Article and photos by Sasha Rampersaud
Voices were hushed as the driver of a 16-wheel tractor-trailer gave his signal: the truck and its passengers were approaching the Canada-United States border. Although darkness engulfed the eight individuals concealed behind a locked partition inside the passenger cabin, the engine’s steady roar confirmed they were moving closer to the land of opportunities and promise.
Nandaram P. (the only way he was willing to be identified), then 8, sat beside his father and little sister, trying to make out the five strangers in the dimly lit compartment. He was instructed to stay still and quiet, but excitement ran through his body like electricity at the thought of seeing his mother after three years of separation. He didn’t know that this strange journey filled with unfamiliar faces, deafening silence and unrelenting tension was the means of illegally entering the United States.
Now 23, Nandaram sat on the steps outside his family’s apartment in Ozone Park, Queens, as he recounted his passage to the U.S. His voice was barely above a whisper.
He occasionally shot a nervous glance over his shoulder, wary that his mother night overhear him speak about what should be left unspoken.
“It’s been 15 years since we entered the country,” he said, and “18 years since she came. But she still is, and probably will always be, fearful when it comes to talking about our passage and status in this country.”
Nandaram, his 20-year-old sister and his parents are undocumented residents. Unable to obtain permanent residency in the United States after their illegal arrival, they live a cautious life, always fearful that any trouble or knowledge of their status could lead to deportation. His family’s story is but one example of millions of cases.
His family had lived in a small village in Guyana, just off the eastern bank of the Demerara River. His father drove a commuter bus several days a week, but his parents made most of their living from raising and selling livestock. Life was slow and simple, but the country was ravaged by poverty, greed and corruption and did not guarantee a bright future for Nandaram and his sister. So, in 1998, his mother emigrated to New York City, where she lived and worked for three years with the hope of raising enough money to bring her husband and two children.
In 2001, the family decided it was time to reunite. The family packed lightly and traveled from Guyana to Trinidad and Tobago, then caught a flight to Ontario, Canada. They stayed with relatives for two weeks in the Toronto neighborhood of Scarborough while arrangements were made with a trafficker. It cost $10,000 to transport the three of them to New York City.
“I wasn’t told what was going on,” Nandaram recounted. “I was just told that we’d be seeing Mom very soon. I wasn’t nervous or fearful, even as I sat in that small space inside the truck, because I didn’t think we were doing anything wrong. I just thought, ‘This is such weird ride, but I guess this is how we get to where Mom lives.’”
For me, the dream is to enjoy the same privileges as every other American who works just as hard as me. — Nandaram
They departed Scarborough on a warm night in late August – t two weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The family, along with two women, a man, a toddler and an infant, were loaded into the cabin area of the truck where they would remain obscured from view for the next eight hours. The children were given motion sickness medication to help them sleep, for the adults feared they’d cry or make noise and put them all at risk of getting caught.
“I was pretty shy and quiet as a child, so I was spared the pills,” Nandaram recalled. “They didn’t worry about me making a sound, so I just watched my sister, who was 5 years old, drift off into sleep.”
His memory of the trip is faint, he admitted. He only remembers in vivid detail the cramped quarters, the strained voices and his father’s heavy arm around his shoulder as the truck slowly made its way past U.S. Customs. He recalled the infant who was swaddled and hushed, and the anxious mother who prayed silently every time the truck slowed or came to a halt.
Looking back, he can now understand his father’s strange behavior and his reason for not telling him and his sister the truth about their trip. “Ignorance really is bliss,” he said with a laugh. “I wish I could go back to that time of having the worrying done for me. Knowing what I know now, and experiencing for myself the limitation” of his current status, “I would say that coming into this country the way we did was both the best and worst decision my parents ever made for us.”
Nandaram acknowledged that his parents’ decision to emigrate opened more doors of opportunity for him. He currently works as a machinist at a metal fabrication company and has discovered a passion for architecture. However, it hasn’t been an easy process.
In 2009, his family settled into the upstairs apartment in which they currently live after spending several years moving around Brooklyn. The rent is high and the space is small for a family of four, but his parents do what they can to create a comfortable and happy home. Nandaram said his mother wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. to travel to Long Island to work as a housekeeper. His father is a machinist at the same architectural firm as Nandaram. He works 12 hours a day, four days a week, and also works overtime on the weekends.
“My parents are true representations of immigrants working hard to achieve ‘the American dream,’” said Nandaram. “That dream is different for everyone, I guess. For my parents, it’s to live comfortably and to provide a better life,” adding, “For me, the dream is to enjoy the same privileges as every other American who works just as hard as me.”
I wish I could go back to that time of having the worrying done for me. — Nandaram
In 2012, President Obama issued an Executive Order that drastically changed the course of Nandaram’s life. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, signed on June 15, allowed undocumented residents like Nandaram to receive a Social Security number, a two-year work authorization and a driver’s license, as well as the ability to reside safely within the United States without the possibility of being immediately deported.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled as a wide grin crept across his face. “To be honest, I was more excited about having the ability to drive than anything else. I knew it was all important—the Social, the work permit—but, I mean, I’m a guy. I love cars. I wanted nothing more than to get my license and my first car just like everyone else around me.”
Since the order, more than 660,000 people have received DACA status, according to a 2015 survey by the Center for American Progress, using data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Nandaram said he began working at 14 at an auto body shop where he helped move car parts and equipment. “It was heavy and exhausting labor,” he said. “But when you have parents who are working hard to provide what little they can, and when there are limited ways to put a dollar in your own pocket, you take whatever opportunity is available to you.”
He took on numerous other jobs during his teen-aged years—mechanic, fast-food clerk, pizza delivery.
“I think that’s a common problem” among undocumented immigrants, he said, feeling undervalued even though you’re working so hard, or feeling like the work you’re doing is just mediocre.”
That feeling grew as he neared graduation from high school.
“I remember listening to my friends talk about going to college and the plans they had for their lives, and me not getting to join the conversation because I knew I couldn’t go to college,” he said, his eyes dropping to stare at his work boots. “I didn’t have a Social Security number. My family certainly wasn’t going to receive any type of financial aid. It was just out of the question. And it was frustrating because I probably worked harder than all of those kids, but there I was feeling like my life was static.”
After Obama’s order, Nandaram wasted no time applying for DACA’s benefits, obtaining an application as soon as it was available online. After supplying a number of detailed documents and undergoing a thorough background check, he was approved in 2013.
“It changed my life,” he said. “I was able to obtain jobs with better pay and benefits… I love where I work now and I think I want to make a career out of it… I was finally able to get my own car. I’m even thinking about enrolling in college to obtain a degree in architecture or business—I haven’t decided yet.”
Although Obama’s program provided a breath of relief for Nandaram and so many others like him, he still lives cautiously. As the president’s tenure comes to an end and political debates include an anti-immigration agenda, Nandaram is wary of the possibility of DACA being terminated. He is not certain if he will be able to reapply for DACA once a new president takes office. Nevertheless, Nandaram plans to use the program to his full advantage while he still can.