Getting By As An Undocumented Immigrant In New York City

March 31, 2015 | American-In-Training

Three years ago, armed with a prestigious art degree, fluent bilingualism and stellar recommendations, I proudly entered the American workforce for the first time…as a stripper. After graduating in 2012, while my classmates followed their dreams by working odd jobs and investing uncompensated time at “career-building” internships in New York (where dreams are made, duh), I was unable to participate in the same opportunities that would allow me to also start my professional career. The difference? I was on OPT, or Optional Practical Training.

OPT is an authorization for temporary employment for up to 12 months for international students with an F-1 visa. Employment must be “directly related” to the student’s major and cannot begin until issued an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Starting OPT while still in school reduces the available OPT time after graduation by a month for every 2 months worked before graduation. Every job you start or end must be reported to your university, and unemployment time is restricted to 90 days. OPT just refers to the time you are allowed to work and is not a different visa status, and travelling outside of the U.S. is strongly unadvised since reentry is not guaranteed. You have three options when OPT ends: GTFO within a grace period of 60 days, or GTFO immediately if you’ve maxed out your 90 days of unemployment. The third option is to get an H1-B visa and stay in the country, but this is only possible if an employer initiates the costly and time-consuming process of petitioning for a visa on behalf of the employee.

For prospective employers, my OPT was a fly in the ointment since I could only work for a limited time unless they were willing to sponsor a visa. Restricted from even minimum wage jobs, I cobbled together a livable income doing everything from freelance design to black market academia to stripping. Though not my first choice for a profession, stripping enabled me to focus on low-paying creative gigs while travelling to visit friends before I would inevitably have to leave. My international classmates frequently got terminated by reputable companies when it became time for their employers to file visas on their behalf (not naming names, but one of them now owns a $4 billion intergalactic space-war franchise), and one friend accepted a job on OPT before his employer tried to leverage sponsoring a visa in exchange for a sexual relationship. All of them left the country, as did I. But for all the good that OPT did for my career, it did provide me with the chance to meet the love of my life.

I returned to New York in 2014 and married my husband with the blessing of both our families. I am legally his spouse, but due to the long immigration process, I am still without status or documentation. Technically, I’m an illegal immigrant, working without authorization.

Figuring I could make some quick cash while I searched for more “respectable” options, my first job after getting married was at an underground foot fetish party. Advertised as an “upscale” event, the Midtown space I arrived at was anything but. After checking everyone’s IDs, women were called in one-by-one into the main room for foot check and orientation, and when the event started it became apparent that the party was essentially an adult-entertainment pyramid scheme. Calling yourself “VIP” clearly does not mean you ball like one, and most customers shamelessly tried to bargain single digit tips for sexual favors. I left early and never came back.

“Respectable” options were also terrible in their own way. Shortly afterwards I got in touch with a woman on the Upper West Side who designed a line of clothing for HSN. She promised me hourly payment then promptly put me to work creating apparel flats and a fashion illustration. My feedback a week later when I completed the assignment was that “maybe in Asia people dance around the subject, but this is America, so I’m going to be direct,” and that my style was “too anime.” I never got paid for my time.

My next job was working for a womenswear designer at her Fashion Avenue showroom. Initially hired as an intermediary between the designer and her financial advisor, the financial advisor quit a week after I started and my hours and duties multiplied exponentially without mutual agreement or discussion to “showroom management.”

“Maintaining the showroom,” I soon realized, meant going through the entire inventory and shaking out big, fat roaches before sanitizing and reorganizing everything. The place was crawling with cockroaches. It was not uncommon to scratch your ankle and have a roach fall out of your pant leg. My own personal Vietnam, as I like to joke, was organizing my boss’s financial records. Over the course of several days I initiated a scorched earth policy on the generations of cockroaches that had nested in my boss’s filing cabinets for years. I managed by shaking out every folder and drawer into a plastic container lined heavily with poison. When I was done, I had a box of squirming cockroaches the size of my thumbnail.

Wizard of Homes, a professional cleaning service based in NYC, charges $100/hour for filth cleaning. I got paid a tenth of that. Other than a few people in charge of production, my boss insisted on hiring a revolving door of unpaid interns who didn’t offer much beyond a blind interest in fashion and sending disastrous PR emails to Neiman Marcus (“I wish to see you at [Designer’s] collection preview for a glass of champagne”). I took this in stride: I’m not too good to take my clothes off for money and I’m not too good to clean up messes either. What I am too good for is not getting paid, which was becoming a pattern. I often wondered how my boss could afford a luxury duplex in the Nolita Police Building while I waited for weeks to receive payment. When my boss asked me to design her lookbook, I worked overtime for a month and created 5 different versions to accommodate her indecisiveness before she eventually settled on my original concept. I received no overtime pay, but got a credit on the end page that got cut. I quit after 8 months in the beginning of January 2015 when I came to work and found my boss sitting in an empty showroom with the lights out, her cheerful explanation being “the company is closed because I’m broke!” On my last day she asked if I could wait to pick up the money I was owed. I’m still waiting.

Next, I applied to a wanted ad for a “Photo Studio Receptionist/Intern” and was hired immediately. I felt relieved when I stepped into the photographer’s well-lit, well-organized Flatiron office decorated with high-gloss photographs of Coco Rocha and Lydia Hearst from his previous editorials. The terms of my employment were simple: cash and part-time hours, but within a week my new boss realized the potential for cheap skilled labor and demanded that I commit full-time, including availability on weekends, for $8/hour. I reluctantly agreed, emphasizing my need for a learning curve and a flexible schedule for part-time obligations, like writing this article. I was right to be cautious, as I found out when I renamed the wrong set of photos on my first day working full-time.

“I don’t need an employee who needs to be told every single thing what to do,” my boss lashed out. “Even a middle schooler can do this! If you need me to tell you everything, then you’re useless and I don’t need a useless person to be my employee.” I reminded him of the terms of my employment. He shot back telling me to grow a thicker skin and not to get so offended if I wanted to keep my job.

This proved harder than drowning cockroaches in bleach. Once calling a vendor “a nosy woman who should stay in the kitchen,” my boss routinely made misogynistic and racist comments in Korean. I was the only person who could understand him in the entire studio. He also took every chance to tell me to learn everything I could from my co-worker — whom I later learned was paid $15/hour — so I could replace him. He accomplished this mostly by breathing down the back of my neck and nudging me sharply whenever my co-worker was working on something.

His micromanaging soon turned personal: my boss took me location scouting in his vintage Jaguar and asked about my religion while playing non-stop Korean evangelical gospels in the car. When he noticed my wedding ring he asked what I cooked for my husband for dinner, then stated flatly that I was a bad Korean when the answer wasn’t “rice.” His obsession with my domestic skills was so twisted I literally had a fucking nightmare where I found him in my kitchen, giving me shit about the way I lived my life.

Finally, after getting a surprise promotion to “producer” and withstanding an excruciatingly mortifying tantrum from my boss because he didn’t like the list of all-new business contacts I had compiled, I gave my two-week’s notice at the end of the week. He literally thanked me for working for at least that much longer; then, the following Monday, he bluntly informed me to go home. But first, I was asked to update his new “wanted” ad to include all of the duties I had performed for him.

Since leaving the photo studio, I’ve started working as a nanny looking after two children: a boy and girl aged 7 and 6, respectively, on the Upper East Side. On my first day, the little girl looked me straight in the eye and called me sub-human “because Chinese people aren’t human” — twice. Her response to my chiding was a simple, “but I’m your boss.” Needless to say, my work experiences have prepared me well to deal with my new job.

In terms of my allegiance to America and Korea, I think this is what children of divorce must feel like, being forced to pick one over the other. But despite what some nativists have to say, I love this country. It’s my home now, where my husband and family and friends live. I’m not here to change The American Way of Life; I just want to help make it better. When my status gets adjusted I’m going to continue what I’m doing now, which is being an educated contributing member of society. I don’t think that America owes me anything, but I do think that being able to work for an employer at a fair rate agreed upon by both parties is a basic right, not just an American one. Isn’t that why we lose our shit over unpaid interns, as well as sweatshop labor (an industry with a largely immigrant workforce), in the first place? Sure, being a millennial in today’s economy sucks, but imagine how shittier it could be if you also happened to be undocumented.

Having worked both legally on OPT and illegally after getting married, I’d love to say that my immigration story is unique, but that’s obnoxious as fuck. Like my fluency in English, the opportunities that allowed me to finally settle in NYC have been the result of my parent’s hard work, lots of dumb luck and timing. So when I was asked to supplement my personal experiences as an undocumented worker with data, I was a little discouraged. I could tell you that, according to a report compiled by the New York Immigration Coalition: 51% of undocumented workers are paid less than minimum wage; 93% don’t receive overtime; and 43% experienced illegal retaliation for reporting workplace violations against their employers.

But what I couldn’t tell you, other than my own privileged experiences, are the dilemmas that these people struggle with daily in order to carve out a better future. Keeping a low profile is kind of the whole deal when working without status if you want to avoid getting imprisoned or deported, so unfortunately most of these stories remain unvoiced. Some may even say that these stories are worthless by virtue of the fact that these workers aren’t “American.” But that’s the point: these people aren’t evil villains or contraband, they’re just people following their American Dream™, in America, just like you and me.

(Illustrations: American-In-Training)