ABOARD A BUS TO NEW YORK – When Prasert Duangrudeeswat started learning English in his home country of Thailand,he said he realized the last four letters of the word American stand for “I can.” He decided to go to the United States and live the American dream.
“Everybody laughed at me,” he recalled,smiling calmly.
When Mexico began importing Lincolns in 1990,Eliseo Segura told his co-workers that one day he would buy one of those cars.
“They laughed at me,” Segura said,looking from behind his glasses at the trees the bus to New York left behind on the highway.
Duangrudeeswat,36,who goes by Andy because his name is so hard for Americans to say,and Eliseo Segura,30,both from Las Vegas,are two of the more than 900 immigrants who joined the two-week Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride,which ended Sunday in Queens,N.Y.
Immigrants from all over the country visited 100 cities to campaign for more liberal immigration laws. The group,organized by unions,spent two days in Washington before heading to New York.
Andy and Segura’s stories,while different,have many parallels.
Andy is his Chinese-Thai family’s only son and,according to tradition,is responsible for supporting his parents,he said. He decided the only way he could do that was to find a job abroad.
He worked hard during college to buy a plane ticket to the United States,and when he finally could afford it,his visa was denied because he didn't meet financial criteria.
A friend suggested he go to France,register with a school and,if he didn't like it,he could go to the United States,Andy recalled.
His stay in France and,then Belgium,was brief. He flew to Los Angeles in June 1990 with a six-month tourist visa and moved in with a cousin in Las Vegas.
“You get scared,” Andy said. “I had $200 in my pocket. But … I saw the opportunities.”
“I thought,first,I have to learn how to speak English; second,what kind of job I am going to get. I saw restaurants at every corner and thought I'm gonna get a job in a restaurant,” he said.
He first worked in a Thai-Chinese restaurant,every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.,for $15 a week.
“At that time,you don't have a choice,you have to try to get money to feed yourself,” Andy said. “I was happy because $15 seemed a lot to me in baht,” the Thai currency.
But when his visa expired,immigration officials denied a renewal. His cousin locked him out of the house. His boss fired him.
Segura was born in Mexico City and raised in a small city. He left home when he was 16 and traveled to find temporary work. At the end of August 1994,someone offered him a job in California if he could get there in less than a week.
“I got smuggled,” Segura said. “I got caught and went to detention and then smuggled back again. They took us about 100 yards away from the border. We went to Tijuana. There are always people walking on the border asking if you want to be smuggled. Everybody is making money from sneaking people.”
He walked through the desert and climbed through sewers to reach San Diego. He gave his money to the smugglers for safekeeping and never saw it again. He got in the trunk of a “nice” car and was taken to live in a smuggler’s garage where he was told he would be safe.
“I worked graveyard” shift cleaning restaurants for a company the smuggler owned,he said. “I had no money to go back. I made $67 in the first two months.”
At his garage home,he was also scheduled to do chores. He often missed meals that were scheduled while he was working.
“They had a list: you owe me this much for rent,this much for food,” Segura recalled. “I was supposed to make $400,and they'd say your expenses are $450 so you owe me $50.”
To get out,he moved to an apartment,but it,too,was controlled by the smuggler’s family. Soon,10 newly smuggled Mexicans were living in one bedroom,sharing one bathroom.
“I got sick. I have sensitive ears,” Segura said. “I couldn't go to the doctor,didn't have money. I couldn't hear for two or three months. When I told my boss,he said,you got sick; it's your problem. I go to work or I get fired.”
After Andy lost his job,he bought an old Mustang for $1,200 and drove to Los Angeles. The drive took a couple of days because he had to stop often to cool the engine. He got a job at a gas station.
“I got minimum wage,$4.25 per hour,” Andy said. “After taxes you make $3 per hour. I didn't have a place to live. I slept in the gas station next to the car wash. I had to take a shower in the customers' shower without hot water.”
Andy said he soon decided it was time to complete his education and started working 15 hours a day.
“I was working and trying to put myself through school,” he recalled. “People took advantage of me because I didn't speak English. People tried to spit at me. They treated me like an animal.”
Andy decided to get a new job at a Japanese restaurant to make more money from tips.
There,he met his wife. She was Thai,went to school and worked as a food server. They got married in 1992 and had a daughter two years later.
As times were getting harder for Segura,he lost touch with his parents in Mexico. He later found out that his mother believed he was dead,after his boss told them he had an accident and asked for money,Segura recalled.
“It was pure hell. They were robbing my family,” he said. “We were basically slaves.”
Segura said he decided he couldn't live that way any more and did what he called the scariest thing since coming to the United States — he complained to his boss.
When he returned to the apartment,it was empty. He said there was not much he could do about his lost possessions.
Because 80 to 90 percent of immigrants have no papers,he said,“We don't trust the police. We don't trust the lawyers.”
Segura is now a cook in a Las Vegas casino. He is married to a Mexican-American and has a 19-month-old son and five stepchildren. He said he always had “a big mouth” and that is why he decided to join the Freedom Riders.
Andy and his wife moved back to Las Vegas in 1997 because he said he knew people working in union hotels made $10 to $15 an hour.
But he got a job in a non-union hotel and was fired when he got 150 signatures on a petition to form a union.
“My boss told me,if you want to have a union,you won't have a life here,” he said. “They are looking for people who just come to this country,don't know the laws and are afraid to talk.”
Andy became an organizer for the Culinary Workers Union,Local 226,in Las Vegas in 2000.
“It's very hard to live the American dream because of laws and policies,and that's why I am on this bus,” Andy said.
“It took me six years to take permanent resident” status,Andy said. “My wife became citizen in 2000.”
“I am very proud that I came here with $200 and be able to have my own house,a family and be able to help the community,” he said.
On the bus to New York,Andy entertained fellow passengers in true Las Vegas fashion — wearing an Elvis suit,he sang and signed autographs.
Segura also got his permanent resident status. In 1998,he bought a 1990 metallic blue Lincoln Town Car,just as he said he would so many years ago in Mexico.
“I already lived my dreams and gone beyond,” he said. “I want to thank this country,and I want to go back to school.
“If you don't help,you're part of the problem,that's how I think,” Segura said.
His only regret is the time apart from his Mexican family. He said that when he left his sister was a child,and when he came to visit for the first time after 10 years,his sister was grown up.
“My grandfather didn't recognize me,” he recalled. “I see my mom,my mom is older. I’m different,too. You're not home here,you're not home there. I miss my family.”