Editor's note: First Person is a series of commentaries that gives voice to those not commonly heard in Atlanta media. In this instance, the subject's real name has been changed for his protection.
Just before the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Juan left Mexico City with his wife and daughter, illegally entered the United States, and joined the estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants in Georgia. For six years, the family lived in metro Atlanta in fear of being deported before Juan paid an American woman $5,000 to marry him so he could get a green card. He now runs his own construction business.
I don't know if you remember, but in 1994 there was a big depression in Mexico City. We didn't have work. We had nothing. My friend was working over here and told me there were lots of opportunities. So I decided the following year to come.
We paid approximately $1,000 to a guide at the border to help us cross. Crossing the river was very dangerous. It was 5 feet deep in some places. Sometimes you couldn't touch the bottom and had to follow the guide very well. In one hand, I held my wife and my clothes. The guide was holding my daughter, who was 5 years old at the time. At one point, the guide suddenly fell [but regained his footing]. You can think about the desperation. That was the worst day of my life.
When we arrived in the United States, someone was waiting. We stayed in McAllen, Texas, for two weeks. And then, for four days we walked across the desert. I used to have marks on my feet and couldn't work for a while it was so bad. I still have the scars. [Shows his feet] All this with blood.
At one point, I was even trying to find immigration officers or the police — someone — to ask, "Hello, take me back to my country." But we couldn't find anybody. Then we arrived in Houston. There was a house where we could shower and rest. And then I took the bus to Atlanta.
Before the Olympic games, it was really busy in metro Atlanta. We found work cutting trees, painting, plumbing. In the construction industry, you could find work everywhere. I used to leave a job if I didn't like it and the next day I'd do something else. For 12 years I had steady work.
When contractors see you don't speak English, they take advantage. When I didn't speak English or know the law, they took advantage. They didn't pay me. I tried to call them, but I couldn't talk back because I didn't speak English. I'd show up to get paid and they'd say, "Who are you?"
I used to wait in the gas stations and corners. Somebody would come and say, "I need six guys." Some people are nice. They buy lunch for you. But some people — just forget about it. They don't pay.
Nine years ago, I started my own [drywall] company. Now I work for myself and have people working under me. I hire people who want to work, legal or illegal. I used to be undocumented and was hired by American people. Now I'm documented and hiring Americans.
A couple of years ago, people didn't care if you were Latino. Nobody said anything. Now, people are starting to look at you again. Now you don't feel comfortable. When my kids were speaking Spanish, people look back. I feel bad. I know this is not my country, but I came to live here. I try to pay my taxes like everyone else. I have a dream like everybody. I came here for my kids, not for me.
In 2002, I paid $5,000 to marry someone for a green card. Five thousand dollars is nothing. Some people were paying $10,000 for driver's licenses. I bought a fake social security card in Chamblee so I could get work.
I always lived with my real wife. I just married for the papers. Then I lost contact with the woman who helped me get my papers. I need to find her because I must renew my green card soon or else I will lose it. But I don't know how.
My wife is currently undocumented. Every single day I'm afraid she'll be stopped by the police. And my daughter, who's now 22, she doesn't have papers. I brought her here when she was 5. She could be pulled over and deported, but she belongs to this country. She doesn't speak Spanish. What is she going to do in Mexico?
My workers have been deported. When the younger brother of my daughter's boyfriend was 11 months old, he was kidnapped and brought to the U.S. by their father. Two years ago, police stopped the father for driving without a license and deported him. The same thing happened to the boyfriend. So we took the little brother in until we found his mother in Mexico.
I came here because I never had the opportunity in Mexico to build a company like I have now. Right here are a lot of opportunities. If you've got a dream, you can make it come true. You can't in Mexico. First of all, you have to have a degree, which is only for the rich people. I couldn't get into the military or school because my mother was poor. I like karate, but I couldn't get my black belt there because you have to pay. I like soccer, but I couldn't be a pro player there because you have to pay. Here, you don't have to pay to be successful. If you're good, you can do it. That's the difference. Here, you can have school free. In Mexico, they don't care about you.
Nobody [in Mexico] can pay to go through the immigration process. In order to get a visa, you have to have property and money in the bank. You have to have a degree. How can you do that if you're poor? The rich people aren't going to come here and work in the fields or do painting. It's the poor people who want to live here. When you have to cross illegally, there's a problem.
This is my home. I'm going to die here. I was talking with my wife and son. I told them I'm going to do everything I can to make a better life for you, a better life than I had.
My dream is for my family to be Americans and part of the community. For it to be OK for them to live here and work here. And to live well. My dream is to be an American, too.
— As told to Joeff Davis