As a customer service supervisor for Delta Airlines, Carlos Garcia spends his day solving problems for airline passengers. They don’t know he spent most of his life living on the outskirts of American society as an undocumented immigrant. Garcia arrived in Atlanta with his parents at age 13, and as he grew older he wasn’t able to work, get a Georgia state driver’s license, or receive financial aid for college. Then in 2009, Garcia was held up at gunpoint at the check-cashing company where he worked. The event was terrifying, but, ironically, it changed Garcia’s life for the better. The experience qualified him for a U visa, which gives victims of violent crime the right to legally work in the United States.
Garcia, now in his mid-30s, has since applied for permanent residency. He hopes to attend college, study criminal justice, and work for the police. “I never have to work under the table and be overworked and underpaid,” says Garcia, who lives in Smyrna, Georgia. For this reason, he believes the United States should create a path to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants like him who came here as children. “When your parents bring you here as a child, you don’t have a choice in the matter,” he says. “You shouldn’t be penalized your entire life.”
The United States should also create a stricter screening system to weed out criminals and allow hardworking undocumented immigrants a chance to apply for legal residency and, eventually, citizenship. “It would be a win-win for everyone,” Garcia says, adding that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services could charge an application fee.
Such a program would have made life easier for his parents, who worked as undocumented immigrants for nearly two decades after arriving in Atlanta in 1996. His father maintained a golf course and his mother worked at a grocery store. Yet after his mother’s boss accused her of providing a fake Social Security number, his parents felt discouraged and decided to return to Mexico. “They said, ‘What’s the point of being here? We’ll never get ahead,’ ” Garcia recalls. About 10 years ago, they bought a taxicab and made a little transportation business in Tampico, Mexico. Garcia constantly worries about their safety because they have to give 5 to 10 percent of their earnings to local drug cartels who control the road.
When your parents bring you here as a child, you don’t have a choice in the matter. You shouldn’t be penalized your entire life.
Garcia experienced his own moment of desperation a few years ago, when he left the cash-checking business after being held-up and couldn’t find under-the-table work. He followed a friend’s advice to go to Canada. So Garcia retuned to Mexico and flew to Toronto—only to discover that his only option there was to apply for asylum. “I couldn’t do that,” he says. “My girlfriend and son were in another country.” So he flew back to Mexico, took a bus to the border, and crossed the Rio Grande in an inflatable boat with the help of coyotes, or human smugglers. “I was so scared. I was told the Mexican soldiers would shoot me if they spotted us,” he says. He eventually made his way to McAllen, Texas. In order not to raise suspicion, he flew to Albuquerque using a New Mexico driver’s license before returning home to Atlanta. Like many immigrants, he had applied for the New Mexico license because the state didn’t require undocumented immigrants to prove lawful residency status.
Garcia is grateful for the U visa he received four years ago, because it allowed him and his girlfriend to apply for legal residency. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is stay here,” he says. “I’m just like everyone else. I want to work and have a better life.”