Tucked into a booth at Amer’s Deli on State Street, a 22-year-old man pours over notes for a coming English exam. Armed with a black iPod and a good dose of caffeine, he fits right in with the students studying around him.

Phillip Kurdunowicz
Phillip Kurdunowicz
“Sometimes you have to sacrifice things to make a life.” (PHOTOS BY CHANEL VON HABSBURG-LOTHRINGEN/DAILY)

But for Emigdio, study sessions are different from those of the other students’ in the café. They’re wedged between long shifts at a local restaurant and weighted down by a question – given his status as an illegal immigrant – of how much they will even matter.

Since illegally immigrating to the United States from Mexico two years ago, Emigdio – who agreed to be interviewed only if just his middle name was used – has come to wear many hats, from illegal alien, to cook, to college student.

For Emigdio, Ann Arbor is a lesson in contradictions. There is great opportunity, but also constant fear and instability, simple facts of life for an immigrant “without papers.” And, largely because he works almost constantly – nine hours a day, six days a week – there is loneliness too.

It’s a fascinating story, but not a very unique one, according to immigrant advocates, English-as-a-second-language instructors and immigrants themselves. Ann Arbor draws scores of immigrants from Central and Latin America. While even a rough estimate of the number of immigrants – legal and otherwise – is hard to come by, the area’s robust service industry and wealth of colleges and universities has become known as an attractive destination for immigrants looking for jobs.

Despite working at almost every restaurant near campus, the city’s large number of immigrant workers are rarely noticed by the University students they serve. Their presence is known only through snippets of Spanish heard from a kitchen or in a recognizable face behind the counter at a South University Avenue restaurant.

“For some (University) students, it is difficult to consider that there are illegal immigrants here,” LSA sophomore Tiernan Seaver said. “They think, ‘We’re in Michigan. How would they have gotten all the way here?’ “

Seaver, who teaches English to Spanish-speaking immigrants at The Washtenaw County Workers’ Center, an organization that works for fair treatment of immigrant workers, said her students have taught her about the challenges they face in moving to Ann Arbor. These workers come here for the same reason University students do – to make a better future for themselves, but on their own dime and with no support from the government.

Emigdio embodies that parallel struggle. For the young student, Ann Arbor is a place where he can work and study at the same time, albeit not easily. He had planned to go to college at home in Mexico, but his parents, farmers from the small town of Atlixco, had other ideas.

“They didn’t think education was that important,” Emigdio said.

Of his parents’ six children, he is the only one who completed high school. The others have just third-grade educations. When Emigdio told his family he wanted to continue with school, his father said he would not provide anything for Emigdio’s university tuition. “No more education for you,” Emigdio recalled his father telling him.

Emigdio’s cousin in Brooklyn suggested he come to the United States, where more jobs are available and he could go to school. So Emigdio left. He crossed the border to a small Texas town and made his way to Brooklyn, where he worked before arriving in Ann Arbor last year.

The trip across the border, shrouded in mystery even for Emigdio, who did not know what town in Texas he first entered, took three weeks and cost Emigdio $3,000 dollars in cash upfront. First, Emigdio said the people trying to cross were broken up into small groups. They walked for three hours through the desert. Just as he was about to cross the border he was stopped by thieves and robbed. “They threw us up against the fence and looked for anything we had on us,” he said.

When the group made it across the border, they waited an hour until a van came and drove them to a safe house. Another van arrived to take them to Phoenix, and then Las Vegas. Finally, they flew to New York where family members met him.

Emigdio’s journey is exhausting by any standard, but it takes some people a couple of tries before they can immigrate successfully. Gonzales, a Mexican immigrant worker in Ann Arbor who asked to be known by only his middle name because of his illegal status, was twice caught and sent back to Mexico while trying to immigrate.

“I walked across the border with eight guys from my town,” Gonzales said. “There are helicopters, cars, lights everywhere. You had to hide all day long without enough water or food.”

For Emigdio though, crossing the border was the easy part. For the better part of a year, he worked one dismally paid job after another in New York City. In one Brooklyn restaurant, he washed dishes six days a week, seventeen hours a day to earn $300 a week in cash.

Emigdio knew he was being exploited, but said he had little choice in the matter at the time.

“I told my friend at work, ‘I don’t like this job.’ But he said, ‘We’re Mexican. We have to work,’ ” Emigdio said. “I said, ‘Yes, I’m Mexican. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to work like an animal.’ So I just quit.”

Residential College Prof. Ian Robinson, who is the interim chair of the Workers Center, said that the kind of abuse experienced by immigrant workers is similar to the abuse of low-wage workers, in general.

“In some cases, employers decide that a population of workers without documentation is easier to manipulate,” Robinson said. “But there are also minorities – non-immigrant students – who are being manipulated as well.”

Robinson said that white University students often get hired to work in the “front of the house,” the area in the restaurant where workers interact with customers. These jobs are better paid than those in the kitchen, or “the back of the house,” which restaurants often staff with undocumented immigrants and minority students.

Still, because they often live under the constant fear of deportation, illegal immigrants are especially vulnerable to workplace mistreatment. Gonzales, for example, said his boss practically laughed at him when he asked for a raise.

“I asked for more money and he said, ‘How can you ask for more money? You don’t have papers,’ ” Gonzales said.

Gonzales said that once when he was working in the kitchen of Miki, an Ann Arbor Japanese restaurant, he dropped a sharp sushi knife and sliced his leg open. Though he was bleeding so profusely that his shoe pooled with blood, he was not offered medical attention or even allowed to leave work until he fainted from blood loss.

Gonzales said when he awoke, he called Laura Sanders, his girlfriend of three years and a lecturer in the School of Social Work, to take him to the hospital. When she saw the extent of the injury, Sanders said she was shocked and angry.

“You would rush your dog to the hospital,” she said.

Kevin Choi, Miki’s manager, says that no such event happened at the restaurant, and that when workers get hurt at Miki they are sent to the hospital right away.

“We even cover the hospital cost,” Choi said. He also described the restaurant’s workers’ compensation policy, which he said covers hospital in the event of an on-the-job injury.

Juan, who would only give his first name, is an immigrant worker trying to get through college like Emigdio. He said he has also endured unfair treatment in the work place.

“They make you do things nobody else would do in a restaurant,” he said. “They know you’re scared and that you’re not supposed to work.”

Simply having legal status, however, does not make the challenges of being a cash-strapped immigrant – or student – disappear.

Although Juan came to Ann Arbor legally with a student visa to attend Eastern Michigan University, his legal status still came with red tape that hindered his ability to work his way through school. After arriving in Ann Arbor with just $150 dollars in his pocket, Juan knew that he would have to work more than the hours his visa allowed him to in order to make ends meet and pay for school.

Juan and a couple of friends went door-to-door looking for jobs. A pizza place in town hired the three men and gave them alternating shifts. But soon, Juan said, he realized he wasn’t getting enough shifts to pay for his classes.

“I needed to find another job so I learned the word ‘job’ and ‘I need a job.’ That was the only English I knew then, but you figure things out – your instincts work,” he said.

Juan, who already had a bachelor’s degree from a university in Venezuela, did find a better job in the same restaurant Emigdio works.

“In (the restaurant), customers are great,” Juan said. “Sometimes you don’t feel like you’re waiting on them.”

Today, Juan speaks fluent English and plans to graduate this spring from Eastern Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in electronic media and film.

The University has no official policy regarding the enrollment of undocumented immigrants. And while students must provide a Social Security number in order to enroll, one administrator said the University would have no way of verifying that information. Still, attending the University – or any four-year institution – is expensive, and little or no financial aid is available to non-citizens.

Back in New York last year, a college education seemed farther away than ever for Emigdio. Following a tip from a friend, Emigdio moved to Ann Arbor to pursue the first step: learning English.

A little over a year ago Emigdio moved in with his friend in an apartment on Pauline Boulevard. He landed a job washing dishes for $7.80 an hour in a local restaurant and began taking English classes at Washtenaw Community College. Although he earns about $800 dollars a month – barely enough, Emigdio said, to pay for living expenses and one college class – he said he is treated well where he works.

His first year in Ann Arbor was not an easy one. When his friend and roommate returned home to Mexico, Emigdio had to move into in a two-bedroom apartment with seven other men.

Seaver, who teaches English to immigrants at the Workers’ Center, said such living arrangements are common among recent immigrants. She said some Ann Arbor restaurants house their workers in a single home where they pay cheaper rent than they otherwise would be able to find on their own. Such situations, however, can be exploitative, because restaurants will sometimes offer discounted housing rates in exchange for even cheaper labor.

But Emigdio said that he is willing to endure such challenges for the quality of life he’s already made substantial strides toward attaining.

“Sometimes you have to sacrifice things to make a life,” he said.

He is ambitious. Soon, he expects to be a server, a job that will bring in more money and make it easier for him to pay for college classes.

“I said to myself, ‘I want to be a cook,’ ” he said. “Then, nine months later, I was a cook. Then I said, ‘I want to be a server.’ So I bused tables for seven months and now I’m going to be a server. Next, I’m going to be a teacher.”

But several obstacles, many of them legal, hamper Emigdio’s day-to-day and long-term pursuit of his goal. He had hoped to get a car and a driver’s license so he could save time commuting between school and work. But a new interpretation of a state law last year has made it nearly impossible for illegal immigrants to get a driver’s license by making applicants prove Michigan citizenship or present a temporary visa.

“Most important right now is that I buy a car and get a driver’s license,” Emigdio said. “Once I heard the new about restrictions for illegal immigrants though, I thought, ‘Now I won’t be able to buy a car.’ Everything changed.”

For illegal immigrants, simply applying for a drivers’ license, driving a car to work or opening a bank account can be risky behavior.

Seaver said illegal immigrants often live in a state of perpetual fear.

“There’s this constant stress of, ‘I’m illegal. Something could happen to me at any minute,’ ” she said. “It’s a stressful life.”

The impact on their daily lives of the nation’s current debate over immigration policy is not lost on Emigdio and other immigrants.

“All my hopes are there in the election,” Emigdio said.

Both he and Juan said they have been watching this year’s presidential election closely, hoping that Sen. Barack Obama – who supports a path to legal status for most of the nation’s illegal immigrants – takes the show.

“I follow the elections every day,” Juan said. “I read every newspaper, every day, even though it’s not my country. I like every little thing (Obama) says.”

While Emigdio’s main concerns are funding his education and getting around legal obstacles, the most constantly straining aspect of his life might be an overwhelming sense of loneliness.

Becoming friends with other workers is difficult, Emigdio said, because few of them are trying to learn English, go to school or make a life here like he is. Most Ann Arbor immigrants from Central and Latin America, he said, plan to work and eventually return home.

“It’s really hard to find a best friend or Latino friend,” he said. “They just care about making money.”

When he’s not at work, Emigdio said he can often be found reading in the downtown Borders. Pulling out his new iPod, he showed off his latest read: Mitch Albom’s “For One More Day.”

Gonzales said his first restaurant job was incredibly isolating.

“Home and work, home and work,” he said. “I didn’t even have a car, so on my day off I just looked out the window and watched the cars go by. I was bored.”

But Gonzales said Ann Arbor, with the University and the restaurants’ colorful student clientele, often provides an engaging atmosphere.

“I had a lot of customers who are students,” he said. “They were always trying to get me to sake bomb with them, but I don’t drink.”

Robinson, the Worker’s Center director, said he thinks students – especially minorities – could accomplish a lot for immigrant and minority workers’ interests in the workplace if they organized together.

“Really, if we’re going to make any headway, it’s going to require students working with non-students, people of color working with white people, and women working with men,” he said.

Seaver also encourages students to think about the way Ann Arbor’s restaurants treat their employees, offering a simple suggestion for improving the experiences of immigrant workers: “Be friendly to the people who are giving you pizza,” she said. “Have a conversation.”

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