As part of her job cleaning the Superior Court in Providence, Angela de la Vega often imagined how hard it must be to be a judge. While she cleaned, she would pray for God to help the judges to be just. Yet de la Vega (not her real name) herself is now slated to appear in front of a judge at the end of the month. Her future is uncertain until then.
“I cleaned up a lot of bitten-off fingernails in [the court rooms],” says de la Vega. “And I imagined the people were biting their nails because they were nervous. And I thought, ‘I never want to be a part of this process.’ ”
De la Vega was swept up in the immigration process last week, along with nine other undocumented workers who cleaned the same court, some of whom are still in custody, and workers at five other Rhode Island courthouses.
The 45-year-old woman came to the US from Guatemala with a tourist visa six years ago after escaping from an abusive husband. She believes her husband is still looking for her, and that he would be happy to see her deported back to Guatemala, because he would be able “to see me down again.”
Moving to the US meant freedom for de la Vega, even though she was working low-wage jobs. She had been working part-time at the Superior Court for a month, starting at Rhode Island’s minimum wage, $7.40 an hour. De la Vega has reiterated the message of many of the detained workers: that documented workers might not be willing to clean toilets for $7.40 an hour.
“Now there isn’t going to be anyone working [at the Court],” says de la Vega. “No one with papers is going to do this work. Because, with papers, you can find something for $8 or $8.50 an hour.”
When many cleaning workers failed to show up for work after the raids last week, it became evident that businesses and government in Rhode Island partially rely on cheap labor supplied by workers like de la Vega, even as public opinion condemns them for entering the country illegally.
De la Vega is well aware of these opinions, and she says she knows she did something wrong. But she still cries when she remembers being shackled and treated “like the worst criminal,” and she insists that she never lied about her name and did not use false documentation. “If I lied, it would have dug the hole deeper,” she says, noting that other work-ers used false names and documents because they feared being discovered.
Next week, de la Vega will appear before a Massachusetts judge. Her hope is that she will have the chance to tell the judge how much she has been through, so that the judge might grant her permission to work in the US.
“If they don’t want me to keep living here,” says de la Vega, “I am going to beg, ‘Send me to Europe, send me to Spain, send me to China, but don’t send me back to Guate-mala.’ ”