Piling a full tub of dishes on top of another full tub, Willy lumbers across the wet tile floor calling "corner" as he rounds blind walls. He's hoping to dump the dirty dishes he carries in time to polish silverware. Then he can clear the next table of egg and chunks of chewed sausage. He ignores the ache in his back, masked by the elastic brace around his waist. He pretends not to feel stiffness in his knees. If he sets the next two tables fast enough, he'll make it to the walk-in refrigerator at the back of the restaurant and return with ten one-gallon jugs of orange juice before any of the waiters have a chance to ask him to check the bathroom because one of the toilets backs up and spews water out into the hall, leaving the carpet smelling like a wet sponge.
As Willy stops to drink some pink water that runs out of the punch fountain on the soda machine, a frustrated waiter asks him to pick up the Cheerios that a baby threw all over the floor before the parents smashed them with their feet as they left.
"They come to our country and steal our jobs. They don't pay taxes, but they expect the U.S. to take care of them."
Willy, 19, came across the border four years ago; he works as a busboy at a franchise restaurant in Mission Valley. The youngest of 12, Willy sought opportunity that's unavailable to him in his native home of Puebla.
His wife, 23, is three months pregnant; she works in the kitchen at a Burger King. Both of them speak minimal English. After Willy's wife gives birth to their child, they are hopeful that their child will have the opportunities that a Social Security card affords.
Willy works for minimum wage, wiping food remnants off floors and tables, carrying boiling bags of soup, trays loaded with dishes, half-empty glasses, and scattered silverware. He worked his way up from dishwasher, where he spent hours in a three-foot- by six-foot area unloading, rinsing, and operating a dishwasher that blasts high-powered bursts of hot water.
Willy is the youngest of 13 kids. Three of his siblings are in the U.S.; they all send money back to their parents and other siblings in Mexico. His family supports his decision to live in the United States, but they never pushed him to move here.
"I don't know anyone who has problems with taxes," he says. He pays $150 to $200 in taxes, Medicare, and Social Security for every $500 he earns. He tells me, "There's no way to get that money back."
It wasn't necessary for him to have a Social Security card when he was hired. With no Social Security card, he can't open a bank account and relies on check cashers who don't require ID. "I don't think it's fair that I have to pay a percent to cash my check, but there's nothing else I can do." To avoid buying money orders, he or his wife pay their bills at the electricity and telephone offices.
As a busboy, Willy knows it's not always easy to make sure he collects tips from waiters. There's no way to collect if they lie. With overtime, it can be more of the same.
When I asked Willy how he crossed the border into America, he says, "Like everybody else." He said that he couldn't walk through the border check near San Ysidro. "You have to go a few miles around the border check," he told me. So, I asked him, did he just walk across? "No," he smiled a little, "I was running."
"I do my taxes every year," Felix, a 28-year-old American citizen, grinned. "And I get $2000 a year back from the government." Hillcrest resident Felix ("Felicia" to his friends) has no one to send money to in Mexico and no dependents, besides his little dog Felicia (whom he calls Junior). Still, he has sympathy for his illegal-immigrant friends. "Every paycheck," Felix explained, "[illegal immigrants] pay $5 to have it cashed."
Every pay period, Felix cashes two paychecks besides his own. "My bank," he said, "only allows me to cash two checks besides mine, so I do it for a couple of friends in my neighborhood. It's not fair; just because they can't open bank accounts, they shouldn't have to pay someone for their money."
As a busboy, Felix isn't required to report his tips. He's an American-born citizen, speaks English, but he prefers to work as a busboy because fewer taxes are taken from each paycheck. During a separate interview, Willy suggested that Felix might buy a Cadillac Escalade.
Libertad, 24, filed this year for herself and her husband under her Social Security number because of her husband's illegal status. "When I became a citizen," she explained, "I was told that it's very important to have everything legal. If we filed under my husband, then it would show that he was working illegally in the United States." Libertad believes that immigrants from Mexico have a harder time becoming residents and citizens. Born in Spain, Libertad acknowledges the difference between her process and that of her husband, a Mexican-born citizen. "It took me eight months to go through the work to become a citizen; it usually takes two years for people from Mexico to do the same thing."
"Education is the key," asserted Ronnie, a 25-year-old waiter born in Mexico. "A lot of people new to this country don't know about taxes or are afraid that they can't do them because of their illegal status."
Having worked his way up from busboy, Ronnie knows what it's like when the government works against you. "I have a friend," he said, "and he has five kids. The problem is that he can't claim them on his income tax because they don't have Social Security numbers. He files zero dependents because it's easier for him that way."
Irene, 24, works at the same restaurant as Ronnie and knows the difficulties of becoming a citizen. Her family and friends' legal problems taught her that there's only one solution: a lawyer.
"There are so many different laws concerning immigration; there's a lawyer that I talk to whenever any family or friends have questions." Off the top of her head, she listed three or four different laws regarding immigration for families. "It used to be that if a child was born in the United States, the child and the mother would become citizens. Now, a child has to become the age of an adult before they can claim their parents as dependents and for them to become citizens."
When asked about taxes, Irene recommended that illegal immigrants do them so that they can be used later as documentation to establish length of residency. "There are numbers that begin 'zero, zero, zero,' "she explained, "that are given and used in place of Social Security numbers."
Irene said that these numbers are what children need to use when registering for school. "As an adult," Irene clarified, "institutions like community colleges won't turn you away because you're not a citizen. These 'zero, zero, zero' numbers can be used for formal documents requiring a Social Security number."
Now in her third year of college, Irene dreams of working in Spanish television as an actress. She plans to move to Los Angeles, where her fiancé lives, after she earns her degree.
When I asked Willy what he dreams of, he laughed. "I work too much to have time to dream," he said. "I want my children to go to school. I don't want them to work with their hands. But if they do, that's fine, too."