Editor’s Note: The last names of the interviewed undocumented seniors have been omitted to protect their identities.
With the city of Pomona fading from his rearview mirror and the Californian sun lightly nudging the beaten road, José continued on his commute. Seated in his beige, 1980’s Toyota truck, which he purchased recently for $300, José felt better equipped to drive around the region to do his work as a day laborer, his tools clanking in the back.
He carried with him his Mexican driver’s license, thinking it would suffice, but suddenly a flood of police sirens trumpeted, flashes of red and blue light bursting in his mirrors.
José, 73 years old, is an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. for higher paying work. As a senior, he is part of an especially vulnerable community that is aging in a state stained by its history of anti-immigrant sentiment.
From 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, José works labor-intensive jobs to send money back to his wife and children in Mexico – whom he has not seen in over 14 years. He was on his way to work the day he got stopped by the officer a few years ago.
“The police officer claimed that I had not used my signal, when I actually had,” José said in a phone interview. “I believe I was stopped because of the color of my skin and for not being white passing.” Jose’s interview was translated by Lyzzeth Mendoza, the policy manager for Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice based in Ontario, CA.
The police officer seized José’s Mexican driver’s license and stated that it was not valid, dismissively throwing it away. José was given a few minutes to gather his belongings from the truck, which was now in police custody. His truck was then corralled and José was abandoned on the side of the road. Belongings at his side, he waited for someone to pick him up.
José’s experiences in the state thus far, where undocumented immigrants comprise about 23% of the population and 1.75 million members of the labor force, depict a necessity for swift and reformative policy changes. His activism, fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants, is primarily done through the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center (PEOC), a non-profit day labor organization located in Pomona where José has been working since his move.
“I should’ve left the U.S. a long time ago, but I still stay thinking that I am needed here and that I need to fight for more,” José said.
In 2012, after about three years of working in Pomona, José and other community organizers noticed checkpoints happening all the time in the city. These checkpoints were orchestrated by local police departments to supposedly protect residents, by ensuring drivers’ sobriety and affirming that drivers had their licenses. Punishments for driving without a license included mandatory jail time and vehicle impoundment. Vehicles could be held for 30 days or longer, and were only returned when the owner paid a large sum of money.
José and other organizers started congregating at different checkpoints, with the intent of warning drivers of upcoming police searches.
“The checkpoints were concentrated where Latinos resided and where they knew undocumented people lived,” José said. “They would often place them in major intersections that these communities had to cross to get to work.”
Through long-held pressure on the local government and police department, José’s group was successful in gaining information on where the 11 key checkpoints were located and getting them to strictly operate at 9 p.m. or later, when residents were less likely to be commuting to and from work.
Shortly after, the city police department responded with raids, targeting neighborhoods, grocery stores, and schools where undocumented immigrants were likely to be found. José’s group decided to focus on a larger initiative – revoking SB 976, a California law that has explicitly barred driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants since 1993.
The PEOC worked effectively with other immigrant rights coalitions to sign The Safe and Responsible Drive Act, AB 60, into law in 2013. AB 60 guarantees anyone can get their license, regardless of citizenship status, and was a stride in reducing the fear of unforeseen vehicle seizures and police searches.
As many undocumented seniors are unable to afford retirement, they continue working late into their life, and a driver’s license can be critical. These licenses ensure that undocumented immigrants are able to find work outside their homes, take care of their families, and have a form of legal identity.
Some undocumented immigrants, however, still decide not to apply for AB 60 licenses, especially if they have a previous record, as ICE agents could potentially find their information, track them, and deport them. Although there are anti-discriminatory laws with AB 60 licenses that prohibit state and local government officials from discrimination, these laws do not protect undocumented immigrants from federal officials - including ICE.
While José advocates for transformative policy changes that support all undocumented immigrants, as a senior, he is also battling a severe lack of health care services.
“Undocumented seniors are folks who have been here for a while and who have worked, but still remain locked out from the social safety net,” Denzel Tongue said. Tongue, the California Immigrant Policy Center’s health and public benefits campaign coordinator, supports the Health4All campaign that would provide healthcare for all Californians regardless of their citizenship status.
Though income eligible undocumented immigrants under the age of 26 have access to full scope Medi-Cal, undocumented seniors receive restricted scope Medi-Cal, or emergency Medi-Cal. Restricted scope Medi-Cal, as the name implies, may be used in emergency or pregnancy-related situations, exclusive to acute health issues. In this way, undocumented seniors have no real access to general or preventative healthcare needs.
Although Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a serious investment in his January budget for expanding Medi-Cal to all seniors, regardless of immigration status, his revised May budget rescinded that initial healthcare expansion – leaving out undocumented seniors.
Undocumented immigrants of all ages are further unable to purchase health care on any marketplace and cannot access health services through the Affordable Care Act.
“This leaves undocumented seniors in a vulnerable situation and at the mercy of whatever their county health programs are,” Tongue said.
As health care services for undocumented immigrants are county specific, different counties offer different kinds of services.
“It’s at the whimsies of locality and what those local public health programs decide to do to support their undocumented residents,” Tongue said. “It is inequitable, as some counties do a decent job, but others don’t have access to any resources.”
“It’s at the whimsies of locality and what those local public health programs decide to do to support their undocumented residents”
— Denzel Tongue, California Immigrant Policy Center’s health and public benefits campaign coordinator
Tongue said that rather than depending on county programs, a single state mandate to provide care for the general health of seniors would be more standardized and fair.
“The largest single population of uninsured folks in California is the undocumented population, so solutions to getting California universal health coverage absolutely must cover the undocumented population,” Tongue said. “They significantly contribute to our state, paying around 3 billion dollars annually in taxes, which is a big part of our social and economic system.”
Since COVID-19, José has struggled with a lack of healthcare. With inflammation on his legs, he is solely relying on his local community healthcare facility that assists individuals in his situation. He also requires $6,000 for eye surgery and is trying to figure out how to get the funds for this necessary operation.
Another undocumented woman, Irma, is approaching the retirement age and, like José, depends on community healthcare programs for her medical needs. She was also interviewed over the phone, through Lyzzeth’s translation.
“I definitely want to have access to health care now more than ever because I am aging and am more likely to get different sicknesses,” Irma said.
Irma has been living in the U.S. for 25 years and works long 14 hour shifts in a restaurant. A single mother of four, Irma lived in the most impoverished area in Mexico City where she was a small business owner. Knowing that U.S. wages were higher, she left her two eldest children in Mexico, raising them from afar and supporting them through higher education.
She is now approaching the traditional age of retirement and is unsure of what she will be able to do.
“I haven’t thought about retirement a whole lot, but I know that it would be a big help if I were able to retire because I have worked hard and contributed to this society and economy,” Irma said.
Irma, an undocumented senior approaching the retirement age, longs for citizenship and healthcare benefits. She provided a photograph of herself that was graphically digitized, as she wanted to protect her identity.
“If healthcare and other benefits are not possible then I will not be able to retire and will instead continue to work and push through, as retirement requires government support.”
Irma and José lack government funded healthcare, which can impact their physical health and become extremely problematic if they continue to work the same number of hours at the same pace. Additionally, without access to any social security benefits, the ability to retire can feel almost impossible.
“When one first thinks to migrate to the U.S., they come with the idea that there will be a solution to their immigration status – that there will be a kind of amnesty and that they will be okay,” Irma said. “We don’t think that time will fly by so fast and that we will get to this point in our age when we are still not completely okay.”
“We don’t think that time will fly by so fast and that we will get to this point in our age when we are still not completely okay”
— Irma, an undocumented senior
Irma hopes to eventually gain citizenship, so that she can visit Mexico and see her friends and family, but acknowledges the constraints in place that could prevent her from ever going back.
“What I understand of discrimination, as an immigrant in this country, is that I’m restricted by what I can do and how much I can benefit,” Irma said. “This is what limits me – the rules and the ways that the system works.”
José’s persistent activism, along with his strenuous job, has drained him throughout the years. As he has not been able to acclimate that well to the American system and culture, he wishes to return back to his family who last saw him when he was in his late 50’s.
“A lot of my friends back in Mexico have gone missing or have died already, and so when I go back one day I know that my neighborhood and my family feeling will be completely different,” José said.
José and Irma have both aged in the U.S. as undocumented immigrants. They have personally witnessed and experienced the different degrees of the anti-immigrant agenda in the state, but have also been actively involved in their community to petition for change.
“I did not think twice about coming to the U.S. for the first time, as I had to resolve my family’s economic situation and support them,” José said. “When I came here, however, I expected something different – I expected a different America.”
“When I came here, however, I expected something different – I expected a different America”
— José, an undocumented senior
Expecting the red and blue hues of the American flag to emblemize freedom and legal identity, these colors instead came to symbolize decades of profound discrimination and abuse. The actions used by the city of Pomona – the checkpoints, the raids, the random searches – counter the perceived liberation that was thought to be America. The restricted scope Medi-Cal compromises the safety of undocumented seniors, unable to maintain their health at a crucial time.
“States definitely look to California’s immigration policy leadership to emulate California’s policies in their own state legislature,” Tongue said.
Despite California’s democratic majorities in the state house and senate, the state has not always prioritized the concerns of undocumented seniors and, therefore, broad and inclusive immigration policies are actualizing slowly.
“It is tiring, taxing work and my family is telling me to come back home and that my time has come,” José said. “I’m closer to the day I will go back, and as I see injustices keep occurring, I do feel like I want to take off my gloves and just go home.”
Last updated 9/14/20
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