By Gary Ridley | [email protected]
on February 16, 2014 at 6:30 AM, updated February 16, 2014 at 6:35 AM
FLINT, MI — Jose Guerra was 15 when he started working illegally in the United States.
Guerra, now 25, said he, his parents, two brothers and sister left Mexico in 2003 to find work and a better life in the United States.
They ended up working at an orchard in Genesee County, living in fear that at any point immigration officials could send them back to their home country.
The story of Guerra’s family is not unusual.
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that there are 150,000 undocumented workers living in Michigan and immigration officials say they have increasingly targeted those that are committing crimes while in the country.
Over the past six years, federal officials have filed criminal charges involving undocumented workers in the Flint area, including three cases since November.
Unlike the 1990s and 2000s when the Flint area saw a boom in undocumented families, a local college official who assists the area’s Hispanic population said the area is seeing an influx in single undocumented men looking for work.
“The migrant scene is changing,” said Lourdes White, site coordinator for Mott Community College’s Hispanic Community and Technology Center, which assists the area’s Hispanic population.
Guerra’s family came to the Flint area after they obtained visas to visit the country on vacation. Guerra said his father had a friend in Lansing who they came to visit and while they were there they were offered the chance to make money doing agricultural work.
The family jumped at the chance, staying in the area to continue working.
“It is hard when you come to the United States with no English and you don’t know anybody,” Guerra said. “You don’t have any papers, you don’t have any friends. We just came and started looking for work like everybody else.”
Guerra said the family came to Genesee County, following the promise of work, and ended up at an orchard. He said the owner of the orchard provided a house for the family to live in and paid him and his father $6 per hour in cash. The two worked seven days a week.
“It was only my dad and I working here so it was really hard for my dad to support four kids and my mom,” Guerra said. “We didn’t make too much money.”
But money wasn’t the only problem the family had to overcome, Guerra said. They were alone, in a strange land trying to find a way to survive.
“To live in the United States we have to lie for everything,” Guerra said. “That’s the only way you can live in the United States. Lie for anything, going to work using whatever, fake social security number, that’s how you start here.”
Guerra said that the orchard owner helped to smooth the family’s transition to the United States and his younger brothers were able to enroll in elementary school.
However, the family was never truly at ease. Guerra and his father had to be vigilant about a possible raid from immigration officials that could send them back to Mexico and his brothers had to overcome being non-English speaking immigrants in a suburban Genesee County school system.
“I seen my brothers crying every day when they came home from school,” Guerra said. “It was really hard to understand what they are saying when they was at the school. My brothers say that the teacher, only because they’re Mexican, put them far away in the back.”
But as time passed the family became more comfortable in their surroundings.
Guerra got married and raised a family. The new family and constant work helped him learn English. He was able to become a resident of the United States nearly five years ago and the legal status allowed him to move into more high-paying, tax-paying jobs, including operating his own snow-clearing business.
His brothers also eventually flourished in school, a point of pride for Guerra.
“After 10 years I’m so proud of my brothers,” Guerra said. “They went to school. They got a 4.0. They’re one of the best kids in the school.”
The experience has been much different for others.
At 10:10 a.m. on Nov. 6, federal authorities executed a search warrant at Lindy’s Pre Pak Carrots in Imlay City. They were looking for financial documents and immigration paperwork for potential undocumented workers employed at the Lapeer County farm, according to federal court records.
Investigators seized multiple bags of documents, computers and hard drives. Two Guatemalan men were eventually charged in Flint U.S. District Court with re-entering the country illegally as part of the raids.
At 10:45 a.m. on Nov. 18, federal agents executed a search warrant at the Puerto Vallarta restaurant in Flint Township. Again, they were looking for financial documents and immigration paperwork for potential undocumented workers.
The manager of the restaurant was federally charged after he was accused of helping undocumented employees at his restaurant purchase fraudulent immigration documents.
In January, a 33-year-old Honduras man was arrested and federally charged after authorities claim he sneaked into Genesee County multiple times and was working at a Grand Blanc Mexican restaurant, Nuevo Vallarta.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have data on the amount of undocumented workers deported directly from the Flint area, but nearly 4,500 people were removed from Michigan and Ohio in 2013, according to data provided by ICE.
Nearly 3,300 of those removed were criminal offenders — people who were convicted in the United States for one or more criminal offenses.
“ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border-crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States,” according to ICE spokesperson Khaalid Walls.
The total number of removals has declined in the Michigan and Ohio area since 2009. There were 8,358 total removals in the two states in 2009. That total has gradually decreased to the 4,473 reported in 2013.
However, the number of criminal offenders being removed has increased. Less than 2,800 criminal offenders were removed in 2008 and 2009, but that total has remained above 3,200 since.
ICE claims most of those who were removed from the country in Michigan and Ohio came from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
The Flint-area undocumented workers have definitely noticed the actions by ICE, Guerra said. The workers talk to notify each other of ICE arrests in an attempt to stay one step ahead of immigration agents.
“They’re afraid of police,” Guerra said. “We don’t have any documents to work legally in the United States.”
Guerra said he had a run-in with immigration officials, after obtaining his residency, when he was arrested. He said he was attacked by someone – he thinks because he is Mexican — and used a gun to defend himself. He was arrested and eventually was convicted on state charges. And that got the attention of Immigration.
“My probation sent me to Immigration so ICE came and picked me up,” Guerra said.
Guerra said that ICE agents pressured him to name individuals that he believed were in the country illegally, even showing him pictures of people they believed were undocumented workers living in the area.
“As soon as you get over there they start asking you questions,” Guerra said. “They try to push you and say ‘Do you know anybody that are not good here in the United States.'”
White said she is not opposed to ICE’s approach of removing people who she called “bad sheep” from the country.
“There’s a good foundation for what ICE is doing,” White said. “We don’t need to import bad people.”
But, Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said President Barack Obama’s direction to ICE to solely focus on criminal offenders makes the country’s existing immigration laws toothless.
“You’ve got to chew gum and walk at the same time,” Dane said, noting that the Obama administration needs to focus on enforcing the nation’s current immigration laws as written.
While Guerra still returns to Mexico occasionally to visit his family, he is thankful for the chance to come to the United States to seek out his version of the American dream — even if it did come with numerous obstacles.
“Now, I’m good here in the United States,” Guerra said. “We don’t have anymore problems.”