A Look Into the Lives of Undocumented Retail Workers

Oct 11, 2018
2:38 PM

Editor’s Note: Names of some of those interviewed have been changed to protect their identity.

Franco answers phone at work. (Photo by Barbara Estrada)

Franco and Valentina were not close, but they knew each other through mutual coworkers. On a typical Sunday brunch, they found trust together when Franco shared his documentation status. At the time, Franco was having tumultuous relationship problems. He told Valentina that if his marriage crumbled, it would jeopardize his papers for citizenship. Individually, they knew undocumented employees were common in the retail industry, but not within the shadows of the same company they both currently work in.

“I knew it!” said the 25-year-old Valentina. This moment confirmed her inkling feeling that was festering for weeks about the 25-year-old Franco being like her—undocumented. To comfort him, she told him about her status too.

From this moment onward, the start of a new bond formed.

Both no longer felt alone in their field of employment.

Retail is a private industry that contributes $2.6 trillion to the U.S. GDP, supports 42 million jobs, and provides $1.6 trillion in labor income, according to The National Retail Federation.

Out of those 42 million jobs, a large percentage of workers are undocumented. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in Florida, Texas, New York and California alone, roughly a combined 75 percent of undocumented workers are employed in the retail trade/food services industry.

Franco and Valentina hold jobs that somewhat contradict the undocumented immigrant narrative. Both have a 9-to-5 job in an office-like environment. A job that requires talking to customers, tending to their shopping needs and directing an entire team of associates to meet sales goals.

Image of Franco in the shoe department of his retail job. (Photo by Barbara Estrada)

As an employee, Franco says he contributed a total of $495,164 in sales for one year alone.

Valentina contributed a total of $167,678 in one year for the same company. Her first retail job started at the age 19 of at The Children’s Place, which involved her filling out official paperwork back in 2012. According to her, the sales associate job was “an upgrade in comparison to bussing tables.”

Their secret is only shared within a tight-knit group outside their family unit due to fear and doubt of risking their main source of income. Some days they work 12-hour shifts.

“I did not want people to know my identity because I knew I was going to be judged so I lied about my identity by saying I was Italian due to my physical features. It was believable because of the way I looked. I always knew that this [the U.S.] was not my country,” Franco told Latino Rebels.

Franco says he always knew about his legal status. His parents encouraged him to assimilate to the American culture so he would fly under the radar of any suspicion. He would dress like his white peers, who wore brands like Abercrombie & Fitch in high school.

Valentina, however, lived a different reality. She grew up in a community that protected her from exposure where there were others like her. Assimilating was not something she ever considered.

She did not know about her status growing up. Her first “wake-up call” was when she went to apply at a retail store similar to Forever 21.

“I was 16 years old and the woman who looked at my application told me I was missing my social security number. I flat out told her I did not have one,” Valentina recalled.

She later dismissed this as a red flag about her status and continued living her life. It hit her hard when it was time to apply for colleges and FAFSA. Her mother told her then.

Once Valentina knew what her limitations were to get ahead, she had to work strategically and carefully to live the life she wanted. Franco did the same.

Image of Franco in the shoe department of his retail job. (Photo by Barbara Estrada)

For Valentina and Franco, they are just like everyone else within the crowd who strive to make the American dream a reality. With these double lives, it allowed both to work within a system that was against them moving up the social mobility ladder.

“I feel this sense of emotional detachment from Mexico,” Valentina noted, “but this [the United States] is my home.”


Barbara Estrada is a freelance, multimedia journalist based in Miami, Florida. Her passion for culture and travel has lead her to study overseas both in Amsterdam and the Basque Country of Spain. In 2017, she graduated from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She covers immigration, culture/identity and empowering women about their health. She tweets from @BarbaraBright.