One in 11 million: life and times of an undocumented resident

Juan’s hands show signs of wear from the many jobs he has worked. Photo by Monica Milberg.

   When the words “build a wall, “illegal aliens,” “Trump” or “deportation” blast from the television screen, Juan sends his 9-year-old U.S. citizen grandson outside to play. Juan, a long-term undocumented immigrant, doesn’t want him to worry.

       Juan first came to the United States when he was 19 and has lived in Tucson since, calling it his home for 25 years. 

       “To be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about the U.S. in my life,” Juan says. “My thinking back then was to keep going to school, become a teacher and do something with my life. But you never know what’s going to happen next month, right?”

        For Juan, one thing is always clear:  There is no use worrying about what will happen tomorrow, in 10, or even 20 years. He lives a day-to-day life in the shadows.

        Juan never intended to stay, but after crossing the border to visit his brother, who lived there at the time, he saw what every other immigrant has seen: opportunity. Not only for himself, but also for his young wife and two children in Mexico.

        At 16 and 15, Juan and his wife, respectively, married in Mexico and enjoyed a life there for two years before Juan visited his brother and stayed in the U.S. The lack of opportunity in Huatabampo, Sonora, made the decision easy for him and six months later he returned, but this time only briefly. With his wife and two young children, ages 2 and 5 at the time, they simply crossed a checkpoint into the United States to begin their lives.

        He began working as a dishwasher and eventually became a cook until the restaurant closed in 2001. He switched to construction, began work as a framer and has worked a multitude of jobs within construction and landscaping, picking up countless skills along the way.

        Juan lives here with his wife and three kids — two “dreamers” and one a citizen in high school. His learns on the job, mastering kitchen remodeling and home rain-collecting systems. He works mostly with other long-term undocumented people, creating a network and community. Support, he said, is essential.

      Especially when “tomorrow it could be you,” says Juan.

      And for Juan that tomorrow has come nine different times, all within two years. Each time he would volunteer to be sent back, only to return the same day. He has not returned since 1999.  

        “It’s been a long time, I miss my family first of all, and my grandma who is still living,” Juan says. “She is 98.”

        Why not become a citizen of the U.S.? For Juan, it’s not that simple.

        “The only right way for me to legally go through the process, it’s like flipping a coin in the air,” he says. “I don’t know that if I see the judge if he is going to deport me or allow me to stay here and it would only be a work permit. It’s not like I will become a permanent citizen – no it doesn’t work that way. If they deport me, I’m not going to be able to come back for a long time.”

        With a wife of 25 years, three children and a grandchild to look after, Juan says it’s just too much to risk.  

        But if you ask Juan, he isn’t scared.

        “I’m always positive,” he says. “A lot of people say, ‘I don’t know how you’re so positive about life,’ well because here in the U.S. we are like a third class people. That’s how it is to them. To me I am equal like you guys. I don’t feel like a lower class – not at all. Never.”

        To the people who have fallen for the rhetoric of fear incited throughout the country, Juan only feels one way.

        “The people who try to humiliate me, I feel sorry for them,” he says. “If they’re mad I don’t care.”

Photo by Jordan Glenn.

        Though Juan doesn’t care when he is faced with hate or discrimination, it is a different story when it comes to his family and his people. Over the years, he said, the hate toward his people has gotten worse and he doesn’t understand it.

        “People who are always pointing the finger, ‘Oh they’re criminals, they do bad things,’” he says.  “How can they be a better person than I am? I work every day, I have a good family, I’m a good neighbor, I’m always helping everybody, I’m respectful, I’m friendly and these people are always pointing the finger. How are we all criminals because one Mexican is a criminal?”

    In his little spare time, Juan is a reader. He finds some comfort in the life of Abraham Lincoln. He admires his compassion, and wonders where that sense is in today’s political climate.

     Juan’s son, a “dreamer” protected under the Obama administration who is now 23, has read stories of immigrants who have served in the military and still been deported.

        “What will happen to us?” he asked Juan.

        Eleven million people just like Juan live in the shadows of this country. Yet, Juan, the day-to-day guy, is positive. He doesn’t let the fear or hate control his life. While Juan faces hate, discrimination and anger, he is filled with hope, positivity, strength and resilience.

        “To me it is all the same life,” he said. “I’m still thinking that the country has opportunity for anybody who can try that. We have to adjust. This is life. You have to keep going.”

Elisabeth Morales and Christina Duran are reporters for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact them at MORALESE@email.arizona .edu and

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

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