a summer evening: running and playing, dogs trotting after them.
Luis’ mother arrives—a woman with pleasant features but furrowed brow, clearly worried about our presence even as she’s glad to see Dora. She grows even more concerned when Luis comes up and we explain to her that we want to interview him for the newspaper. And when the camera comes out, she goes into full alert.
Dora speaks rapidly in Spanish, telling her that we won’t identify Luis by name, and the pictures we’re taking won’t show his face. Our photographer has spotted a family Bible just inside the trailer, and he asks permission to shoot a photo with mother’s and son’s hands on it. After that she seems to relax.
Luis himself shows no reluctance to talk about his situation, though he frequently looks to Dora for approval or support. He’s a beautiful young man with handsome features and a brilliant white smile that grows even more striking as the light fades. He is 15 years old and has just finished the 10th grade, earning straight A’s. His lowest grade, he tells us at Dora’s coaxing, was an 89 in science. What subject does he like the most? “Algebra,” he says without hesitation.
Dora has already told us that Luis would like to become a doctor and that he’s smart enough to earn a scholarship. But without the proper documents, he won’t be able to pursue that dream here.
A 13-year-old at work
Luis says he started working in construction when he was 13. “They paid me $7 an hour,” he recalls. “I worked about 60-70 hours per week” at an upscale residential development. His job was “cutting wood”—one of the most dangerous, he comments—but he also worked on roofs and siding.
His first summer, Luis was on the job Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. He was always paid in cash, and he never received time-and-a-half for the extra hours, as required by law.
Dora says she contacted the corporation developing the project where Luis worked to try to get him the extra money he was entitled to. But “he’s an undocumented immigrant kid,” she says. “We had no power, so nothing came of it.”
Luis explains that he started working because he wanted to help his mom, who was trying to support her family on her wages from a local laundry. He’d been told his hours would be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. But then they added Saturday and then Sunday. “And then I had to give up going to church,” he says.
The work was hot, with no breaks except for a 30-minute lunch. Others were making $12 to $15 an hour, he recalls.
Since that time, Luis has worked weekends during the school year and all summer. Currently he is doing painting on a big construction job in Cherokee. Over time, he says, he’s learned to do “everything,” including plumbing.
Luis says his mother came to this country when he was 7 years old, while he and his siblings stayed in Mexico. Four years later, she arranged for them to join her. Luis crossed the border with his uncle, aunt and two sisters. He remembers walking among cactus spines and seeing lots of snakes. “Then we had to sleep in an empty water basin [a dry ravine], and we had to walk in the rain. It was cold at night and hot in the day. Then at the end, we didn’t have any water.”
They were guided, says Dora, by a “coyote”—someone who traffics in this kind of human migration. This person delivered Luis and his family members to a house in Arizona, where they were picked up and transported by car to Western North Carolina. Luis says he likes it here, because in Mexico it was “hard to have enough resources—here we’ve got enough resources to eat.”
Luis started school right away, which helped him learn English; he speaks it fluently now. Asked how he’s been treated, he says there were not a lot of “racist people” at his elementary school—just “two or three guys.” In high school, there have been a lot more students who talk about his race, he says, but still, “I got lots of friends.” (Federal law requires all children to attend school, regardless of their legal status. And under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 ruling in Plyler v. Doe, public schools may not deny education based on a student’s immigration status; they may only require proof that the child lives in the school district.)
Would Luis eventually like to return to his native country? Yes, he says. “I think of building a house there and going back there. And because, you know, I’m not with racist people down there. And also I think I can help.”
Where did he get the idea of becoming a doctor? The young man laughs, then says, “I just like to help people out. And I think that I want to save lives.”
Darkness has fallen. More neighbors have drifted over to where we sit, wanting to see Dora or just visit in the calm of the evening. There’s a comfortable sociability among the families here.
Soon, however, we pile into the van and head for our next destination—a very different place. As we wind and wind and wind up a long mountain road, Dora talks about having grown up here and the changes she’s seen. She also says she would adopt “Michael,” the young boy we’re about to see, if she could.
Eventually we pull into the driveway of a motel complex, climbing past the main building to a separate structure surrounded by trees.
Only male migrant workers live in the complex, we’re told—six to eight per room. They are mostly Mexican Indians who speak various native languages, says Dora, and upon arriving in America, they must first learn Spanish—in order to communicate with other Mexicans on their jobs and in their communities—and then English.
We park the van in front of a room whose door is ajar; inside, a paper printout of an American flag is taped above the bed. All the rooms have refrigerators; some also have hot plates, says Dora. The men typically share one cell phone per room.
Men stand in small clutches outside the rooms, and they’re intensely curious about our arrival. Dora speaks to many of them, explaining why we’re here. Again, their trust in her is our passkey, and a friendly group quickly gathers around Michael’s door.
To gain some privacy, and because Michael seems extremely shy, he asks if we can talk inside our van. So he, the translator and I clamber in and embark on a lengthy conversation, while Dora, her intern and our photographer wait outside, talking with the growing crowd.
Michael is a wisp of a boy who looks to be maybe—just maybe—12 or 13 years old, though he thinks he might be 14. His face still shows the smoothness of early youth, and unlike Luis, he is not quick to smile. Instead—whether out of shyness, fatigue, awkwardness or fear—he keeps his eyes downcast and his face angled slightly away from us. But he is obviously a child.
This child, however, left his native Chiapas to come to the United States about two years ago, traveling with his uncle (who is present) and a small group of friends. Like Luis and his family, Michael made the three-day border-and-desert crossing in hope of finding employment in “el norte.” He, too, remembers the cactus spines—that and hiding behind the lone available tree when immigration officials came through. Their only water, he says, came from a small hole where cows were drinking. The taste was “just horrible,” he recalls.
On the third day, they met up with trucks that took them to Phoenix. From there, they headed to Florida. Michael and his uncle made it; the truck their friends were in had to stop to fix a flat tire, and they were picked up and sent back to Mexico.
Uncle and nephew both found work in the tomato fields. “Hot,” Michael says with obvious distaste. Hot, hard work. After five months, he told his uncle he was going back to Mexico—he just couldn’t take it anymore. But in the local bodegas, they were hearing, “Hey, you know there’s another place—the climate’s a little easier, there’s a little bit more work.” So they tried to save some money for a couple of months, but they didn’t know how far away this place was or exactly where they ought to go. They were eventually delivered to WNC by a man who charged them $2,000 apiece once they got here—a lot more than they had. So they were left to work off the fee, which was paid by a new “friend” who also found them housing. According to Dora, such “friends” are called “contratistas” (contractors). They essentially buy the illegals, who must work for a period of time to pay off their virtual bondage.
All work and no pay
For two months, Michael went to a pickup spot for laborers at 6 a.m. almost every day, hoping to be chosen for work. But because of his slight frame, no one wanted him. Finally the “friend” connected him with a job blowing leaves from around people’s houses: 12 hours a day, seven days a week in November and December.
Then Michael, who still didn’t understand English, talked with a man who was looking for construction workers. The promised wage, $8 an hour, sounded good to the boy, so at age 11 or 12 he began laying shingles on the roofs of new housing going up in the area. He worked for three months without getting paid.
But when the man who’d hired him left, the new supervisor started paying him $10 an hour and shifted him to inside jobs. Michael now works 40 hours a week—a schedule that precludes the possibility of attending school. Instead he works year-round, sending money to his mother and three sisters in Mexico.
Through the windows of the van, I see that about a dozen men have now gathered. They’ve brought out stacks of pictures. Our photographer tells us later that the pictures were of their families back in Mexico.
Meanwhile, Michael has warmed to the translator; his voice becomes more animated, and he has started making eye contact. We ask him what it’s like living here in the motel.
“It’s difficult because, you know, living with somebody you’re renting from, it’s their apartment and they can decide who goes, who comes in.” There are seven people living in his room, he says, and together they pay $800 a month.
Michael wants to stay here at least another three years, he says, to save up money. After that, he’d like to go home and start an “artisan” business—something creative, not the construction skills he’s learning here.
Eventually we climb out of the van, and Dora gives Michael the present she’s brought—a new soccer ball. Delighted, he immediately wanders off to the empty lot at the end of the building to play with it, a lone figure silhouetted against the dark hillside.