He’s not unique. There are others like him — they’re the reason President Trump proposed a wall, they’re the ones ICE deports, and they’re the people who sorely need an income for their families — so much so that they will break laws to work for low wages and no health care.
Three years ago, Cadet immigrated from Haiti to live and work in New Jersey. In Haiti, he was a school teacher until the 2010 earthquake. He worked later as a logistics officer in one of the smaller cities. “Life went well until the mayor I served was voted out of office,” Cadet said.
For a while, Cadet traveled to Miami as a tourist to visit family. Haitian women enjoyed lingerie from Victoria’s Secret, He stuffed his suitcases full of bras and panties, perfumes and colognes and sold them there. But as the Haitian economy worsened, he couldn’t find buyers.
He looked into our temporary foreign worker programs. They are mired in red tape and disagreement at the national level. The U.S. offers about 15 percent of the number of legal visas to fill necessary jobs, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Employers hire illegals to meet their needs.
Cadet wanted his five-year old daughter to attend a good school. For Cadet, there came a point when a man didn’t care if there’s a law in place or a wall built. “I had to do something to take care of my family,” he said. He told his daughter he’d be in the United States for a long time. He cried. She didn’t. She thought living in the United States was very special.
Friends already in N.J. helped Cadet settle, find work, lodging. He developed a routine. His colleagues took him to work daily, where they ate their meals together and worked hard. His daughter texted him new developments in her day and they spoke every evening.
He received his pay at the end of each fortnight. He put aside enough for his rent and food and an occasional bottle of his native Barbancourt rum and, then, sent the remaining money to his family — his daughter, his two sisters, his mother, two nephews and a niece. Cadet paid annually for their house and provided the bulk of their monthly income, though they contributed some from their earnings as vendors in the open-air markets.
Winter work at the assembly plant was lean, but “I expected hours would increase in the spring, like always,” Cadet said. But not this year. By the end of February, his employer brought the work force together and announced Covid-19 forced them to cut most hours.
Like everyone, “I have bills to pay and promises to my family,” said Cadet. Unlike all Americans, who are promised some financial relief, there is no safety net for him. His friends are in the same situation. Some go to the local food pantry, but otherwise, they can only tighten their own belts and alert their families that there is no money coming.
Cadet knew he took a chance coming to the U.S. three years ago. He risked discovery by I.C.E. and falling ill without medical insurance. He also knew that the U.S. did not consider him part of its economy, yet, he contributes to that system. He helps pay for the gas for transportation; he buys groceries; he works on an assembly line that ships objects, coming from overseas for American purchase. Cadet, as part of the workforce, increases the U.S. GDP. Additionally, his limited wages help keep the price of goods low in the U.S.
There are many myths about undocumented workers. The truth, established in many government reports and studies, indicate they enrich our economy via their strong work ethic, payment of taxes, entrepreneurship, and low involvement with crime.
The U.S. will remake itself as it survives the pandemic. There are many questions before us, including this one: Do we continue to ignore the people who help us create the economy we proudly tout?
It’s time we acknowledge the contribution by Cadet and other undocumented workers. It’s time we Americans are honest with ourselves about our economy. It’s time we spread the financial profits and the medical protection to all of those who help. Let’s finally recognize that we couldn’t, and can’t, be successful without our undocumented workers.
J.O. Haselhoef is a free-lance writer based in Milwaukee, Wi. She co-founded and directed YonnEde Lot, a nonprofit that partnered with communities in Lamontay, Haiti, to encourage leadership and economic development.