There are an estimated 86,000 people living in Wisconsin without permanent legal status. In our series, Living Undocumented In Wisconsin, we bring you the story of a man who's just established his own business and says he's here to stay.
Meet Jose Flores.
Jose was 19 when he came to the United States from Mexico 22 years ago. For 18 of those years, he worked for a Waukesha company as a painter. Jose says he often experienced racism from his coworkers.
"Hey guys, shut the f*** up. This country is USA, you have to speak English. If you want to speak Spanish ,go back to Mexico," he quotes his coworkers.
Even though many people told him to report this treatment to his boss, Jose said he didn’t want to cause problems for the company. Also, the manager would threaten Jose and other undocumented workers about their illegal status.
“Decía que si no hacíamos bien las cosas. Si no llegas temprano, si no haces esto si no te apuras, si duras mucho en el bano. Yo voy a hablar con los patrones que usted son indocumentados y los van a correr de aquí porque a mi se me hace caso,” he says.
Jose says the manager told workers if they didn't do things right, arrive early, or even if they took too long in the bathroom, he would tell the employers that they were undocumented and they’d lose their jobs.
Jose never spoke out, until one day. A new person started working there. A young guy with no experience. Jose helped him out and trained him. Through that mentorship, Jose learned that the new guy was making $16 an hour. This shocked Jose because he had been there for years and was only making $9 an hour.
He decided to ask for a raise.
“Digo necesito que me paguen más y me dice 'okay, muéstrame documentos que estas legal',” Jose says.
He said the manager told him that they could only give him a raise if he showed documents proving his legal status. Jose had been working there for over a decade at this point, and they had never asked him for papers before. He saw this as a way to intimidate him and he said this was the last straw. He wanted a job with dignity.
“Ya tiene nombre se llama Tacos Tutis,” he says.
You read that right. Tacos Tutis. That’s Jose’s new business. For years Jose had been making tacos. At first it was just for birthday parties, but then it quickly turned into a side hustle and the whole family got involved.
“Yo les dice usted saben que? Asi es como se gana el dinero. Y tienen que usted ponerse las pilas para que vean si quieren algo, van a trabajar y aqui lo van a sacar,” Jose says.
He’d tell his kids, “You know what? This is how you earn money.” He uses a very Spanish expression, ponerse las pilas, which literally translates to “put one’s batteries on” and means to get your act together, to get to work.
“No puedes hacer eso porque tienes que tener papeles tienes que tener un seguro social,” Jose says.
But in the beginning it was hard. He was told by many people: “You can’t do this. You’re undocumented. You need a social security number.”
But here’s the deal: U.S. immigration law actually does not say whether an undocumented immigrant is barred from owning a business. Of course, the law is very clear that being in the U.S. without permission is illegal. That is punishable by deportation and being undocumented can impact a person’s ability to access things like credit and insurance.
But these barriers were not insurmountable to Jose.
“No es un impedimento no tener papeles en este pais. Lo mas importante es tener fe y las ganas de trabajar y eso de que no puedes tener un negocio porque no tienes papeles. Es una mentira. Es una mentira,” he says.
He says it’s not an impediment to be undocumented in this country. The most important thing you need is faith and the will to work. And the idea that you can’t have a business because you are undocumented is a lie. Eventually, Jose saved up enough money to buy his own taco truck.
“Para mi es libertad. Es una nueva vida que voy empezar,” Jose says.
For Jose, becoming an entrepreneur was the beginning of his emancipation in this country. Now he has more time, and has become more involved with his kids — like becoming a chaperone at his daughter’s school and the assistant coach for his son’s soccer team.
He says that even though he’s undocumented. He’s not going anywhere. You might see his truck in the early days of spring out in the city of Waukesha.
Editor's note: We left the quotes in the person's native language, with rough translations following the quotes.