American Dream for Whom?

by Haley Garrison

In the year 2016, it’s not entirely shocking when someone has over 4,000 friends on Facebook…that is, unless that someone turns out to be a taco food truck.

Behind said Facebook account is a man named Paul, a Brazilian immigrant who has managed to put his kids through private school with, dare I say, tacos. Actually, his success extends way beyond the Mexican dish to include, not only his food trucks, but businesses in the French Quarter as well as in Gretna.

Paul’s success represents everything the “American Dream” is and should be: Man comes to America, builds up his business, starts a family and settles into his well-earned spot among the middle class. Well, that is until he reveals one pivotal fact:

“I’m illegal.”

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Brazilian-born Paul came to America in 1990 at the suggestion of his friend.

“She told me one day ‘why you don’t go to United States it’s better than here, you make more money than here’…One day I say…let’s go…maybe I can make more money than Brazil.”

It’s as simple as that, coming to America. Or so Paul makes it seem. The entire interview proceeds in this manner — Paul likes to downplay his accomplishments. He talks little about his time in Brazil, besides mentioning that he had a wife and worked for the government, and when asked why he came to America, he gets right to the point.

“When I finished school in Brazil…I had no money, I had no future. Then this lady told me to come to America. Then I see over here, make more money than in Brazil. And no violence. In Brazil they kill for fun. And I stay. Not because I have that dream…to be rich…no…”

Well, dream or no dream, he certainly did well for himself. After one year in Connecticut, Paul opened up his first food truck business formally known as “Paul’s Cafeteria.” He hadn’t mastered tacos yet, instead focusing on lunch foods like gyro and hero sandwiches—staples you’d typically find in a Northern deli. Construction workers became his best clientele, and soon he was hitting over twenty different sites a day.

Paul did not come to New Orleans until after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when he got a call from an old business partner asking him to come down and feed the construction workers on Tulane and Loyola campuses.  

“I don’t even know what Tulane is, I have no idea”

But Paul came down anyway, and ten years later, he is still here. After bringing his trucks down from CT—a two-month process—one of his employees suggested he change up the menu.

“Everybody started to ask about tacos.”

The high demand was no doubt due to the influx of Hispanic people in New Orleans. Since he didn’t know where to begin, Paul hired someone to teach him how to make the Mexican favorite. Soon he started selling tacos from one of his trucks on the corner of Claiborne and Carrollton, and to his surprise, the truck doubled its sales. That day marked the beginning of a new venture: Paul’s Taco Truck.

Paul’s Taco Trucks were quite popular. He says that on one night in particular there was around 500 people surrounding his truck on Frenchman Street—no doubt a result of the DJ he brought along with him. When the police started bothering him, Paul thought of a different way to reach his clientele by renting the kitchen in one of New Orleans’ most popular late-night spots. That was back in 2008, and six years later, he’s selling his Mexican food while also introducing other late-night favorites, like pizza. He knows not everyone is a fan of Mexican food, but he thinks it will attract more tourists. As for his food trucks, he has sold most of them, admitting he finds them to be too expensive and a hassle. But, he kept one so he can do private parties. This is what he loves the most, he says, serving simple food and hanging out with people.

What makes his food such a hit? In his words: “Simple, fresh, and I put love.” Oh, and one more thing:

“I don’t overcharge nobody.”

Next up for Paul is the opening of his own restaurant in downtown New Orleans. Nothing fancy, he insists, because the focus needs to be on the food. The ease with which he talks about this next step is astonishing and reinforces his simple, good-hearted nature.

It’s an hour of this—talking about Paul’s move to New Orleans and his various business ventures—before he reveals he’s an illegal immigrant. It’s not that he’s trying to hide it. To him, it’s just not that big of a deal. Perhaps he didn’t think it was relevant considering all that he’s been able to do despite his alien status. When pressed for more information, he happily provides it. He explains that he came to America with a visa, but it’s now expired. So, why doesn’t he apply for U.S. citizenship?

“I can’t…only one thing I can do right now, because my son is fourteen, when he becomes twenty-one years old, I can apply. He can sponsor me.”

Certainly that can’t be. Three kids and a multiplicity of thriving businesses are just a few accomplishments Paul has to show for his twenty years in America. That must be something for the government to consider, right? Paul answers the question with a peculiar observation of his own.

“Somebody from Syria or Iraq, come here, the next day they have the green card…somebody from Cuba, just touch the foot in America, next day they have the green card.”

What exactly he’s suggesting about certain government biases is unclear, but it’s clear he does not find the U.S. government to be impartial.

He doesn’t seem defeated or angry–in fact, it’s quite the opposite. He’s content, and for good reason. Paul owns multiple businesses, sends his kids to private school in the city and drove here in his white Mercedes. He seems to have everything he needs, and he’s the first to acknowledge how ridiculous that is.

“The law in America is so stupid…I can have liquor license, I can have video poker license, I can have everything I want…I don’t have green card, but I can walk into Mercedes and buy a car. I can go to the bank and have a line of credit…I pay taxes. I have social security. I have everything.”

This seems impossible, because surely the U.S. government would have noticed that he’s illegal. Deportation is an uncomfortable subject, but Paul’s easy-going nature makes it easier to talk to about something most illegal immigrants try to avoid. He is very forthcoming about his alien status, and surprisingly doesn’t show any signs of worry about being deported. This is because of something called “Cancellation of Removal.” You see, Paul’s done his homework.

“Cancellation of Removal” refers to an application available to those persons who have been identified for deportation proceedings. Paul pulls the application up on his cell phone when explaining why he’s not worried about being in the U.S. without a visa: Under Sections 240A(a) and 240A(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, a person is able to file an appeal to block his or her deportation based on certain requirements.

“If I live in America for 10 years or more…I cannot be deported.”

And while it’s a little more complicated than that, Paul is correct. According to the U.S. Justice Department’s “Application for Cancellation of Removal and Adjustment of Status for Certain Nonpermanent Residents,” which is conveniently one of the top search results on google, an alien is eligible to stay if they meet three criteria: they must have been in the U.S. for a continuous period of ten years and demonstrated moral character, he or she cannot have been convicted of certain criminal offenses, and his or her removal “would result in exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to your United States citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse, parent, or child, and you are deserving of a favorable exercise of discretion on your application.”

Paul doesn’t mention anything about the other two criteria, but with three children who are legally U.S. citizens, it’s safe to assume he fits the bill.

Just because he’s not worried, doesn’t mean that other immigrants are wrong to be worried. Paul understands that immigration is a controversial topic in America, especially with the country’s new President-elect Donald Trump.

In a statement to Breitbart News earlier this year, Trump promises he will take immigration seriously if elected: “After my inauguration, for the first time in decades, Americans will wake up in a country where their immigration laws are enforced.”

Does this scare Paul? Surprisingly, he maintains an upbeat tone when speaking about Obama’s replacement.

“Maybe [Trump] can do something for USA…maybe can be big difference. He never promises do anything for the immigrants. Obama always promises to help the immigrants and never did nothing. No other president deport immigrants like Obama did. Now we wait and see if we can have any future in USA”

However, Paul does not agree entirely with The Donald’s overarching statements about illegal aliens in this country.

“I like many things Trump say, but one thing I don’t like…we don’t take jobs from nobody.”

It’s a subject Paul feels very strongly about; immigrants don’t take jobs…they do the jobs no one else wants to do.

“Who wants to wake up…at 4 in the morning, load the truck…nobody wants to do this”

In many ways, he’s right. Historically, immigrants are known to do the jobs that Americans feel are beneath them, whether that be cleaning someone else’s home, or mowing another man’s lawn. And, they’ll do it for cheaper. In Paul’s mind, these people aren’t taking away opportunities from Americans, they’re keeping Americans afloat. He points to his home of ten years as a prime example of that fact.

“A good example, New Orleans…Who rebuild New Orleans? The Mexicans…Latinas.”

After Hurricane Katrina, Paul says it was the Hispanic population that helped the city recover.

“I was here, from the beginning, Tulane…so many garbage…construction…you don’t see no blacks…you don’t see one…you see Mexicans.”

Fast forward ten years and Paul reiterates the same notion about the reconstruction in Baton Rouge after its recent floods.

“Everyone working [in Baton Rouge] right now, I can show you…immigrants”

What Paul is really trying to say is that immigrants are this country’s lifeline, embedded in its everyday functioning. This is especially true in a city like New Orleans, a well-known Sanctuary City. Sanctuary Cities are places in the U.S. where federal immigration laws are not enforced, and therefore, usually attract a large number of undocumented aliens. There are many illegal immigrants in New Orleans, and the population continues to grow—a problem that has made its way to the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. Most recently, during a September 27th hearing entitled, “New Orleans: How the Crescent City Became a Sanctuary City,” committee chairman Trey Gowdy explains that, “the [NOPD] prevents its officers and employees from communicating with U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement regarding the immigration status of an arrestee.” The debates over what should and shouldn’t be done about the immigrant population in New Orleans, and the country as a whole, are ongoing.

But Paul doesn’t fit into this category—he’s not the stereotypical illegal immigrant hiding from the feds while trying to make ends meet; he’s far from it. Many Americans, let alone immigrants, don’t have what he has, but he credits his success to hard work not handouts from the government.

“I never took no money from the government, for health care, never…never used one food stamp.”

Well, that’s not true. He admits that he took a card with money from FEMA after Hurricane Isaac, but that’s only because they were handing them out to everyone. Plus, it was only $800 dollars.

With no plans to leave, and no immediate plans to become legal, you could say Paul is in a period of limbo. But if Paul feels this way, he doesn’t let on. In his mind, he’s focused on the opening of his second-floor restaurant and then ultimately, retiring. He

admits that his hands are full to the point where he is now turning down business offers, because he doesn’t want or need them.

“I’m an old guy, I’m going to retire soon…Many people say, ‘the sky is my limit,’ no, my limit is not sky. As long as I’m happy…”

It’s a nice sentiment, and an even better story. Many immigrants measure their success on whether or not they ultimately gain citizenship, but not Paul. Citizen or not, he’s been able to take advantage of everything America has to offer, and for him, that’s quite enough to keep him satisfied.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

Haley Garrison is a senior at Tulane University, pursuing a degree in English. 

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