The American dream is still very much alive, even in France.
This is not how love affairs with the City usually begin.
Loic arrived in New York in early September, a six-month tourist visa in hand. His girlfriend of four years had just moved from France for a study abroad program. The plan was to stay for a month or so, go back to France and come back to visit her. But nothing went according to plan. Less than a week after arriving, they broke up and Loic, 23, was out on the street, with very little money, in a city where he knew no one.
“The first three months were shit, shit, shit,” said Loic. “I don’t even know why I stayed it was such shit.”
First he found a squat in Brooklyn, then a youth hostel. About a month later he started working as a waiter in a small downtown restaurant. But soon money problems caught up with him. The restaurant wasn’t doing well and Loic could no longer afford his room.
“I lived in the subway for about a week or 10 days,” said Loic with a big smile. Oddly, he doesn’t have such bad memories of this time. “I would take the subway that goes from Coney Island to Queens,” he said. “It was OK, it’s heated in the winter and people don’t sit next to you because they think you’re dirty.”
Loic had become an illegal worker. One of the 7.5 million working illegal immigrants in the United States, according to a recent estimate by the Pew Center. In New York City, there are about half a million of them. Like Loic, not all illegal immigrants, enter the country illegally from poor countries by crossing the border in the dark of the night or hidden in cargo ships. There are those who come to the US from western countries comfortably seated on an airplane. They become illegal either by violating the terms of their documentation (like Loic, who worked on a tourist visa) or by overstaying the number of days permitted by their visa.
Loic eventually moved out of the subway and into the restaurant where he worked. “No more rent, no more problems,” he said motionning towards one of the tables. “I slept on that bench for a month and a half and I put some money aside.” Although times were tough, he kept going.
He had a plane ticket to go back home to France and his family before the holidays, but he never got on the plane.
“New York is the world in one city,” he said to explain his decision. “You walk down two blocks, you’re in Beijing. You cross the street you’re in the heart of Italy. Everything you want, you have, you don’t need to go looking elsewhere.”
Loic doesn’t want to go back to France. “I think I’d be bored,” he said. At least for now. “In ten years I’ll go back to France and have a nice quiet little life. Here in New York you age really fast!”
Finding a job wasn’t too hard although he knocked on many doors. “I tried everything except for Chinese restaurants because I hate Chinese food,” he joked. But at the restaurant where he is now it was almost too easy. “I walked in like ‘hey I want a job’ and I was told ‘come tomorrow with a white shirt and we’ll see’, no resume, nothing.”
His boss wasn’t regarding but that came at a price. Loic is paid exclusively in tips, which means he can make anywhere between $200 and $2,000 a week. A pay he could never get in France as a waiter.
“Once I came home with $7 in my pocket for 12 hours of work,” he said. “It’s so unpredictable, you can’t make plans, you can’t decide that in a month you want to go on vacation.”
There are other downfalls to being illegal. “I don’t leave any traces behind me. I don’t have a bank account, I only pay cash, I don’t have an address, nothing,” Loic said. “I’m a ghost. It’s a bit annoying but I don’t care, I have a roof and a bed.”
That’s thanks to Sebastien, a 28-year-old French sound engineer he met in early December and who took him in to his house in Bedford-Stuyvesant. That was a turning point in Loic’s life. “The past three months have been good,” he said. “I’m alive. I go out, have drinks, meet people, work. I went to the movies for the first time last week!” He even found a girlfriend – a French one.
Sebastien’s help isn’t surprising given his own story. What Loic went through, Sebastien went through a few years back. “Everyone’s been through this at some point so if you see a guy struggling you’re gonna help him, more than you would in France, because there the state helps you,” said Sebastien.
According to the French consulate in New York, there are about 70,000 French citizens in New York State, with the vast majority in the city. “The population is pretty dynamic and active but paradoxically not very tight,” said a representative from the Consulate who refused to be named. The consulate didn’t give specific data about French illegal immigrants, but admitted there were some, mostly young people.
Sebastien arrived in New York in august 2005 for a one-year masters in film, planning to go back to Paris. But like Loic, his plans completely changed when he was offered a job. At the time, he was also dating an American. “We were really in love so she said ‘If you want we can get married,” said Sebastien.
So he went back to France, told his mother he was getting married and staying in New York. That was the last time he would go back for three years.
Each year, over 400,000 American citizens marry foreigners to help them obtain permanent residence. But, like many people, Sebastien didn’t realize that getting a green card would be hard and expensive. “The cheapest lawyer I found cost about $1,500. And the whole paper work is at least $2,500.”
Once applicants gets an answer from Homeland Security, it’s a matter of months. They are officially legal but are still not allowed to work or leave the country until they get their permit.
“For me it took about a year and a half because I didn’t have the money,” said Sebastien. “Once I got the money, it took like five months.”
During that time, he went from apartment to apartment, worked as a bar tender, a guitar repairman, a tattoo artist, a painter, a delivery man. He even went to work on movie sets under friends’ identities.
“For more than two years I worked illegally to get out of the nightmare that my American dream had become,” said Sebastien. But like Loic, he refused to go back home. “If I went back to France, I would go back a looser and I didn’t want to go back a looser,” he said. “And I don’t really like the mentality back in France. It’s much more conservative.”
Sebastien finally got his application in early 2009. But in April, after being evicted from yet another apartment, he hit rock bottom. “At that point, I thought “game over,” I thought ‘I’m going to go home, see my mom, cry a little,” he said. “I’ll tell her ‘Look, I tried but I didn’t make it, I wasn’t strong enough.”
That’s when a friend offered to have him stay in his house in Brooklyn, a three story building he shared with two other people, with a small garden and “marble fireplaces on each floor.” “I always say Bed-Stuy is Versailles!” jokes Sebastien. “If that’s what they call the ghetto here, they should go see La Courneuve (a ghetto in the north suburbs of Paris that was heavily hit by the 2005 riots.)”
In June 2009, he finally became legal and was now allowed to work. “Now that it’s behind me, I think it taught me a lot,” he said. But he knows he didn’t have it nearly as hard as other immigrants. “There’s a difference between the illegal experience of a French person and a Chinese person or a Latino or a black person.”
Loic’s visa expired in early March. “I told Loic ‘you really don’t want to become illegal, it’s the biggest mistake you can make if you want to stay here’,” said Sebastien. So Loic is following in his friend’s footsteps.
“My only solution is to find a wife,” he said smiling. “I asked about 25 girls just like that ‘I need documents, will you marry me?” But he hasn’t been successful yet. “Maybe they’d like it to be more romantic, down on one knee, the ring and all.”
“I’d like to go back for the good food, for family, the small tortuous streets of Paris, the charm of France,” jokes Sebastien. But joking aside, he feels he has to go back some day. “France gave me an education, I left. I’ll have to go back and pay my dues to France.”
The last names have been removed from the story to protect the characters
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