For immigrants, the promise of a better life is hard to resist
Editor's note: This report is part of a joint project of The News-Gazette and the University of Illinois Department of Journalism, in an ongoing examination of poverty and its related issues in Champaign County. The project is funded by the Marajen Stevick Foundation, a News-Gazette foundation; a matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a journalism foundation based in Miami; and contributions from the UI. The project also has a website for this and other material, including user-generated content.
Yamani Wijesekara had just completed her morning prayers when her cell phone's jarring ringtone broke the silence.
"OK, friend," she told the cab driver on the phone. "OK, thank you."
It was 4:30 a.m., time for Wijesekara to go to her job at Meijer in Urbana. Wijesekara, 30, moved to Urbana one year ago from Sri Lanka, an island country in South Asia. She works 32 hours a week, usually from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., putting price labels on the superstore's shelves.
"There are no buses early in the morning," Wijesekara said. "I pay (the) taxi $7, but, unfortunately, my pay for one hour (is) $8.45. I pay my hardworking money."
In 2008, Wijesekara learned she was one of 55,000 people around the world selected to come to the United States through a Green Card Lottery. The lottery began in 1990 to encourage immigration from countries where the U.S. had not traditionally granted visas.
A bubbly woman who learned English and computer skills in Sri Lanka, Wijesekara believed she would find work as a secretary or computer operator. She was surprised when the only job she could find paid just over $1,000 a month. She struggles to pay $400 a month for a rented room, buy food and save money for a car. She cannot afford health insurance. When she missed work twice because she was sick, she received two warning letters from Meijer.
"I am so happy to meet good friends, but I am still not happy because I am still bottom," Wijesekara said. "Bottom means, I am still low person. Low person means, I haven't any money. I have just few money."
More than 10 percent of Champaign County's population – at least 20,000 people – are foreign-born, according to 2008 Census estimates, the most recent available. Some immigrants come here for opportunities at the University of Illinois. In addition to faculty and staff, more than 6,200 foreign students attended the University last spring, according to University data.
But many immigrants come for different reasons.
Whether they are here legally or illegally, most immigrants came to the U.S., and eventually settled in Champaign County, because they believed they could create more prosperous lives here than in their own countries, which are often wracked by poverty and war. But for Wijesekara and many other immigrants in Champaign County, living in America is far more difficult, frightening and lonely than they ever expected.
'Did I make the right choice?'
"We're the unknown," said Anh Ha Ho, an immigrant from Vietnam who works as the co-director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center. The Urbana charity assists refugees and immigrants, especially those with limited English skills, as they struggle to find jobs and affordable housing.
"In many, many cases, people start to develop anxiety (or) depression, because, before they left, they thought about America as being heaven on earth or the golden mine," Ho said.
Yet the opposite is often the case. Even those who earned advanced degrees in their own countries can find only part-time low-paying jobs without insurance or benefits. Many who are here illegally find steady employment only in the summer and fall doing agricultural labor.
While some immigrants have been incredibly successful, many struggle to get by. About half of the foreign-born residents in Champaign County earn less than $15,000 a year and 65 percent earn less than $25,000 annually, according to 2008 Census estimates. Faced with reality, Ho said, "Many people wonder, 'Did I make the right choice?' "
"Everything is so different over here – school system, child rearing ... no insurance, no doctors, difficulty buying medicine if you are sick," Ho said. "And yet, it doesn't stop people from coming."
The first groups to come in large number to Champaign County were war refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, said Deborah Hlavna, co-director of the refugee center, which began in 1982.
Since then, thousands have migrated to Champaign County from around the world. Like Wijesekara, many immigrants come in hopes of achieving the American dream. But others come because they feel they have no choice: they are fleeing extreme poverty, war, drug violence, political oppression or natural disasters in Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe.
Some come because family members or friends have found jobs here. Wijesekara chose to move to Urbana because a relative's friend lives here and agreed to pick her up at the Chicago airport.
Others came because they found seasonal agricultural work and stayed when they landed jobs in factories slaughtering hogs or packaging plastic cups. Like Wijesekara, many immigrants work in low-paying jobs. They work early in the morning, pricing merchandise or stocking shelves; they work late at night, cleaning schools, hospitals and offices; they work in the backs of restaurants and on the floors of factories; they work hidden in the fields, in the shadow of tall corn.
"They are invisible," said Guadalupe Abreu, a bilingual counselor at the refugee center. "Of course, they are not invisible. They are here. But society tends to push them to the side."
Every morning before work, in the quiet of her bedroom, Wijesekera whispers a Buddhist chant and prays that her dreams of success in America will come true.
"I'd like to be a graphic designer," said Wijesekara, who is taking classes at Parkland College. "Meijer, that's not my lifetime job. If that's my lifetime job, then I will return to Sri Lanka, because I can't work minimum-wage."
Because Wijesekara speaks English, her employment opportunities are greater than many immigrants who do not. If she returns to Sri Lanka, she could move back home with her middle-class family. Many other immigrants in Champaign County have fewer options.
'We had to come'
For six days and nights, 14-year-old Jaime Diego Martinez walked across the desert, trying to cross illegally into the U.S. He had traveled from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, in hopes of reuniting with his father who was working in the fields in Indiana.
"My dad was poor," Martinez said in Spanish through an interpreter. The family planted coffee, corn and fruit on a small plot of land. But in the 1980s, rebel soldiers came to the mountains where they lived with machetes and guns, he said. "That's why (my dad) came here (to the U.S.). Because here there are places where we can work."
Throughout Martinez's childhood, his father worked for one or two-year stints in the U.S., sending money home and returning to his family when he could. As his children got older, they too traveled north to look for work. "We didn't want to leave our family there, but out of necessity, we had to come," said Martinez, who is now 26 and living in Rantoul. He moved here as a migrant farm worker and decided to stay.
On a recent Saturday night, Martinez and his two children sat near the back of Fuente de Agua Viva Church in Rantoul, singing and clapping to hymns in Spanish. As the offering plate was passed to raise money for a church member who had received a ticket, Martinez remembered that he too received a traffic ticket for driving without a license last fall.
He had been driving to his job at Toll Packaging Services in Gibson City. "That's where the police stopped me that day and I couldn't go to work anymore," he said. He feared the Gibson City police would recognize his van, and pull him over again. Because he is not a legal resident, Martinez cannot get a driver's license or a Social Security card.
"The problem is that since we don't have a Social Security card, it's hard to get a job. So we take advantage of (corn) harvesting. They don't ask for a lot of documents," Martinez said.
After six months of unemployment, Martinez went back to work for a Monsanto contractor this spring. Farm workers are paid between $8 and $9 an hour.
"When it's cold, sometimes we work and sometimes we don't, so we save the money to get us through the cold times of the year," he said.
Martinez, his girlfriend and two children live with his uncle in a small rental house. On a recent weeknight, the living room was dark except for the TV screen, which was tuned to Spanish-language television.
Martinez's children, ages 2 and 4, wandered into the living room to lie on their father's chest. Martinez smiled with a gold-toothed grin as he stroked his daughter's hair.
"This country has helped me to get ahead," Martinez said. "My family is moving in a good direction, and so I thank the Lord who helps us all the time."
'We pray for the laws '
Sonia Casco is one of the pastors at the church Martinez attends. She said church members are worried about anti-immigration laws such as one recently enacted in Arizona that aims to prosecute and deport illegal immigrants.
"We pray for the laws; we pray for protection," Casco said in Spanish through an interpreter. "We pray that God can get to the hearts of the Congress people."
Casco, 41, came to the U.S. illegally 19 years ago from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, because her family was impoverished.
"I came through the desert," said Casco, who began to sob as she recounted the ordeal. "Walking through the night, (I was) very tired, afraid, thirsty, hungry."
She and her husband, Manuel Casco, came to Rantoul from Houston in 2005 as migrant farm workers and stayed. "Here there are lots of benefits for our children," said Casco, who has two sons, ages 3 and 8.
The couple also found more work here. Her husband works seasonally for Monsanto. She worked for Altamont Co., in Thomasboro, making wooden handgun grips, until the dust made her asthma too severe to work. Then she worked at a pork processing plant in Rantoul until it closed. This spring, they became lay pastors of their evangelical congregation.
On a recent afternoon, Casco and her youngest son, Tito, sat in the crowded offices of the refugee center, completing a form that will allow her family to legally stay in the U.S., albeit temporarily.
The couple applied for temporary protected status in 1999, after a hurricane ravaged their country. Under the status, the U.S. allows Hondurans to work in the U.S. legally until 2012, even if they entered illegally. At that time, the Cascos' visas will expire and their status could return to illegal. Their children, however, are U.S. citizens because they were born in the U.S.
"We are praying for immigration reform," Casco said, "because it is difficult when they split families."
As Casco rocked her son to sleep, the cramped office of the refugee center began to hum with the sounds of three languages being spoken at the same time – English, Spanish and French.
"Now you see living proof of how busy we are," said Ha Ho, who speaks Vietnamese, French and English fluently.
Staff members and volunteers at the refugee center speak nine languages. They help people who cannot speak, read or write English to fill out work-visa renewals, employment applications and rental agreements.
They also help people with housing questions, which range from problems finding affordable housing to health and safety issues to disputes with landlords. Co-director Hlavna said many people do not ask for help until after they have signed a lease written in English, which they did not understand. When problems arise, the renters have little recourse.
'It's all for my children'
Staff members from the center also help families by visiting their homes and bringing them food, clothing and furniture.
One morning in May, Ho visited the home of Jean-Pierre Kadima, who moved here with four of his six children last November from the Democratic Republic of Congo, an African country devastated by civil war.
For three months, the five family members lived in a two-bedroom apartment with another family from Congo. When Kadima's wife and other two children arrived in February, Ho helped them to find a three-bedroom apartment in Champaign, but they struggle to pay the $708 rent.
Kadima brought his family here because, like Wijesekera, he won the Green Card lottery. He came to Champaign because a friend of a friend from Congo lived here.
"Since I was selected, I had to come," said Kadima, who just turned 50. "It's all for my children."
In Congo, Kadima was a government customs inspector in the capital of Kinshasa. He has a degree in business administration and built a home for his family.
Kadima said because his family lived in Kinshasa, they were spared the atrocities of the war, which raged in the countryside between 1998 and 2003. War, he said, "is one element that pushes people from Africa to leave. We want stability."
Even though his children attended school, Kadima believed an American education would give them greater opportunities. Now he wonders if he made the right choice.
In Congo, children are taught French, not English, in school. The language barrier has been a far greater challenge than Kadima imagined.
"Because of the lack of communication and the language barrier, we are considered illiterate," he said through an interpreter. "It hurts a lot. I feel pain. I cannot go by myself to buy things because of lack of language. I cannot find a job because of lack of language communication."
His oldest two children, who he hoped would attend college here, are now the sole breadwinners for the family. Although their English skills are limited, Nicole Kadima, 21, and Jeef Kadima, 19, found jobs through a temporary employment agency that takes a cut of their pay, their father said. Nicole works full time and earns $8.50 an hour at Silgan White Cap in Champaign, where she makes plastic bottle caps. Jeef also works 40 hours a week and earns $9 an hour at Guardian West, an automotive parts manufacturer in Urbana. Neither have health insurance or benefits.
"I worked at Guardian West for a month. I was told I was too slow," Jean-Pierre Kadima said. His wife, Annie Meta, has not found a job because she doesn't speak English.
Since moving here, Kadima has been diagnosed with diabetes, which he attributes to stress. "It cost me $26,000 to bring my entire family here," he said as he listed the many fees associated with the visa application process plus airfare. "I keep on thinking every day about what I had and what I have now.
"I am jobless. I am extremely stressed out."
Kadima said he applied for food stamps for his children because he cannot afford to feed them. "I wonder if I'm living or not," Kadima said. "Without work, you cannot be independent. We rely on Mrs. Ho (of the refugee center) and our countrymen to help us."
His other children, whose ages range from age 10 to 18, attend Champaign schools, where they take English-as-a-second language classes. Last year, 414 children who speak 48 different languages were enrolled in ESL classes in Champaign Schools.
Jean-Pierre Kadima said he and his wife also are taking English classes. But his hope for the future is with his children. "If my kids find a way to stabilize their lives, then yes, it will be worth it," he said.
'This is our dream'
As they sat in the living room of their new home in Urbana, Fidel Rojas' four children listened to their father explain why he left his home in Mexico at age 16 for the U.S.
"When I came, I just tried to build some money and go back to Mexico," said Rojas, 38, who has learned English by taking night classes at the Urbana Adult Education Center and by working with English-speakers. "But then I got married and raised my family."
Rojas' twin 6-year-old daughters sat in matching pink dresses on a large chair as the late afternoon sun warmed the room. His 12-year-old son and 11-year old daughter watched their father as he retold the story that so many children of immigrants have heard over the generations: a story of desperate beginnings, arduous journeys, fear, struggle, hard work and, finally, success.
Sometimes, when Rojas looks at his family's 2,500 square-foot, four-bedroom, two-bath home, it seems like a dream. After 15 years of living in mobile home parks in Champaign and Urbana, Rojas and his wife, Maria Carmona, bought a house last fall.
It's a fixer-upper with a big backyard for the kids to bounce on their trampoline and gleaming wood laminate floors that Rojas and his brother-in-law installed.
The experience of childhood is far different for Rojas' children than it was for their father, who left Puebla, Mexico, in 1988 so that he could send money home to his family. When Rojas was 5, his father fell from a tree and broke his back, leaving him paralyzed and unable to work.
"My mom, she had to work. She was cleaning houses and ironing clothes to bring some food to our house, but it wasn't enough," said Rojas, who dropped out of school because his parents couldn't afford books, uniforms or even shoes.
Today, Rojas and his wife are in the process of becoming U.S. citizens. "I like this country," said Carmona, 39, who also has learned English. Her parents brought her and her eight siblings across the border on a tourist visa in 1985 and never returned to Mexico City. "I am happy here because they give us many opportunities."
Rojas and Carmona met in Chicago and moved to Champaign shortly after they married in 1995. Rojas' sister and brother-in-law had found jobs here.
In 2001, Rojas was working as a cook at Cheddar's restaurant in Champaign. He saw a commercial about a special U.S. work visa for restaurant workers. He decided to take a chance and tell his boss the truth: "I said, 'I'm not legal in this country, and I want to be legal,' " Rojas said. "I said, 'Maybe he can fire me or maybe he can help me.' "
His boss agreed to sponsor him, and four years later, the government issued Rojas and his wife green cards, which verify their status as permanent residents who are able to legally work in the U.S. With their green cards, Rojas and his wife could get driver's licenses and Social Security cards, but they cannot vote.
"I was lucky," Rojas said.
In 2006, Rojas was hired to work in the residence halls at the University of Illinois. He earns $14.22 an hour as a cook at Gregory Drive Residence Halls. Carmona also got a job cleaning a dormitory kitchen. "I just work only during the school period, so when they don't have any class, I get laid off, and then I have to look for a job for summer," Rojas said.
That can make finances tight, especially since the couple now has a $1,000 monthly house payment. Through the university, the family has health and dental insurance, which most seasonal jobs don't offer. "We try to work as much overtime as we can during the school year and save money for the summer," Carmona said.
They are also saving money to send their children to college.
"This is our dream," Carmona said. "We have tried to work so hard to save money for my children (so) they can go to U of I. That's one of my dreams, that they can go to U of I and get their career."
Carmona said she wishes Americans understood that immigrants do not want to take jobs from Americans.
"If people (are) coming here, it's because they want to have opportunities to get money, to eat, to live a little bit better than in their country," she said. "I don't think they're saying, 'We're coming here to the U.S. and let's take jobs from Americans.'
"I don't think that's the point. The point is they want to get a better future, a better life."