He has been living and working in southern Maine for more than a decade. He pays taxes. He goes to church.

But he has no legal immigration status – no citizenship, no valid visa, no green card. And that means he is constantly at risk of being discovered and removed.

The Central American native said he came to the United States legally in 2002 on a temporary tourist visa. He applied for entry into a special program that allows foreign nationals to live and work in the U.S. for a limited time, but it had been closed to new applicants.

Rather than return to El Salvador, a small country with extensive poverty and one of the highest murder rates in the world, the 52-year-old man said he stayed in Maine, where has been working and paying his taxes before and after his visa lapsed in 2012.

He is now one of 11 million undocumented immigrants – including 465,000 Salvadorans – estimated to be living in the United States. No one knows how many undocumented immigrants live in Maine, although the number has been estimated to be fewer than 5,000, or 0.3 percent of the state’s population.

He says his Christian faith gives him confidence that things will work out, but without legal status, he knows the life that he has built in Maine is uncertain.

“This is my reality (for) 15 years,” he said. “Let me tell you, this isn’t easy.”

The man, who goes by the nickname “Cheque,” agreed to be interviewed because he wanted to give voice to undocumented Latinos in Greater Portland, who he said are among the least empowered, in terms of political advocacy. He told his story under the condition that the Portland Press Herald publish only his nickname because of the risks involved to him and his family.

Perhaps no other immigration issue is more polarizing than what to do about people like Cheque.

To many Americans, such noncitizens are simply “illegals” who should be arrested for violating U.S. immigration laws, and should be returned to their native countries to join the countless people around the world who are patiently waiting to come to the U.S. legally.


Deportations from Maine, by federal fiscal year

It’s not known how many undocumented immigrants live in Maine, but here is the number of people deported from Maine since 2005. The data is for federal fiscal years, which run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

*2016 data is current through January 2016. The federal fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
SOURCE: Syracuse University TRAC
INTERACTIVE: Christian MilNeil | @c_milneil

Deportations nationwide, by federal fiscal year

The number of undocumented immigrants removed from the U.S. peaked in 2012. The data is for federal fiscal years, which run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

Others argue that deporting 11 million people is simply unrealistic, and that law-abiding, tax-paying undocumented immigrants who contribute to their communities and to the U.S. economy should have a path to legal residency, or at least be left alone.

Sister Patricia Pora, the longtime director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, has known Cheque for more than a decade.

Pora describes him as an earnest, respectable and patriotic member of the community.

“He is a hard worker and he loves America,” Pora said. “He is intelligent, adaptable and always questioning (and) wanting to learn more.”

Personal stories of undocumented immigrants are not often shared so publicly, but Cheque’s experience is far from unique.

Otto Morales-Caballeros was an undocumented immigrant in Maine whose story became public this year. He lived in Maine for more than a decade after illegally sneaking across the Mexican border and moving around the United States. He was married, working and paying rent and taxes when immigration agents detained him as he left his home in Naples to go to work one morning in April. Morales-Caballeros, who was known to federal officials because he had been convicted years before for using false identification papers, was deported to Guatemala a month later.


Top 5 deportation departure points in Maine, 2003-2015

These are the official Maine “ports of entry” that individuals were deported from between 2003 and 2015.

Port of entry
Deportations
Calais
375
Houlton
161
Portland
60
Madawaska
28
Bridgewater
28

EARTHQUAKES HIT

Cheque’s life in El Salvador was all but shattered in 2001, when two devastating earthquakes hit within a month of each other near the nation’s capital, San Salvador.

Cheque was working as a government employee when the quakes hit in January and February of that year. Together, the quakes killed more than 1,200 people and rendered tens of thousands of people homeless, according to reports.

“Basically my country was completely collapsed,” he said.

His family lived in a coastal town outside of the nation’s capital, so they were not hurt. But several of his co-workers were killed, and the quakes cost him his livelihood.

“Unfortunately, this was very, very hard for us,” he said. “In the same year, the government make decision to cut or lay off many public employee.”

Cheque said he was one of 500,000 government workers to lose their jobs.

That same year, his mother died after a long illness. “That’s why I feel so bad in 2001 to continue living over there and I made the decision to come over here.”

Cheque said he secured a travel visa, which allowed him to enter the country legally for a 10-year period. These long-term travel visas are not intended to allow foreigners to stay for 10 years, but they allow foreigners to visit the U.S. for short periods of time over that period.

But Cheque, who is single, came and never left.

His initial destination in early 2002 was California, but six months later he moved to Maine. A friend had convinced him there were more opportunities in New England and, despite initially fearing the snow, he decided to come anyway.

Cheque took a bus across the country and arrived that summer in Portland, where he moved into an apartment with other Salvadorans. He got work in a food processing plant, as well as in hotels and restaurants, and moved into his own apartment.

Now, he says, he enjoys the state’s long snowy season. “I love it now. I no want to move,” he said.

TEMPORARY PROTECTION DENIED

Cheque said he applied for temporary protected status soon after arriving in the U.S. The program, offered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, allows foreign nationals already in the United States to remain here because of either an armed conflict, environmental disaster or some other extraordinary condition in their homeland.

The designation, which is now available to residents of certain countries, does not lead to a permanent resident status. But it does prevent one from being detained because of their immigration status. And it allows a person to obtain an employment authorization document.

He had been working in the hospitality industry and paying taxes for three years before being informed that his request for temporary protection was denied.

Cheque said he was told that only Salvadorans who had been in the U.S. many years prior to 2001 were eligible. But, he’d come too late.

“I was completely normal in my documentation. I work. I pay my taxes. Then suddenly appear(s) this negative note,” he said.

Cheque said local immigration attorneys could not help him and he could not apply for asylum because that must be done within a year of arrival.

Cheque said he was advised that getting married might be his only path to legal status. But the devout Catholic refused. “I believe, if I get married, it’s for love, not for documentation,” he said.

Cheque deliberately overstayed his visa, rather than return to a country he says is dangerous and ravaged by crime. El Salvador has seen high rates of crime ever since the country’s civil war ended in 1992, and the problem worsened through the early 2000s, he said.

The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Diplomatic Security agrees that his homeland is unsafe, and says El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. “Crimes of every type routinely occur, and crime is unpredictable, gang-centric, and characterized by violence directed against both known victims and targets of opportunity,” said a 2017 State Department report on crime and safety in El Slavador.

Cheque said his father, who once played trumpet in a mariachi band, has received several calls from people threatening violence unless he pays a ransom. His siblings, Cheque says, have learned to live with daily threats, which sometimes lead to local businesses and residents paying protection money to gangs.

A MAN OF FAITH

Cheque says he wants to remain here, and he has faith that everything will work out. He believes that if he works hard, continues to pay his taxes and stays out of trouble, then America will eventually welcome him.

Cheque said he works multiple jobs, which sometimes requires him to put in long workdays.

Sue Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal assistance to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, said it’s not uncommon for undocumented workers to pay taxes. Roche, who was not familiar with Cheque’s case, pointed to a study by the American Immigration Council that estimated that undocumented workers in 2015 paid $3.7 million a year in state and local taxes.

Cheque is taking English classes and one day dreams of either working as an electrician or going back to school to become and electrical engineer. He said he doesn’t understand why Congress cannot reform its immigration system to give people like himself – people who have lived here for years, obeyed the laws and paid their taxes – a path to permanent residency.

Cheque laments that too many Latinos in Maine believe they cannot organize and advocate for themselves the way refugees and asylum seekers can. He believes that Latinos face excessively negative stereotypes.

That’s primarily why he agreed to accept the risk of being interviewed by the newspaper, when numerous other undocumented immigrants declined.

“I’m talking for everybody, because people feel a little scary to talk,” Cheque said. “I represent the 0.001 percent of the people who like to talk. Believe me. Because 99 percent have fear. This, for me, is wrong.”

For the foreseeable future, Cheque’s safe, quiet life in Maine will continue to be shrouded in uncertainty. But he says he has no fear.

“I feel no fear (that) I am in my position, because as Catholic as I am, I feel very confident in God,” he said. “I feel like some solution can (occur). I don’t know when. I don’t know how.”


WHAT IS AN UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT?

A foreign-born national who does not have the legal right to be in the United States.

How many undocumented immigrants are in the U.S. and Maine?

There are roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Fewer than 5,000 live in Maine, according to the Pew Research Center.

California has the largest undocumented population with an estimated 2.35 million people, followed by Texas with 1.65 million, Florida with 850,000, New York with 750,000 and New Jersey with 500,000, according to Pew.

How do undocumented immigrants enter the U.S.?

Some undocumented immigrants enter into the United States by crossing one of the nation’s borders illegally, including by sneaking in or being smuggled in. Others enter legally with temporary visas, such as those for students or tourists, and then stay in the U.S. after their visas expire.

Where do undocumented immigrants come from?

According to the Migration Policy Institute, 75 percent of undocumented immigrants are Spanish speakers and 71 percent come from Mexico and Central America. Thirteen percent come from Asia. Fifty-eight percent of undocumented immigrants have been here for 10 years or more.

Can an undocumented immigrant work and pay taxes?

U.S. businesses can only legally hire documented immigrants who have work authorization documents.

However, millions of undocumented immigrants do hold jobs. And, it is estimated that undocumented workers pay $11 billion in taxes a year, partly in hopes that it will ultimately earn them a path to citizenship. More than 4 million undocumented immigrants file tax returns each year using Individual Taxpayer Identification numbers, according to The Washington Post. In Maine, undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $3.7 million a year in state and local taxes, according to the American Immigration Council.

How does someone get deported?

If someone is found to be unlawfully present in the U.S., they may be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported. Detained individuals have the right to appear before an immigration judge.

In fiscal year 2016, ICE deported 240,255 individuals. Although that’s up from the 235,400 the year before, it is considerably lower than in previous years. In 2014, nearly 316,000 people were deported, while nearly 370,000 were removed in 2013 and nearly 410,000 in 2012.

What changes have been made or proposed that would affect undocumented immigrants?

While the number of deportations hit record highs under President Obama, the administration focused enforcement on immigrants convicted of other crimes, and law-abiding immigrants were not prioritized. The Trump administration has broadened the effort to deport undocumented immigrants, and has detained more immigrants not convicted of any crime other than being present in the U.S. without permission.


EL SALVADOR
El Salvador is smaller than Massachusetts, but is the most densely populated country in Central America. It is home to multiple criminal gangs, and has the sobering distinction of having one of the world’s highest homicide rates. Extortion is commonplace. El Salvador is a transfer point for cocaine shipments, and cocaine use is high, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reports.

“Gangs dominate territories and populations through threats, intimidation and a culture of violence that infects whole communities and everyday activities, movements, interactions and relationships,” the United Nations reported in August. The same report noted that the exact number of Salvadorans who seek sanctuary abroad isn’t known. National Geographic reported that about 3 million Salvadorans live in the United States and send money home.

The nation, whose nickname is “Land of Volcanoes,” experiences significant volcanic activity, frequent earthquakes and hurricanes. Its Pacific coastline is known as a good place for surfing and it is home to rain forests, though much wildlife habitat has been lost. About half of Salvadorans live in rural areas in poverty.

Cultural reference: El Salvador was often in the news during the Carter and Reagan administrations, when the United States provided military aid to the government during a 12-year civil war in which government forces regularly employed scorched-earth tactics and death squads.