by Teresa Mina
as told to David Bacon
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]eresa Mina was a San Francisco janitor, member of Service Employees Union Local 87, when she was fired because the company said she didn’t have legal immigration documents. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told her employer to fire 463 workers because they lacked legal immigration status. She told her story to David Bacon the day before she returned to Mexico.
I come from Tierra Blanca, a very poor town in Veracruz. After my children’s father abandoned us, I decided to come to the U.S. There’s just no money to survive. We couldn’t continue to live that way.
We all felt horrible when I decided to leave. My three kids, my mom, and two sisters are still living at home in Veracruz. The only one supporting them now is me.
My kids’ suffering isn’t so much about money. I’ve been able to send enough to pay the bills. What they lack is love. They don’t have a father; they just have me. My mother cares for them, but it’s not the same.
They always ask me to come back. They say maybe we’ll be poor, but we’ll be together. I haven’t been able to go back to see them for six years, because I don’t have any papers to come back to the U.S. afterwards. To cross now is very hard and expensive.
My first two years in San Francisco I cleaned houses. The work was hard, and I was lonely. It’s different here. Because I’m Latina and I don’t know English, if I go into a store, they watch me from head to foot, like I’m a robber.
After two years, I got a job as a janitor, making $17.85 per hour. Cleaning houses only paid $10. But then I was molested sexually. Another worker exposed himself to me and my friend. When we went to the company and filed a complaint, they took me off the job and kept me out of work a month. They didn’t pay me all that time.
That’s when my problems started, because I called the union and asked them to help me. After that, the company called me a problematic person, because I wouldn’t be quiet and I fought for my rights. Sometimes they wouldn’t give me any work.
When you work as a janitor you’re mostly alone. You pick up trash, clean up the kitchen and vacuum. These are simple things, and they tire you out, but basically it’s a good job. Lots of times we don’t take any breaks, though. To finish everything, sometimes we don’t even stop for lunch.
No one ever said anything to me about immigration for four years. But then the company gave a letter to my coworkers, saying they wouldn’t be able to continue working because they had no papers. About 40 people got them at first. Eventually I got a letter too.
The person from human relations said immigration had demanded the papers for all the people working at the company. She said 300 people didn’t have good papers. People whose papers were bad had a month to give the company other documents. If the immigration authorities said these were no good too, we’d be fired. She said the immigration might come looking for us where we lived.
We had a meeting at the union about the letters. Some people in that meeting had papers, and came to support those of us who didn’t. They said when they first came here they had to cross the border like we did, in order to find work.
They complained that so many of us were being fired that the workload increased for people who were left. The union got weaker too. We’re all paying $49 a month in union dues, and that adds up to a lot. We’re paying that money so that the union will defend us if we get fired like this. In that meeting we said we wanted equal rights. No one should be fired unless the immigration arrests us. We don’t want the company to enforce immigration law. The company isn’t the law.
The company gave me no work in December and January. I was desperate. I had no money. I had to move in with someone else, because I couldn’t pay rent. I couldn’t send money home to my children.
I was so stressed, I fell and broke my arm, and was out on disability. Then I went back to work, and when I went to get my check, the woman in the office wouldn’t pay me until I showed them new immigration papers. She gave me three days to bring then, and said if I didn’t I’d be fired. I asked her, “so you’re the immigration?”
I felt really bad. I spent so many years killing myself in that job, and I needed to keep it so I could send money home. But I couldn’t keep fighting. I didn’t want my problems to get even bigger — I could tell things would only get worse.
I went back after three days, and told the company I didn’t have any good papers. I asked for my pay for the hours I’d worked, and my vacation. I told them I had a flight back to Mexico and needed my check. They only paid me 60 hours, though they owed me 82. They knew I was leaving and couldn’t fight them over it.
This law is very unjust. We’re doing jobs that are heavy and dirty. We work day and night to help our children have a better life, or just to eat. My work is the only support for my family. Now my children won’t have what they need.
Many people are frightened now. They don’t want to complain or fight about anything because they’re afraid they might get fired. They think if we keep fighting, the immigration will pick us up. They have families here. What will happen to their children? Nobody knows. They worry that what’s happened to me might happen to them.
I can’t afford to live here for months without working. I came to this country to work for my children. But if this is what happens because I’ve been fighting and struggling, I’d rather leave, and go home and live with my children. In the end, they need me more.
So I guess I’ll go back to Tierra Blanca. I’ll work in the fields or try selling food there. My family says the economic situation at home is very hard. I’m not bringing much money home. But I like to work, and I know I’ll find a way.