José: Undocumented for 22 years, ‘one of the unlucky ones’

José helps his 7-year-old son with homework at their home in central New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

José helps his 7-year-old son with homework at their home in central New Jersey. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Life, unauthorized” is a series from WHYY/NewsWorks that looks at the personal immigration stories of individuals who are living in the Philadelphia region without legal status.

José, 47, from northern Spain

José and his now ex-wife came to the United States in December 1994, following an uncle who had come here to work.

José said his young family was not earning enough in Spain to move out of his in-law’s house, but he was not inclined to leave his home country. His first wife, however, had other ideas. In their early 20s at the time, they used three-month visitor visas to enter the U.S., and they stayed after their visas expired.

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A construction worker in Spain, José became a landscaper and patio builder here using a fraudulent work visa obtained through his uncle. The fake work visa allowed him to do things like get a Social Security card and work illegally for 22 years, though he now has a green card.

José and his second wife live in central New Jersey, where he continues to do landscaping. He has three children between the ages of 7 and 23.

José said being unauthorized did not adversely impact him most of the time, although he had to do some workarounds to appear documented. Every four years, he went to Michigan, where a friend allowed him to use his name on his cable bill. With that bill, Jose was able to get a Michigan driver’s license.

For eight years he had a green-card application pending through a former employer, who owned a landscaping company. But his employer retired and moved to Montana, Jose said, leaving him with no way to proceed. In 2016, Jose was able to attain a green card because his second wife, who is from Colombia, is a U.S. citizen.

He asked that his full name not be used even though he lives here legally now. “I just don’t want to poke the bear,” he said.

In his own words: His first attempts to get legal status through employer sponsorship

“I was applying for me, for my ex-wife, and for my daughter… So   everything will be one shot, and we should, you know if everything was good, and I can prove that I can support myself, and I have steady work, and I pay my taxes — that I will get a green card. Didn’t happen. Because [my employer] move. Life changes. He got married. He moved to Montana…I went back to nothing.

“I called immigration directly, and I explained the case, and they said, ‘Honestly, sir, nothing that you can do. The only thing that you can do is try to find another sponsor who can supply the sponsorship that you had.’ I’m like ok…That’s when I find the other landscaper, and we were going to basically switch sponsorship. But I find out in order to do that, my first sponsorship… had to clear some hurdle… If we would have gotten to that point, I would have saved myself probably three years. But he didn’t get to that point yet, all those seven years or eight years…so basically when I got to that other one, I had to start back from scratch.

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“So many things happen to you that one more thing [but] you do get disappointed. I keep thinking, ‘What am I doing wrong? I mean, what am I doing wrong?’ I never, I never drink. I never drink and drive. I never get in a fight. I never got in a bar. I never steal anything. I never rape anybody. I never did nothing. What am I doing wrong? That’s what you’re thinking.

“I keep thinking, ‘Wow, I gotta change lawyers.’ Because this one don’t work. It’s just some people get lucky; some people, we don’t. I was one of the unlucky ones. Took me long time From [1994] to last year, I was never documented.”

Larger share of unauthorized immigrants are long-term residents

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