Adventures of a Forced Migrant Contact Me
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The form is complete, the check waiting to be sent. Tax time is going to hit hard for Jose Morales, an undocumented immigrant making his life as an entrepreneur.
That’s right. Tax time.
As tax season comes to a climax, Morales’ journey, which took him from Mexico to L.A. sweatshops to a new life of opportunity in New Haven, reveals an under-the-radar trend: undocumented workers who are contributing to the economy by starting businesses and, yes, cutting checks to Uncle Sam.
People without social security numbers, including undocumented immigrants, can file their taxes using an ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number). In tax year 2005, more than 1.8 million people in the United States paid taxes using an ITIN. A total of 776 New Haven residents paid taxes with an ITIN that year, comprising 1.6 percent of the city’s taxpayers, according to the mayor’s office.
Morales, who works as an independent contractor, employing a couple family members, has been cutting checks to the IRS for 13 years. This year’s going to be a whopper, he said: He owes $6,600 to the government for his business.
“People told me I was crazy,” he said, when he tried to find an accountant to help him voluntarily pay taxes as an undocumented immigrant. Though the government doesn’t recognize him as a citizen, he wants to set good civic path in the hopes of future citizenship.
Things weren’t this easy when Morales first set up life in America. Sixteen years ago, at the age of 19, he left his hometown of San Francisco Tetlanohcan, Mexico, where his grandpa had been mayor, where four generations of his family had laid down roots. In his small Aztec town in the state of Tlaxcala, there was just “no work,” Morales said. He packed up, snuck across the border for Los Angeles, and settled into a small apartment in noisy Koreatown.
Jose and his wife, Lizbeth, now live on a quiet street in a town outside New Haven. Pictures of the Virgin Mary hang on the wall in the living room around a fireplace. A fruit bowl sits on the table in a light-filled kitchen. Wearing a neat white shirt and a gold-colored pendant of a cross, Jose spoke in quiet tones as a baby nephew crawled on the floor. He recounted his long journey to self-employment. (To protect their identities, the Moraleses’ names have been changed).
“I Can’t Pay You More”
Jose’s path began in a balmy, windowless room in a commercial laundry facility. He manned a big industrial-sized iron, pulling a lever to clamp down linens and clothing. Steam shot out from the press.
“We would sweat the entire time.” He worked six days a week, 10-12 hours a day, earning only $180 a week. There was no union; with mostly undocumented workers, no one spoke up.
After work, Jose would pack his books and head to English classes at a local high school. Between grammar lessons, he picked up a civics lesson: He learned about Congress, the Constitution, American football, and workers’ rights. He learned about workplace health rules, hourly wages and overtime pay.
Those evening lessons came in handy when, at his second laundry facility, his boss cranked up demands on the workers. Instead of 15 pieces per hour, the Korean woman who ran the place demanded they pick up the pace to 25-30 pieces per hour, without a pay raise.
“If you want us to do that, you’ll have to pay more,” Jose told his boss.
“No,” she responded, according to Jose. “I can’t pay you more, and you can’t do anything about it because you’re an immigrant.”
Risking termination, Jose stuck to his guns. “So many people try to take advantage of our good faith,” he said. He wouldn’t stand for it. He got fired, and went on to find another job.
A New Line Of Work
In L.A., where Jose’s his wife and young son had joined him, Jose heard from his brothers about a place called New Haven. He visited once, in the bitter cold. Two days after Sept. 11, they made the big cross-country move.
In New Haven, Jose continued the laundry life, working up to places with windows and a living wage. As he watched the dryers go round, he always had is eye on how to get out: “We always wanted to do something for ourselves,” Jose explained of his family. “We don’t want to depend on anyone, least of all an employer.”
“Because of the abuses I’ve seen” in the laundry business — demanding work without pay, and sub-minimum-wage pay — Jose yearned to set out on his own. “We want to be able to say when we work, without someone telling us what to do, work harder, go faster – or, ‘We can’t pay you any more.’”
One day, Jose decided to up and leave the company and set off on his own. With the help of a buddy, he landed a job as an independent contractor working on someone’s home. He headed to Home Depot, picked up some supplies, and dove into the new line of work. In those first weeks, he found himself reliving the sweat and long days of his first years in the USA.
“I was so tired,” Jose said. “I lost 15 pounds.”
Today, Jose lives with family and friends in a New Haven suburb. His nephew, a U.S. citizen, crawled on the floor in the home he renovated with his own hands. Today, six of the eight siblings in Jose’s family have settled down in the New Haven area. All of his siblings work for themselves, or for him.
“It’s a big change,” he said, working for himself. Paying the IRS was going to be painful, he said, as he finished off the Form 1040 with a signature. “Now it’s just waiting for the check.”
His wife, Lizbeth, said she’s waiting for the day when the family gets back as much as it gives. They pay taxes like everybody else, but don’t get health care, social security, or tax credits for the working poor.
Jose said he takes hope in the fact that all three leading U.S. presidential candidates offer a path to citizenship as an immigration platform. Most of all, he hopes his son, who’s studying business administration at a Connecticut university, will be able to apply. Though he broke the law to get in, Jose hoped the government would look back on 13 years of tax-paying as proof of his will to integrate into the country.
“I just hope one day,” said Jose, when his son’s time comes, “he won’t have any trouble.”