Here for Work, Immigrants Face Violence
Friday is payday for many New Bedford businesses. That makes for a bustling Acushnet Avenue with money-sending shops on nearly every block. Transportes Vasquez sends money and other goods from immigrants in New Bedford to their homes in Guatemala. The owner, Luis Vasquez says on average, 500 people come by to send money every weekend.
You can tell it’s a business for new immigrants – work boots for sale line the floor. New blankets and suitcases are piled in the middle of the shop. The back wall is covered with calling cards. Luis walks around the shop trying to get people to talk to me, but no one is willing. And it’s not that surprising. Everyone is Guatemalan, and many speak their native Mayan language better than Spanish. They come from a country with a history of violence against them, accompanied by distrust in authority. Luis’s dad, Leonel Vasquez usually works the cash register behind a sheet of plexiglass with just a small hole to pass money through. A lot of money. In 2012, $4.4 billion dollars was sent from the U.S. to Guatemala. At this tiny shop, it happens a couple hundred dollars at a time. This is why they come here, why they leave their families at home for years at a time.
Owner, Luis Vasquez says he sees a black eye almost every weekend – victims of violent crimes. The immigrants are commonly called “Walking ATM’s.” They’re known for walking around with cash because they often don’t have bank accounts and sometimes they’re paid under the table.
Jose used to come to a shop like this to send money, back when he was working. He asked me not to use his last name because he feels at risk sharing his story. He’s already been victimized, and he worries it could happen again. On April 19th, 2013 Jose was attacked while biking home from a neighborhood store. It was dark, around 6:30 he tells me.
“I stopped because there was a stop sign. I looked both ways and there was nobody. I kept going on the bike when I heard a man say something in English. Give me money now, he said. I heard that. And then he attacked me.”
Jose felt a sharp pain in his left side and fell off his bike. As soon as he looked up from where he'd fallen, the man had gone. He didn't even steal Jose's wallet or phone. Jose had been stabbed with something. There was blood everywhere, he tells me. He called the police and ended up in the hospital. A year later, he’s still left with a shooting pain. He lifts up his shirt in the back to show me his scar. It’s about the size of a matchbook, half way up the left side of his back. His doctor tells him it’s permanent nerve damage. And the worst part of all of this – he can’t work because of the pain.
Sending money back to Guatemala is the whole reason Jose came to America, the reason he traveled across the border, to pay for his kids to go to school back home – all six of them. He’s 51 years old now, and he holds back tears as we sit in the living room. It’s also his bedroom. Across the room from his blow up mattress is a small bulletin board nailed to the wall. It’s covered with photos of his family. He points out the photos of his wife, his kids and the grandkids he hasn’t met yet.
Jose’s story is not unique. Corinn Williams of the Community Economic Development Center says she usually sees an immigrant victim of a crime or robbery once a week. And many of these people only want to report the crime to her. They’re afraid to talk to the police since many are here illegally, including Jose.
Having a bank account can help with their vulnerability, she says. Some banks will accept a foreign passport and driver’s license to open an account, but others will also ask for valid work authorization or a visa, making unauthorized immigrants ineligible to apply. There’s also a fear of government and many see banks as part of a greater institution that doesn’t want them here. So, they carry cash until they can spend it or send it home.
According to the New Bedford police department, a quarter of the reported crimes in the city last year were against people of Hispanic origin. Chief of Police, David Provencher says he knows there are also crimes that he never hears about.
“I don’t give a damn about how you got here or why you’re here,” he said in an interview in his New Bedford office. “If you follow the law and you need my help, I’m going to provide for it. My job is public safety. It’s that simple.”
Provencher says the police department has taken steps to increase the number of bilingual officers on the street. They’ve also attended community meetings organized by the City’s Human Relations Commission and local non-profits in an effort to curb the violence. But Provencher says these meetings haven’t led to any concrete changes yet. Local advocates have pushed for other ways to address the violence – city buses could run later at night, employers could provide transportation for their employees to and from work. There’s been some positive response to these ideas, but change is slow to come.
Back in his apartment, Jose says he thinks about going back to Guatemala every day, especially now. He misses his family. But as a victim of a crime here, he’s eligible for a special visa called a U-visa, but that could take another year or so to come through and then many more for him to apply to bring his family to New Bedford. He only came here to work and now he can’t. So for now, he’s just waiting.