Sweatshop 2005: The Visa Overstayer`s Story
October 29, 2005, 05:00 AM
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Not all illegal aliens come across the southern border. In my column last week, I wrote that visa overstayers blend even more easily into the American fabric—and thereby remain indefinitely undetected—because generally they are fluent in English, educated and innovative.

For the most part, such individuals came to the US on student or work visas. Because of their socio-economic backgrounds, overstayers are several cuts above the typical "illegal immigrant" border crosser in terms of their options—including white-collar employment—once they are safely inside the country.

Even in the unlikely event that the federal government might come nosing around, visa overstayers have either the savvy to work their way out of a jam or the financial resources to buy their way out.

Several years ago, I met a self-confessed visa overstayer from the Philippines, whom I will call "Gloria".

What follows is "Gloria's" story as she told to me over the course of several months. Her cautionary tale provides a fascinating insight into who wins and who loses when a visa holder decides to gamble on staying illegally in the U.S.

When I first encountered the 30-something "Gloria", she was working in Los Angeles as a substitute caregiver for my elderly aunt.

During a visit, I made some small talk with "Gloria". She told me that she badly needed money even though she had a full-time day job working as an accountant for a prominent import-export firm (which I will call "Global Export") in downtown Los Angeles.

My curiosity tweaked, I asked "Gloria" how long she had lived in the U.S.

"Since 1998," she replied.

I took an educated guess. "Do you have an H-1B visa?" I asked.

"Gloria" replied, in a round about way, that "once" she had an H-1B visa. Originally, "Gloria" explained, she came to the US on a tourist visa.

"I was very surprised that I got a tourist visa," "Gloria" said. "For the most part, the Philippine government doesn't want young, educated, unmarried people to leave the country. The government figures that once gone, no one will return."

When "Gloria" arrived in Los Angeles, she quickly hooked up with other local Filipinos. Eventually, "Gloria" befriended two other women who worked for Global. Why didn't she, they proposed, come to work with them?

That was fine with "Gloria".  Her goal was always employment and not sightseeing.

Global's owner immediately sponsored "Gloria" for an H-1B visa. And he hired her at a flat salary of $300 a week—no benefits, no paid vacation and no paid holidays.

"Gloria" told me that she immediately ran the math in her head…based on a 40-hour workweek, she would be making $7.50.

But as it turned out, "Gloria" works nearly 60 hours a week often including Saturdays. She told me: "I was very stupid. I knew I wasn't being paid fairly but I thought I had taken the first step toward the good life in America."

Alas, the "good life" never developed. Things changed dramatically after 9/11. "Gloria"'s H-1B visa was scheduled to expire in December 2001. But because of the increased security immediately following 9/11, her request for a renewal was turned down.

"Gloria", who had already shelled out a tidy sum to her immigration lawyer for her change of status paper work, called him again. After several futile efforts to get her visa renewed the traditional way, the lawyer suggested that they travel to Mexico—on her dime, naturally—where the U.S. embassy was rumored to be more accommodating.

In Mexico, "Gloria" and her lawyer hit a stone wall. The embassy would not review her visa. She is now "out of status."

Remembering the experience, "Gloria" said:

"By then I was at the end of my rope. My intention when I decided to take the job at Global was to save enough money to return to the Philippines and buy a house for my fiancée and me. Instead, I had paid my immigration lawyer nearly $10,000 for nothing. And I was barely making the rent, let alone saving money."

Talking about her fiancée was a sore point for "Gloria":

"When I left, my boyfriend begged me not to go. I told him not to worry because I would be back soon and we would be together forever. Now I have learned that he got tired of waiting and married someone else."

And the rest of "Gloria"'s personal life is not the stuff of Hollywood movies. "Gloria" lives with three other single Filipino women in a marginal neighborhood. She doesn't drive. And even if she did, she says, what good would it do her? She can't afford a car.

"Gloria" doesn't date. She had a couple of bad experiences with lounge lizards. And the candidates for her affection are few. Interestingly, "Gloria" says she will not date men whose skin is darker than hers. She says ruefully: "I expect to die an old maid."

"Gloria"'s life consists of taking the bus to work and back.

She recently—and foolishly, she acknowledges—agreed to do a special overtime job at Global for a deep discount compared to the "thousands" it would have cost at a major accounting firm.

But so far, "Gloria" hasn't collected a penny. Apparently, her employer has just decided not to pay her.

I asked "Gloria" about her options. She could, after all, go back to the Philippines.

But "Gloria" claims there is "nothing for me there". And, worse, she is certain she would never get back into America.

Or "Gloria" could turn in her employer to immigration officials. But—"what's in that for me? I lose my job and he gets off with a warning, if that."

Here's the bottom line on "Gloria"'s ill-fated saga:

If an average person were to walk into Global Industries, he would never suspect who "Gloria" really is. Only a veteran immigration skeptic like myself could put the pieces together and quickly identify her as one of America's 20 million illegal aliens.

"Gloria" is a great deal for Global. She's a responsible employee who cranks out a lot of cheap work.

But, at a decent wage, the Global job would be a good one for any American: air-conditioned office work at the going rate of $15 to $20 an hour is pretty cushy.

How does "Gloria" see her plight? The last time I talked to her she said she planned to stick it out. "My luck can only get better," she said.

But when I asked "Gloria" whether she would do it all over again, she said: "No way."

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly newspaper column since 1988. This column is exclusive to VDARE.COM.