Immigrants tell of life in the shadows

As a Brazilian child living in the United States with immigration papers, Bruno Torquato recalled, he had plenty of things to worry about. Alone in the house at night — his parents were always off working on one of the several jobs they held to keep the family’s head above water — Bruno feared cops as much as he did robbers.

“If I heard a noise in house at night, I had to run to the neighbors,” he said. “I couldn’t call somebody, I couldn’t call the police. We feared, constantly, being deported. We stayed away from the police.”

Even so, he added, Bruno — now 32 and a legal permanant resident of the United States — considered himself much luckier than a lot of the undocumented kids he hung around with. One, a Haitian, was arrested for something he didn’t do and pled guilty to avoid jail, only to be deported.

“They sent him back to a country he left at the age of 3,” Bruno recounted. “He doesn’t speak Creole…They just shipped him off, basically, to die.”

A crowd of about 100 people, including a handful of Broward County officials, listened raptly — and, in a few cases, tearfully — as Bruno told his story Wednesday night during a forum on immigration at the Fort Lauderdale library on Sunrise Boulevard.

He was one of eight immigants who shared chilling tales of how the lack of legal status left them vulnerable to criminal victimization and legal exploitation.

“It’s easy to dehumanize us when you only hear numbers and statistics,” said Alex Salgado, 25, a registered diet technician who was born in Honduras. “But I’m here to tell you there’s a story behind each number.”

In his case, it involves a single mom who “has been working at jobs most Americans overlook, at wages most people would consider offensive.” She eventually got them a temporary immigration status that allowed them to stay in the United States legally, and he earned a college degree.

But now the federal government seems poised to end the immigration program known as temporary protected status, sending Alex back to a country he left at age 3 — a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, a country he said terrifies him.

“Persecuting us won’t make this country great,” he said, pleadingly. “It won’t make your lives better in any way.”

But living in a legal twilight zone takes a staggering toll on undocumented immigrants, the panelists said as they described being victimized by everybody from exploitative landlords to familes who hire them as domestic help but cheat them on wages and working conditions under threat of reporting them to authorities.

Michelle Bart, whose parents illegally brought her to the United States when she was 5, said she didn’t even know she was an undocumented immigrant until her mother died when she was 16 and family friends told her the story.

She was able to gain temporary immigration status, Michelle said. But without, a series of catastrophic series of unlucky events in her life — homelessness, losing a job, being diagnosed with cancer — would surely have broken her.

And when she and her boyfriend were victims of a carjacking a few weeks ago, force of habit almost caused her to run when the police arrived, even though she no longer has to worry about deportation. That deeply ingrained fear of police among undocumented immigrants, Michelle said, makes everybody less safe.

“A lot of people in the undocumented community are witnesses to crime,” she said. “When these things happen, you’re going to want a witness, you’re going to want people to speak up.”

The county officials in the audience spoke with enormous sympathy for the immigrants’ plight. “The people who sat up here today awed me with their courage,” said Broward public defender Howard Finkelstein.

“And they moved my heart more than it’s ever been moved before…America needs them.”

But most of the officials also said there’s little they can do, since immigration policy is set by the federal government and most criminal statutes — which often ensnares undocumented immigrants in the legal system, where they’re discovered by federal authorities — are written by the state legislature, not county commissioners.

“The legislature does not march to the same drummer as Broward County,” said Ron Gunzburger, general counsel of the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

Follow Glenn Garvin on Twitter: @GlennGarvin