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The lonely, illegal world of 'Mr. Cheng'

Like thousands of others, he wants to work. But he has to hide under Immigration's radar.

An illegal immigrant worker stands in the middle of his South Philadelphia street.  (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
An illegal immigrant worker stands in the middle of his South Philadelphia street. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)Read more

AT 4:15 A.M., "Mr. Cheng" gets a call on his cell phone, signaling him to head outside to the light-blue van that will take him and other illegal workers to a mail-packaging factory in Montgomery County, to jobs that pay just above the minimum wage.

It's dark and quiet on the streets of South Philly as the van drives around, picking up other workers, who greet each other in Indonesian. Cheng is ethnically Chinese, but was born in Indonesia and lived there until he came to the United States about eight years ago.

"I was dreaming of a better life," he says, when asked why he came here - and stayed.

Cheng (not his real name) is one of the estimated 103,000 illegal immigrants living in Philadelphia and its four suburban counties - who often live in the shadows, working low-paid jobs, with the fear of deportation as they try to make a way for themselves here.

This is his story - an inside glimpse into how one illegal immigrant has been surviving in the city.

In some ways, Cheng's life rings with a sense of normalcy - he works five, sometimes six, days a week, has learned to navigate parts of the city, has friends among the immigrant population and likes reading news and surfing the Internet.

In other ways, his life is anything but normal.

In the past six years, he's had about 15 jobs, lived in about 10 places, has been laid off numerous times and has no medical insurance. Daily, he fears that he will be discovered and deported. He has not seen his wife and daughter since 2002, when he left Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, and has no idea when he will.

Sitting in the kitchen of a South Philadelphia rowhouse that he shares with three other adults - all illegal immigrants - Cheng, 44, recently explained how he makes it.

He lives comfortably because he lives simply. His latest job, in the beauty-supply industry, pays his $230-per-month rent, which includes utilities. He has a room in the basement and shares the kitchen and the living room, sparsely furnished with a worn brown rug and no sofa.

His bedroom, with its 6-foot-high ceiling, is a small space with a narrow, frosted-glass window that looks out onto the concrete side of another house, and has just enough room for a twin bed, a desk, two chairs and a clothes rack.

He stores clothes in plastic bins that he found on the sidewalk - someone else's garbage.

"The Americans, when they buy things, they don't keep them very long," he said, in one of a series of interviews over the past couple of years. "So many things we can use from the street. I thought, why not? We still can use them."

He keeps cards with inspiring sayings and posts them in his room. One, which arrived in a piece of junk mail, quotes Aesop: "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted."

South Philadelphia and the Point Breeze neighborhoods have grown to accommodate their bustling immigrant population. Indonesian grocery stores and restaurants have sprouted up, serving beef stew, chicken satay and spicy tofu.

Temporary-employment agencies - serving as middlemen - help immigrants obtain jobs in factories and warehouses.

St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church offers English-as-a-second-language classes and has Masses in Spanish, Vietnamese and Indonesian.

Stores catering to immigrants have set up wire-transfer services so that people like Cheng can send money back home. Cheng sends about $700 to $800 a month to his wife and daughter in Jakarta.

Cheng hasn't had any serious health problems. He has been able to get free checkups at a city health center. But this will change soon. The city's Board of Health in September approved a fee system, in which the uninsured will have to fork over anywhere from $5 to $20 a visit.

Pursuing a better life

Many illegal immigrants overstay a tourist visa to the United States. Cheng overstayed a business visa.

In Indonesia, he had worked for a chain of department stores, importing merchandise from China, until he was laid off as part of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. For the next few years, he did "anything I can to earn a living," such as teaching English and trying to set up his own business.

In May 1998, he, like hundreds of ethnic Chinese people living in Indonesia, was brutally assaulted in Jakarta, targeted because of his ethnicity. An estimated 1,200 people were killed.

Cheng had been riding his motorbike when "I saw smoke everywhere" and a "few people pushed me off" the bike and attacked him with a sword, he said.

"They try to kill me," he said. "I was one of the victims. I was lucky I am alive."

In hopes of pursuing a better life, he made plans to come to the United States. His wife and daughter agreed that he would go first, then try to bring them here.

He bought a round-trip ticket and flew to California in 2002. "If you only have one-way ticket, they will be suspicious," he said of U.S. officials. "I also booked a hotel in Los Angeles."

After spending about a year-and-a-half in L.A., where he worked some, but couldn't secure a work permit, he met someone who told him about the possibility of jobs in Baltimore.

He flew to Baltimore, where he spent three weeks. While there, he found out about rooms for rent in Philadelphia. He didn't know anyone here, but boarded a Greyhound bus in 2003 and has been living in the city since then.

Cheng has applied for political asylum. It has most recently been denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in California, which found that the injury he suffered during the May 1998 riots did not necessarily amount to persecution.

The court also found that because his family has continued to live unharmed in Indonesia, Cheng's "fear of future persecution is not objectively reasonable."

Life in the shadows

It was an April 2007 day when Cheng got the 4:15 a.m. cell-phone call from an employment-agency worker, who drove him and others to a mail-packaging company in Montgomery County. This reporter furtively accompanied him and also worked for the day.

He arrived with 10 others at the warehouse as the light began to break, as birds began chirping. Inside the plain building, on a flat, green campus, the workers punched in time cards, but didn't have to show ID.

They were given various work duties. Some were assigned to mail- insertion machines, which inserted pieces of paper in envelopes.

The machines glued and sealed the envelopes, then sent them on conveyor belts to workers who packaged and rubber-banded them by ZIP code and put the packets onto orange pallets.

Cheng used a handtruck to move the pallets away from the work stations when they were full and to put new pallets in their place. He also opened wooden boxes containing the junk-mail inserts.

The workers did these simple, rote jobs all day long.

There were no windows in the warehouse. Sunshine streamed through an open garage door at the far end of the room.

The big, open warehouse smelled of wood - wooden boxes, wooden pallets. There were stacks of paper everywhere - so many pieces of paper to be inserted into so many envelopes to be mailed to so many addresses.

Cheng said that he and other immigrants call this type of work "paper." When they aren't needed anymore, the agency middleman will tell them to "stay home," meaning they've been laid off.

They got two 10-minute breaks, the latter for lunch. They could use the bathrooms when needed.

In the van ride back home, with the hot sun filtering through the windows, some people fell asleep. Others checked their cell phones. A few chatted in Indonesian.

The driver, who also worked in the factory, brought the laborers back to South Philly about 3:15 p.m. On the bustling streets, parents picked up their schoolchildren. It was like any normal day.

Cheng was later paid in cash by the agency - $7 an hour at the time, or just above the minimum wage, which translated to $56 a day or $280 a week.

No taxes were taken out.

About a month later, Cheng got laid off from that job. He then worked at a factory in Bucks County assembling electrical transformers.

In an October 2007 e-mail, he expressed how he wanted to get a job in a deli, store or dry cleaner's, so that he wouldn't have to commute to a factory in a van:

"Two weeks ago two vans carrying workers were stopped by the [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency] on the way to work and all the 25 passengers were arrested and sent to immigration jails in Texas. I know many of the workers because I used to work with them for almost three years.

"I am lucky I quitted from that company a year ago, otherwise I will be in Texas now! There have been several house raids in South Philly as well, and now I would not respond to the knocks on the door without any phone calls.

"Sooner or later, I will have to leave this country but I do not want to board the plane with both hands chained."

He now works for a company that supplies beauty products to salons. He makes just below the minimum wage.

"I appreciate I have a job," he said in a recent interview. "I realize millions of Americans are unemployed."

"My last hope to be able to stay legally here," he wrote in a recent e-mail, "is waiting for [President Obama's] immigration reform. . . . Otherwise, I will face the reality that the American people do not think I am a [worthy] individual to be given the opportunities contributing to" society.