President Obama recently unveiled a massive plan to overhaul immigration policy, which could protect millions of undocumented workers.
But for all the political furor over the proposal, it’s easy to forget that these undocumented immigrants are individuals, each with their own hopes, dreams, fears, and families.
This fact is not lost on Rhode Island-based photographer Mary Beth Meehan. Her photo series, “Undocumented,” captures scenes inside the homes of people living in the US illegally. The people themselves are conspicuously absent from the photographs to “reflect who these people were — their human-ness and ordinariness, and possibly their motives and intentions — and not endanger their identities here,” Meehan tells Business Insider.
Meehan says her work “[parts] a curtain, opening a window into rooms that are already here in our community, rooms that existed whether I photographed them or not, where human beings were living.”
Along with the photos, Meehan provides captions to her photographs to further tell the story of the room’s inhabitants, which she has shared these with us here. You can see more of Meehan’s work on her website.
This young man came from Cape Verde to Rhode Island with his family as a child and attended public school. He had embarked on a life of his own here before being incapacitated by a stroke. He is now back living at home and being cared for by his parents.
A basement laundry room of an apartment building housing undocumented Colombian families is seen below. 'In every photograph, there is someone standing just outside the frame, near me,' Meehan says.
This Colombian woman's children have begun to question her about why they continue to live in the United States with no clear path open to them. 'We try to keep our kids busy and not think about the situation, and try to do the best we can,' she says. 'Here is a great opportunity for them. They need to work hard, and focus on the future.'
This young woman is living in Rhode Island on an expired tourist visa from Cape Verde, working in a doughnut shop and doing hairdressing on the side. Together with her sister, who is also undocumented, they are raising her son.
Below, a Colombian family packs before being deported. Meehan says that many families have contingency plans in the event that one or all of the family is suddenly detained and deported. 'They talk with their children and set out steps to take in case the kids were to come home from school one day and their parents are gone into the detention system,' she says.
This boy was a baby when he came from Mexico, with his parents. He now attends public middle school in Rhode Island and excels at sports and music. His parents worry about what will happen to him, but are happy that his younger sister was born in this country.
Below is the room of a Cape Verdean man. Meehan says finding undocumented people who would open up their homes was difficult, but she used her connections within the Rhode Island community to find a number of gracious hosts. 'They felt like collaborators in something that we agreed was important to show,' she says.
These teenage sisters from El Salvador are high achieving students and aspiring artists who dream of going to college in the United States. Although it is possible to attend college as undocumented immigrants, they have not found their way there, and are now working in a local restaurant that caters to the Spanish-speaking immigrant community.
This family came from Colombia 11 years ago, raising their son in a rented apartment while the father found factory work using a false Social Security card. The boy is now reaching high school age, and the mother knows his options will be limited without legal papers. 'This is my problem now,' she says.
This young man grew up in the United States to Mexican immigrant parents, never realising that he was illegal himself until he became a teenager. He now studies economics at an Ivy League university in Rhode Island, but struggles with the fact that he will be unable to find legal employment in this country. He was active politically in the Dream Act movement, which would have secured legalization for American-raised students in his position. The Dream Act was rejected by the Senate in September.
This mother left the rural poverty of Guatemala in search of money to raise her six children. She left them behind and walked nine hours from the Mexican border to Phoenix, where she then headed to relatives in Rhode Island. Since then, she has sent money home monthly, succeeding in bringing four of her children to the U.S. She has not seen two of them since she left, twelve years ago.
This Guatemalan widow speaks fondly of the family farm that she left, eight years ago, and regrets the poverty and violence that drove her to leave. 'I was surprised to remember how much sadness they felt in their hearts about the people and places they left. It really is a sacrifice to pick up and leave one's home and extended family like that,' Meehan explains.
This woman, a widow, left Guatemala after her son was killed by violence there, eight years ago. She rents a basement apartment in Rhode Island with another woman, and sends money home from her job cleaning carpets to her other children, who remain in Guatemala.
This man from Guinea-Bissau lived in the apartment with his wife and daughter, until disagreements between them ended the marriage. He now sublets the rooms to other men, from Africa and Cape Verde. 'Many, many people expressed feelings of gratitude that they were able to get here safely, that they felt relatively safe while here, and they were able to work somehow and support their families,' Meehan says.
This young Mexican couple spent five years working in Rhode Island with false Social Security numbers before they had saved enough to buy their own home, four years ago. They are active in their church and at their children's' schools. At a kid's birthday party in the fall, the mother sat in the corner with tears in her eyes; her father had died in Mexico, and if she had tried to attend the funeral, she would not have been able to return.
A man from Guinea-Bissau prepares dinner for other friends from Africa. Meehan does not hide her feelings towards immigration in the US: 'I am angry, furious, strongly motivated by the dehumanizing language that has been set into motion in this country on the subject (of immigration),' she says.
This man, from the West African country of Guinea Bissau, spent time in Cape Verde before coming to the US. He works nights doing factory work and studies English. 'Entering their kitchens and homes and bedrooms always brought a very moving rush of remembering that these were people who want exactly what any human being might want. I felt incredibly honored to be let in,' says Meehan.
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