After Frans and his wife came to Philadelphia from Indonesia in the mid-2000s, they lived in fear that their young son would accidentally spill the family secret and get them all deported:
They were in the United States illegally.
“We always told our son, no matter how close you are, you do not share anything,” said Frans, who is in his 50s and asked that his full name not be published. “You cannot open the door to whoever rings our bell or talk to any strangers.”
The couple abandoned an upscale life in their homeland to move into the shadows here, trading a big house and a thriving lending business for a rented home and low, off-the-books wages at a beauty-supply shop. Their sole motivation was to propel their son toward a top education at a competitive American college.
A decade later he’s nearing graduation. And now a dream just as big could be possible, as President Joe Biden submits groundbreaking legislation that would offer Frans and 11 million other undocumented migrants in this country a path to U.S. citizenship.
It’s a dramatic change of direction, opposite that set by former President Donald Trump, who based much of his presidency on attacking immigrants. It’s uncertain if Congress will approve Biden’s plan, despite slim Democratic majorities in both chambers. And the route to citizenship will not be easy or quick.
Biden wants to first let people apply for temporary legal status. Five years later, they could get green cards, provided they pay their taxes and pass criminal- and national-security background checks. Then, after three more years and additional checks, those with green cards could apply to become citizens.
“It’s life-changing,” said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Pennsylvania State University, and not just for individuals but for the country.
The DACA program offers a small preview, she said. Allowing those who were brought here as children to legally stay and work has fostered thousands of productive lives that benefit the nation — including as frontline doctors and nurses during the coronavirus pandemic.
The specific language in Biden’s bill will be crucial, Wadhia said, so that people feel comfortable revealing themselves to undergo background investigations.
People come to the United States without permission in different ways for different reasons, but jobs, better lives for their children, and safety from criminal gangs are drivers. Many make dangerous desert treks from Mexico, the nation that accounts for about half of all undocumented. Others fly into American airports holding legal visas, but stay after they’re supposed to go home.
That 11 million is down from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center and others. One reason the total has remained relatively stable is because of stringent U.S. policies — migrants can’t easily leave and return, so they stay. Another is that they live American lives.
People may think of undocumented migrants as separate from society, the “illegals” that the Trump administration routinely denounced, but their lives are intermeshed with those of their neighbors.
About 1.6 million undocumented people are married to U.S. citizens, and an additional 675,000 are wed to lawful permanent residents, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. About 4.4 million U.S.-citizen children have at least one undocumented parent.
More than a third of all undocumented speak only English or speak it very well. And, again defying stereotypes, many are well-educated. About 20% have a four-year college degree, compared with one-third of the overall U.S. population, MPI found. Sixty percent have lived in the United States for at least a decade.
One commonality: To be undocumented is to live a life of risk and uncertainty, where any contact with officials — a simple police traffic stop — threatens discovery and deportation.
Undocumented migrants can’t legally work, except under certain programs. That limits job prospects and opens them to abuse from employers. They can’t vote, can’t legally drive in most states. They’re ineligible for most government benefits, for health insurance, and, in most places, for a loan to go to college.
Yet many say their choice to come here was no choice at all: Stay in their homeland to watch their family suffer or be victimized, or take a chance on a better life.
“It’s opportunity — opportunity that’s not available in my country,” said an undocumented Jamaican woman in her 30s, who came to Philadelphia with her child under a legal visa, but won’t be going back. “I want to be able to give my daughter those opportunities. … This is the land where the possibilities are endless, as long as you work hard.”
She came here about two years ago as violent crime ran rampant in Jamaica, the U.S. State Department warning potential travelers that armed robberies, sexual assaults, and homicides were common.
In the city, she worked at a restaurant, where she said she was poorly paid and badly treated, and now earns money doing graphic design. Her daughter, about 10, doesn’t really understand the complications, the ever-present fear of being found out. Or that now there’s a sudden hope of citizenship.
“I want her to focus on school,” she said. “Let me do all the worrying for us. I’m still able to make ends meet. She can eat. She has a roof over her head. I’m hopeful that God is going to find a way, or send me an angel, or send us Joe Biden to make things more transparent and easier for everybody.”
Some Americans blame undocumented people for their own predicaments, arguing they should go home if conditions here are difficult, or else should “get in line” to become a citizen.
But immigration to the United States generally is limited to three routes: employment, family reunification, or humanitarian protection. Each is highly regulated. Immigrants who leave the United States and try to reenter legally can be banned for 10 years.
“I will live in the place where my children are safe,” said Murcia, an undocumented, 30-something Honduran woman who asked to be identified only by her last name.
She never intended to come to the United States. But her homeland had become dangerous. Most of all, she was distraught after the death of her infant daughter.
When her partner planned to go north, she went with him, traveling by bus, car, boat, and foot to Texas and then to Philadelphia around 2010.
Together they care for her teenage son, who is here legally, and for two younger sons who are American citizens by birth. She has a part-time job and he works fixing mechanical systems.
“You come to the United States and you work in whatever you can,” Murcia said. “If you have to clean bathrooms, you clean them.”
She constantly worries that a random brush against law enforcement will bring immigration authorities to her door. Citizenship would change all that.
“I ask myself, if tomorrow I am detained by Immigration, what will happen to my children?” she said. “If I had the citizenship, that would be the most important thing, not to be separated from my children.”
Philadelphia is home to about 50,000 undocumented, roughly one of every four foreign-born residents, according to Pew. Compared with four other large, Northeast cities — Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Washington — Philadelphia’s population ranked second, more than the 35,000 of Boston and fewer than the 525,000 of New York, Pew found.
“Philadelphia is a welcoming city, and we will continue protecting our most vulnerable residents and fighting for their rights and their families,” Mayor Jim Kenney said last week.
He said the Biden administration is “quickly replacing the cruelty and the chaos that Trump is leaving behind with a commitment to modernize our immigration system,” and that providing 50,000 Philadelphians a path to legality would keep families together, help them obtain quality jobs, and improve the region’s economy.
Kenney’s team fought and won a major “sanctuary city” lawsuit against the Trump administration in 2018, securing the right to treat undocumented and documented people the same when they come into contact with the justice system. Trump sought to withhold grant money to force the city to actively help federal authorities in identifying and turning over undocumented migrants, while the city insisted the Police Department was not an arm of immigration enforcement.
“The American ideal is anchored in the notion that every individual is an equal citizen,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigrant group in Washington. “The idea of 11 million enjoying the rights of citizenship is [striking] a real blow for equality, a real blow for justice.”
Frans earned a college degree in Indonesia, where he and his wife had a big home with three live-in maids. A rental-car business supplemented his lending company. But for them their son’s education was everything, and they told him that “once you get the diploma from a U.S. college, you can work anywhere.”
In that way, Frans said, the sacrifice was worth it.
Still, he dearly hopes Biden’s plan will succeed and he can become a citizen.
He wants to start his own business, to be back running a company and creating jobs. He wants to buy a house with a nice yard. Most of all, he wants to purchase health insurance.
He and his family go to city public health centers for medical treatment. The workers are wonderful — skilled and kind, he said. But going there makes him feel as if he’s taking something for free.
“It makes me feel guilty,” Frans said. “I don’t want to depend on them. I want to live the way Americans do.”