Time to Breathe (Confessions of an Alien) #14

Beyond Deadlines is proud to serialize Mr. Romy Morales’ first book “Time to Breathe (Confessions of an Alien).” It is a personal account of a Filipino immigrant in the United States. It is a must read for those who wish to migrate to the U.S. Come let us join Romy in his journey and see what is in store for us.

(14th installment)

CHAPTER 13

It was my first day with the law firm of Jonathan Crisologo. The office is basically an immigration firm, although once in a while it handles personal injury, bankruptcy, divorce, and loan mortgage cases.

Crisologo is relatively new in the industry, having passed the bar two years ago. He still feels his way around, focusing on cases that doesn’t require much court appearances.

Immigration is paper work oriented and when court appearances become inevitable, he always sent a lawyer for hire in his stead. He could appear in court if he so desires – with his six-foot frame, good physique, handsome face and a deep-baritone voice, all of these working in his favor as an intimidating figure in court – but for whatever reason, he always keep a low-key perch.

After having been briefed about my job, Crisologo handed some letters to be mailed to the INS. He also asked me to write cover letters, organize the files, which was a mess; and prepare summaries for some of the active cases.

You’ll like it here. When you have fully adjusted, you could even do notary to increase your income, although you’d have to pass the exam first,” he said.

I signed up with him for my vehicular injury claim. For the medical treatment, he told me to see Dr. Odette Yu.

You don’t have to spend anything on this. This is a no recovery—no fee agreement. Whatever amount you’ll get, it will be divided among the three of us—the doctor, me and you,” he explained.

* * *

Dr. Yu’s clinic was a block away from 3rd Street in the Koreatown but most of her clients were Latinos. She spoke their language. Of course, she also had Korean patients and some Filipinos, who sought her, too. She was a general practitioner with pediatrics as her specialization which makes me wonder how a pediatrician could be treating personal injuries.

She took my BP, a normal procedure, then she raised my affected right arm, moved it up and down, and rotated it.

Does it hurt?” she asked.

A little.”

She pressed her fingers on my shoulder.

Does it hurt?”

Not much.”

The muscles in your shoulder are too stiff. Does it hurt?”

Nope.”

She noticed I was having dry cough. I’d had it almost a week, since the morning after the cold evening when I accompanied Charlie to his car on the street. I caught the bug but Charlie didn’t, who was wearing only a T-shirt then.

Dr. Yu handed some tablets.

These are $2 each, but I’m giving them to you free. Don’t tell anybody.”

She also gave tablets for pain to relieve the discomfort in my right arm.

Her medical assistant, a Filipina, treated my right arm with a muscle stimulator, the Chronosonomic ultrasound, a heat-wave device that was pressed onto the skin. By moving the stimulator repeatedly over the affected area, the heat wave went through my skin.

The ultrasound machine produced heat waves of about 117 watts. After the ultrasound treatment, she placed a hot-compressed towel on my arms and on the right side of my back where I complained of pain.

You have to come here every day for two weeks for continuous treatment,” the medical assistant said.

I don’t think that was necessary, the pain is not really that bad.

* * *

After the accident, there was pain in my right arm and knee, the parts that got hit when the car crashed into the side of the SUV. But the pain had subsided.

Since I was filing an injury claim, I was told the medical visits had to be substantiated. That’s how people make money—in insurance, litigation, accidents, and so on. Many things have to be settled in court. Now, I know why America’s other name is “Sue.”

Filipinos call this particular therapy treatment “pera fee” meaning money derived from undergoing medical treatment, which actually could be done away with if not for the claim that was being made.

Now, I remember the Spanish-speaking guy, who gave me a card and said after the accident that I could get money.

* * *

It was seven in the evening when I came back to the Eagle Rock Boulevard from the clinic. I took a cup of coffee at Vinnies Donut to while away the time. Two-and- a-half-hours later, Apple came by. I was sitting on a plastic chair outside the doughnut store. It was cold, really cold that night. I raised the hood of my jacket preventing the cold wind from hitting my head as I still have the cold bug. I am suffering due to the cold.

Don’t stay there, you’ll get sick,” Apple said while making his way to the doughnut store.

I followed him. He ordered me another cup of coffee. As we settled down on one of the tables, he shoved a USD$20 bill to me.

I promise I will not let you down.”

Since I had been out of work, Apple had already given me USD$36 in all. Every time we came together, he would shell out a few bucks from his not-so-deep pocket.

Count them as blessings.” We talked mostly of nothing significant. We were there just to meet and talk. Before he left, he hollered, “I’ll see you again.”

It was thirty minutes past ten when the Vietnamese owner of Vinnies Donut announced she is closing. I was the only one inside the store waiting for nothing. I started walking home.

It was foggy and the fog is so dense. Had it not been for the lighted posts on the streets, the entire length of Eagle Rock Boulevard would have been in darkness. Road visibility is almost zero.

* * *

A week quickly passed and Crisologo and his wife were to go on a two-week vacation to the Philippines.

Crisologo is from Vigan, a town in Ilocos Sur province in northern Philippines where his family name is identified with the town. Just mention Vigan to old timers and surely the Crisologo’s will come to mind. It is as if Vigan and Crisologo are identical twins.

Crisologo is a member of the Crisologo political dynasty and it won’t be surprising that if in the not so distant future he makes good in his law practice here in the US., he would throw his hat in the political arena of Vigan.

As the folks from the Philippine north, especially Ilocanos, are known to be tightwads, Crisologo could easily save a fortune to finance his splurge on the political arena.

Crisologo is confident he could entrust the office to me even though I had been with him for only a week.

I’ll try to call you to determine whether there are pressing problems that need my attention.”

He handed me USD$250.

I know you will need this while I’m away, this will take care of your two weeks’ salary. Should you decide to go back to Arizona to work with Desmond, just leave the keys. If you stick with me, we’ll do something about your papers when I come back.”

* * *

One cold evening, I walked all the way to St. Dominic’s Parish Church, some 12 or 13 blocks from where I live. I didn’t mind the cold the night for I want to go to church. I had gone to this church on several occasions before and always find it closed, probably because I come at the wrong time.

When there is no mass or any kind of activity inside the church, it is usually closed.

When I arrived, thinking it is closed, I stayed by the side door to pray, as I had done many times before. But this time, I am lucky. There are people in the church. It is a Wednesday and the parish priest is at the confessional and the choir members are there rehearsing. I settled myself in the last pew and looked up to an image of the crucified Christ.

Tears began rolling down my face as I pray. I tried to wipe the tears but I found myself weeping profusely that I just let go.

At that moment, I went into self-pity. I felt so sorry for myself. At my age, I couldn’t believe I am still struggling the way I did when I was young and this time I was doing it while alone in a foreign country.

I gave up my job, left my family hoping I could have a better paying job with American firms. However, with no legal work papers, I instead landed working for unscrupulous employers, who in a way gave me a chance but at the same time took advantage of my helplessness giving me only meager pay with no overtime and holiday pay, or even a holiday off. I have no medical insurance or any other benefits.

The sad truth is that it would almost take a miracle to find an employer who wouldn’t take advantage of an undocumented migrant.

Take the case of a girl from Cebu, who came in 1967 on a diplomatic passport, only to find herself abused and treated like a slave in the residence of her supposed benefactor, a Commercial Attaché, who was newly posted in the Philippine Consulate in Los Angeles and later transferred to Chicago.

The Commercial Attaché was responsible for bringing her here in the United States. She was loaded in a ship together with the Commercial Attaché’s personal belongings.

The young lass, who was only 14 years old then, had virtually been robbed of her childhood when she was made to work as domestic helper for a USD$10 a month pittance pay. She received that wage for seven agonizing years. She was not given any day off nor was she allowed to make friends with their neighbors or even go out with her employers.

She was kept in the house and sometimes moved from one prominent family to another to serve them as their domestic helper.

In trying to ingratiate himself to the child so she would not leave or escape, the Filipino government official who is from the Philippine province of Bulacan had inculcated in the innocent mind of his captive house help that had it not been for him, she would have not made it to America.

When she had mustered enough courage to free herself from enslavement, she made her move, eloped with a Puerto Rican guy, only to find herself more in a losing end—used and abused again.

* * *

Relaying the tragic experience of my own people to a Vietnamese lady friend, she told me some of her countrymen had also undergone an almost similar experience. And this saddened me further. With problems high above my neck, one could only hope to turn to family or relatives for help but I didn’t think of going to them even if I had one or two relatives in another state. Instead, I sought my friends.

It has been the experience of many who have been here for some time that it is better to turn to friends rather than to family or relatives. Most of my friends were newfound friends yet surprisingly, they never let me down. It was they who helped me get through, especially when problems seemed insurmountable. If not for their kindness and understanding, I would have fallen apart a long time ago.

A friend of mine had unselfishly provided me food and a place to sleep, which I could hardly afford with the salary I was earning at the moment. So as not to abuse his kindness, I would come home only after he and his girlfriend had their dinner—or if I did come home early I would pretend I had already eaten.

So many times, I slept with an empty stomach. The space provided me to sleep was more than enough generosity for one night. And yet, he had allowed me to stay for as long as I couldn’t afford a room.

His kindness made me better than the bums and the homeless, who spend the nights on sidewalks or on the grasses enduring the cold evenings. At least I could claim the comfort of a clean couch and a roof over my head. I didn’t scavenge the streets, the garbage cans, the restaurants and burger joints for leftover food. There was always food for me in the house, though it is only bread or fruits.

However, like the bums, I also walked the street a lot. I walked to the office, to the mom and pop stores, to grocery stores, to the mall and to places where I had to keep appointments, bearing the cold weather and hunger that sometimes haunted my stomach even when in sleep.

I also took the Metro bus when destinations were miles and miles away. Walking and taking the bus had made me familiar with the Los Angeles inner city as well as the suburbia. And it had made me stronger. When it is time to retire, I rested my tired back on the softness of a sofa that was my bed for the night.

* * *

Walking back home from the church, a van pulled over at my side. It was Juozapas. I immediately hopped in when he invited me for a cup of coffee. We went to a nearby fast food joint.

I should be paying this,” I told him. “It’s my birthday, you know. We should be having beer, even just a bottle or two.”

Juozapas drew a few dollar bills from his pocket. He insisted on giving them to me.

Take it. If I weren’t leaving tonight for Lithuania, I could have joined you. I still have to fetch my wife.”

He had just gotten his green card after eight long years and he wanted to go home right away. He was going home tonight after years of hardship and sufferings.

Happy birthday,” he said. “I’ll see you when I come back.”

For the first time, I had an envious feeling—not because he had his green card, but because he was going home—to his country. I wanted to go home, too. Yet I couldn’t, I had already acquired an unlawful status. If I go home, I couldn’t come back to this country anymore. I would be barred entering America again, for ten years at least. That would be bad for me.

* * *

It was almost eleven when I arrived home. As usual, smoke fills the room. Bob was chain-smoking. I started coughing.

Lately, I had become allergic to cigarette smoke. I would cough profusely the instant my nostrils picked up smoke.

There were other people in the house seated around the dining table. There was Kristina, Sarah, and another guy, obviously Sarah’s boyfriend. Bob’s girlfriend Anna was there too.

Bob and Anna came to LA. as tourists and stayed working. They were trying to see if they could make it in the United States, although they had already made up their minds to go to Canada. Bob got a job with the Baltic Publication while Anna worked as a paralegal with an immigration law firm.

C’mon, join us.” Bob said. They had finished their dinner; they were offering me was their company rather than their food.

Thanks. I’ve taken my dinner,” I said, although I hadn’t eaten anything except the apple I had for lunch and coffee in between. I didn’t even tell them it was my birthday.

Bob glanced at me. My eyes met his, and he said, “Oh, I haven’t told you…or have I?”

What?”

I’m quitting. I’ll get my paycheck Monday and then disappear.”

You just filed your papers, and you’re quitting?”

It was only recently that Bob had filed his H-1B petition. He had kept it hanging since he started working with the Baltic Publication a year ago. All he’d done was extend his stay. He’d done it twice already and soon he would be out of status.

With prodding from all of us, he finally agreed to file his papers before the December 17 fee increase from $600 to $1100. With barely four days left Bob approached Thalia, but to his surprise he was told to wait. He realized that Thalia would be sitting down on his petition.

Ma’am, the deadline is on the 17th,” he told Thalia.

I’ll give you the $200, but you have to wait.”

Bob couldn’t understand why he had to wait. Filing the petition would legalize his employment. If approved, Baltic Publication would benefit as he would be working legally. Of course, Thalia was unaware that it was Bob who delayed filing of the petition. He just continued working for her without filing the petition.

Now he wanted the petition filed, but Thalia was asking for a little more time. There was no more time left. Bob didn’t understand why he has to wait. Did Thalia know he had stalled the filing of the petition? Or was Thalia giving Bob a dose of his own medicine? Was Thalia making a statement—that she was the boss and could do whatever she wanted? Not knowing what was on Thalia’s mind only made Bob angrier.

I can no longer allow her to screw me up!” Bob fumed. “I’m getting out.”

In the four months since September, Thalia had lost four good staff members—Apple, Bob, Sarah, and me.

But of the four, only Sarah got the upper hand when getting out. She really had put one over Thalia.

When Sarah quit, it caught Thalia off-guard. There was no one else she could pull in to replace Sarah. Even if she advertised, it would take some time to get her a replacement. Without Sarah, she was powerless to get her three newspapers out on time. She had folded the news magazine when Apple left and convinced Sarah to stay until she could replace her.

For the first time in her life Thalia was at the mercy of her employee. She gave in to Sarah’s demand. Although Sarah was already working with another publication, Thalia agreed to pay her the same salary she used to receive even when she reported only in the evening.

Ironically, the H-1B petition that Sarah had wanted so much but thought would never come as she suspect that Thalia might have overlooked following it up with the lawyer, had been approved.

It was the seeming inaction on her petition that made her seek another job. As soon as she learned the INS had mailed the approval notice, she searched through all the mail slots in the company but she couldn’t find it. She suspected Thalia might have kept it.

A defiant Sarah confronted her, “I can’t come in the evening anymore, the DMV wants to see the original copy of my approved petition before they’ll renew my driver’s license.”

It checkmated Thalia. She produced the document and told Sarah to finish her work, which she did. Two weeks later, Thalia found a replacement; Sarah stopped reporting.

With Bob out, Thalia had only Kristina to handle all the three newspapers. She complained that she couldn’t do the job alone. She was feeling the terrible pressure now resting on her shoulder and said she was on the verge of breaking down. She cried.

Kristina wanted to give up but she is stuck. She couldn’t leave even if she wanted to. Even if somebody is willing to sponsor her again, she still couldn’t leave—she had stayed too long and was too close to her goal to walk away now.

After six long years of untold anguish, depression, and submission, Kristina isn’t going to let the opportunity slip away. She is in the homestretch. Changing jobs would not only be very impractical but stupid too. The green card was almost within reach and with her labor certification approved, an immigrant petition was the next step. She couldn’t afford to bungle it.

But with the demoralizing turn of events in the company and the extent of the problems before her, she had no idea if she could “weather the storm.” She is losing her peace of mind.

Thalia had no idea why her staff was leaving her. Or maybe, she pretends not to know. Maybe she also thought that whoever abandoned her was just being ungrateful, that they were only thinking of themselves rather than of what she had done for them—providing jobs and allowing them to work even when they were not allowed to work.

Although their departure had affected her business, Thalia seemed unaffected. To her, they were dispensable, just part of a passing scene. There would always be another tourist at her door, ready to work.

What Thalia may have been unaware of was that she could have had the most talented workforce in Southern California and could have produced the best newspaper had she not treated her staff like slaves and pawns.

Bob isn’t reporting today,” Kristina told Thalia.

He’s not reporting anymore. When you deferred the filing of his petition, he said there’s no more point why he should continue working.”

Thalia explained that she still had to go over it. Anybody who had worked with her knew she was lying. They knew she might sit on it.

He’s getting married,” Kristina added, trying to convince Thalia that Bob didn’t need the petition anymore.

Thalia seemed to be at loss for words after with what she had heard. She became unusually worried. For hours she closeted herself in her room, probably trying to figure out how to address another dissenter; where to get a replacement in such a short a time. It was Monday, four days before Christmas. She had to get out the Christmas edition of the newspapers.

Thalia sent for Kristina to her office. She spoke in her usual soft voice as her eyes grew bigger than the rims of her eyeglasses. She told Kristina to get in touch with Bob so that he could finish his job.

Thalia pointed out that if Bob had any intention of disrupting the publication of newspapers, she would not hesitate to meet him in court. She also instructed Kristina to let Bob know that even if his H-1B petition hadn’t been filed yet, he has to pay her the lawyer’s fee that she had advanced.

Kristina emailed Bob about Thalia’s threat. It easily rattled Bob, who was not used to this kind of confrontation. Though he’d expected Thalia to resort to her usual tactics of settling things in court, he hoped the threat would only be an empty threat.

We have discussed many times what Bob should do if he was sued. He would counter it with a lawsuit that would expose Thalia’s many labor and immigration violations. A class suit was also thought about, by contacting all the people who had worked for her.

Quite a number of people started working for her was without the authority to work until they had been petitioned. A few got their work permit and one or two got green cards; others got fired. And there were many, who got disgusted with the intolerable work schedules and conditions and,—just left. We counted four or five aliens unauthorized to work that were currently on her payroll.

* * *

Usually, the following day after the electorates cast their votes the American people already knew who could have won the presidential election. Yet, in the morning of November 8, although they had elected their 43rd president, still they didn’t know who it was.

Election tally showed a divided electorate. The way voters rallied behind each candidate resulted in almost a dead heat. By popular votes, Gore got more than 49 million votes while Bush garnered 48 million plus. In electoral votes, which the US. uses to determine the winner in the election, Gore took 260, short of just ten more electoral votes to make him the winner while Bush received 246.

Election returns in Florida had Bush ahead by 25 electoral votes, which could have made him the winner since it would have given him 271 votes.” But the difference between the two candidates was slim, less than one half of a percent, state law mandated a recount.15 Expectedly, “proclaiming a winner was held in abeyance that may take on for several days.”

15 George W. Bush, et al., Petitioners v. Albert Gore, Jr., et al on writ of certiorari to the Florida Supreme Court. December 12, 2000. Retrieved from http://caselaw,lp. Findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol

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