The Cross She Must Bear - An Undocumented Filipina in New York

The Cross She Must Bear  - An Undocumented Filipina in New York

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Editor’s Note: Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), which was passed in Congress in 1996 during the Clinton Administration, any person who failed to maintain a lawful presence in the United States is barred for three to 10 years from future entry. To some policy analysts, as the immigration debates heat up, lifting the ban can be one of the key points to an effective immigration reform, as undocumented immigrants with employers or spouses who are willing to petition them can go back to their home countries and renew their visas or apply for a green card. This is the story of one Filipina immigrant who has been living undocumented in New York.
My name is Maria Ante. I am 47 years old and an undocumented immigrant. Many people don’t like undocumented immigrants, as if we have a dreadful disease. I have been living in constant fear, especially these days after the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona. This is my story of loss and hope.

It was Jan. 3, 2003. My cell phone rang at 3:00 a.m. and roused me from sleep. Squinting, I checked at the caller ID on the phone screen, and it was from the Philippines. I knew the call was urgent.

I picked up the phone and I could hear my brother, the youngest in our family, on the other end of the line. His voice was trembling when he broke the news. “Father just passed away. It's painful, very painful,” he said in Tagalog. I felt numb.

That early morning, I confronted another harsh reality of being undocumented: I wouldn't be able to go home and pay my last respects to my father. Although it crossed my mind to just pack up and leave, I thought about my future and the life that I have made here over the years. I knew I would not be able to come back to the United States because I will be most likely under a 10-year bar.

Confused and no one to talk to about my predicament, I took the subway and went to St. Patrick's Church in Manhattan. There, I prayed and grieved silently. I could remember my father's face the last time I saw him at home, a few hours before I left the Philippines, now almost a decade ago. My father even lifted my luggage with one hand before I left for the airport. He wanted to make sure I didn't go beyond the weight limit. He was very protective of me.

As I was sitting on a pew and looking absentmindedly at the people in the church, I couldn’t contain myself. I broke into tears. An old man came up and asked me if I was all right. He was a fellow Filipino. Normally I am not comfortable talking to a stranger, but here was a man who consoled me. It mattered a lot.
Now, I work as a supervisor for a garment business in Manhattan. I believe I am hardworking, and I pay my taxes each year. When I first came to New York City, no one really advised me what to do. I didn’t know anything about immigration laws. I thought as long as I find an employer, I could still adjust my status. I was wrong.

Like me, millions of undocumented immigrants have missed a loved one's wedding, birth of a first child, graduation of a child or sibling, or a funeral because they couldn't go back to their home countries. It is like an exile — an absolute disconnection from family and friends.

On Jan. 15, 2010, as soon as I got settled at work around 9:30 a.m., my cell phone rang. I thought it was one of our clients. There are times that clients call early in the morning. Instead, it was again my youngest brother. Without any long introduction, he broke another sad news: My oldest brother died of cardiac arrest three hours ago.

I was in complete shock. Then my phone rang almost the entire day. I could not concentrate at work. I talked to my mother and other siblings, and they told me not to come home. I wanted to scream, run or do something but I didn’t know what to do. I felt weak as if my energy had been sucked out of my body.

I didn’t call my friends. I didn’t tell anyone about my brother’s demise. At that point I just wanted to be alone and withdraw myself from my loss. Again, I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and prayed for my brother’s soul as well as for my own peace of mind.

Sometimes, when I walk around the streets of Manhattan, I question myself: Why I am doing this to myself? What is the purpose of all these sacrifices? It may be hard to answer them, but all I know is that I have already foregone many important things in my life.

With my age, it would be difficult for me to start all over again in the Philippines. I have already been uprooted for a long time. I just couldn’t imagine myself working in Manila for $5 or even less a day. Despite living undocumented in New York, I could save something for my future. The money that I send back home goes a long way.

And, honestly, this is my home now. This is where I want to live my life. I have my close friends and job here. I have an apartment that I share with another friend. The only thing missing is that I don’t have the freedom to visit my family and come back.

If I were going to give up, I should have done that when my father died. So I promised to myself that I would not go back to the Philippines unless I fixed my immigration status.

I know many will say, ‘You’re undocumented, you broke the law.’ It is easy to push me away, especially if someone is not in my shoes. But when a situation hits closer to one’s home, it becomes a reality-check. That’s the time someone truly understands the pain and struggles. I care for this country, and I am grateful for all the opportunities that it has given to me.

Still, I am in limbo. The immigration enforcement is getting more punitive, and I don’t sleep well at night anymore. I hope that Pres. Obama will deliver what he promised before the elections. My mother is now 78 years old. I hope that policymakers will find a way to fix the immigration system. I pray everyday that I would be reunited with my family soon and I would see my mother alive. She’s all I got.