TULSA, Okla.--Ignacio, a father of four, bounces along in his pickup truck, driving at exactly the speed limit through an aging suburb. The clock says 6:44 a.m. Religious pendants hang off the mirror. His teenage son sits beside him, chatty if half-awake, as they approach an apartment building for a day of roofing in dire heat.
A police cruiser suddenly appears to the right. Ignacio stays quiet, hands on the wheel, but in his mind he repeats the prayer that covers his 12 years living here illegally: “No me pare, no me pare”--“Don’t stop me, don’t stop me.”
“We used to have such a comfortable life, money to pay for our house, the car, to go wherever we wanted,” Ignacio says, referring to a time before Oklahoma’s 2007 law against illegal immigrants forced him to close his successful hair salon. “Now we are biting our nails, trying to make enough money every month.”
The routines of life as an immigrant in the country illegally now vary widely by location--perhaps more than ever. Last year 11 states, including California and Utah, passed laws permitting illegal immigrants to obtain drivers licenses, while 15 states now let immigrant students pay in-state tuition regardless of legal status, up from 11 in 2012.
Some other states have followed a different path. Oklahoma led the way in 2007 with legislation that made it a crime to knowingly shelter or transport unauthorized immigrants, while preventing them from obtaining licenses, credentials and public benefits. It was the first sweeping state effort to discourage illegal immigration, and advocates for the approach--which has been expanded here and exported to a few other states--argue that it improves quality of life for legal residents and citizens.
“Every time you have people coming over from different cultures that don’t assimilate with the American culture, they develop an underground culture,” said Maj. Shannon Clark, a spokesman for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. “These people will try to generate revenue and gain money and do things that are in total conflict with the law.”
But Oklahoma’s restrictions did not reduce Oklahoma’s illegal immigrant population, census figures show. While some families fled, others came and tens of thousands more--like Ignacio and his family, who requested that only their first names be used--have stayed put, hiding and striving in the shadows.
Tulsa is an especially tough place to pull that off. Even by Oklahoma’s standards, it is known as a vigilant city, with a suburban lifestyle that requires driving to work and a sheriff’s office that has made immigration enforcement a high priority.
Legal immigrants and criminals here have also found ways to use the law to their advantage. Ignacio says he has lost more than $100,000 to frauds he never reported to the police, fearing deportation. And it was a former employer and new competitor--a Mexican woman with legal status--who forced him to shut down his salon by reporting to inspectors that he lacked a Social Security number.
“The legal ones without compassion are the worst,” said Maria, Ignacio’s wife.
The alarm clock honks at 6 a.m.--and for a few minutes more--before Ignacio comes out of his bedroom in baggy shorts and a T-shirt. Groggy and darkly tanned from long days on rooftops, he collapses into a kitchen chair as Maria collects 10 cans of V8 energy drinks to keep him and their oldest son, Jose, hydrated at work.
“Coffee?” she asks. Ignacio shakes his head. He grabs a bag of bean and cheese sandwiches on wheat bread and heads to his truck, which is just a few years old. Despite the fact that money is tight, nice cars and cellphones are important. “If you have a nice car, they treat you well,” he says, referring to the police. “If you drive an old, ugly car, they stop you and arrest you.”
The journey to the job site lasts less than 20 minutes. A police officer is looking at his cellphone as they drive past, leaving Ignacio and Jose to meet up with a crew of eight other Hispanic men. A maintenance supervisor from the apartment complex waves good morning.
“This is the best crew you can have,” he says.
Ignacio and Jose climb a tall ladder, then get to work cleaning the roof. They are sweating within the first hour. “It’s tough work, especially with the heat,” Ignacio says. He turns away from the sun and yells for someone to bring him shears to cut the heavy-duty plastic they are laying down over the old tar.
He would much rather be trimming hair. Ignacio, 40, comes from a long line of barbers in Zacatecas, an old silver city in central Mexico, and he often says he has “hair-cutting in his blood.” He used to make a good living at it here in Tulsa, working first at a salon on the heavily Hispanic east side, then opening his own shop where he and his wife together made up to $700 a day.
But then they ran into trouble. Ignacio said that his boss at the first salon had refused to give him a 1099 form so he could pay his taxes, so when he opened his own salon in January of 2004, and voluntarily paid the taxes he owed, he attracted attention to his previous employer who, in retaliation, directed state inspectors to his new business.
When Oklahoma’s illegal-immigrant law arrived three years later, the visits intensified. He tried to renew his barber’s license, but was rebuffed; the Oklahoma Cosmetology Board had ruled that proof of legal status was required for every credential the state issued.
Ignacio shut down the shop in 2008. He said he turned to roofing only after being cheated by other immigrants in other ways. His secondhand toy store ran aground when a supplier took his money and never delivered a trailer full of merchandise. A promised shipment of Christmas trees arrived after Christmas. The couple considered returning to Mexico, but decided they would stay for the children’s education.
In 2009, he said, life’s burdens and failures began to make him suicidal. When his mother died that year, and he could not go home because he knew he could not return the way he came in, with a tourist visa, he wrote a note to his wife asking her to take good care of the children.
“You are the only one they have,” he wrote. “Pray to God for me.”
Mom and the Children
Sitting at a table outside the one-story house the couple bought nine years ago, Maria holds up the note. It is on the back of a sign, and the children have colored over parts of the writing. “I don’t know why I kept it,” she says, trying to laugh.
There are other documents as well: a scrap of paper with the name and phone number of the person who was supposed to get them visas; a letter from an inspector with the state Board of Cosmetology naming Ignacio’s former employer as the source of a complaint; another from the Oklahoma Tax Commission indicating, seven months later, that he had complied with all state income tax requirements.
The photos in the pile show the couple’s old salon--Maria and Ignacio on the day it opened, then later, when snapshots of satisfied clients covered the wall. She pulls out a picture of a new Hummer. “He was going to paint it over with the name of the salon,” she says.
She laughs again. “Vamanos, hijas,” she says, calling to her three daughters. The younger two, Michelle, 10, and Cointa, 6, are American citizens born in Tulsa. They pile into the family S.U.V. as Maria rolls down the windows, making a joke about avoiding air-conditioning to save money. The temperature is over 90.
Her first stop is the grocery store where--after parking carefully within the yellow lines--Maria spends $16.41 on bread and other items. Most of the customers are Hispanic or Asian.
Next, she stops at a store with a sign out front that says “pay your bills here.” She hands cash to a woman in a Western Union shirt, for cable and electricity. “I used to pay by check,” she says afterward, holding two of her daughters’ hands, “back when we had a bank account.”
Into the S.U.V. yet again, for a short drive to Dollar Tree for cleaning supplies, including soap to make sure the vehicles look good as new, then to Walgreen’s for Gatorade. This is the only store that requires English and Alejandra, 16, translates. The first thing she does is make sure the clerk complies with the sale prices of six bottles for $5.
At home, after a roundabout route to avoid the police, Alejandra shows off her immaculate bedroom. The closet is well organized; the bed made. She plays the violin, and like her mother, she keeps important records: her membership in the National Honor Society, a “student of the month” certificate from sixth grade.
Like many other children of parents who are in the country illegally, she seems to feel that doing well will help make the United States more accepting.
“My parents can only take us a certain part of the way,” Alejandra says, warming up lunch for her father and brother. “We have to go the extra mile.”
But there are limits. A group of boys threw bottles of urine at her and a friend a few months ago, and the family decided not to press charges because it would have meant a trip to court. When Jose, 19, who was born in Mexico, recently asked a military recruiter to find out if he could join now that he has the right to work with the deferred action program that applies to some children brought here illegally, the recruiter never called back.
For Jose in particular, the past few years have been a rough introduction to American law and order. He had gotten used to having money, time, a girlfriend--not thinking about his illegal status--until he accompanied his mother to an appointment at a hospital affiliated with Oklahoma State University.
She needed to have her gall bladder removed, and an emergency room doctor had referred her to a specialist. But the hospital refused, the family said, because it received state funds and Oklahoma’s 2007 immigration law bars immigrants without legal status from receiving benefits.
Even when Jose explained that his father would pay cash, they did not admit her. “What I expected from reality,” Jose said, “it’s not what happened.”
Maria eventually got the surgery at a private hospital--with a bill of $11,000. Ignacio says they are still paying it off, $50 a month. A spider bite he suffered on a rooftop a few months ago added another medical bill of about $4,000.
Ignacio is proud to be paying these, just as he is proud not to have asked for food stamps for his citizen children.
And at times now, the family can see reason for hope. Jose has secured a scholarship for the local community college. At night, they all usually trickle into the sanctuary of St. Thomas More Catholic Church for choral practice. Ignacio smiles more with a songbook in his hand. Jose sings a few solos, raising his voice to the ceiling, his dark eyes at peace.
But the relief is never permanent. Tomorrow means another stressful drive to a 13-hour day on a scorching rooftop. Winter will eventually come again, the outdoor work will end. And the worry about being deported lingers.
“You think about it all the time,” Ignacio said. “You are always aware of that danger.”