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2017-18 Issue V Editors' Picks National

Health and Heart for Undocumented Residents

Maria walked into the pharmacy at 10:26 A.M to begin her shift. She greeted customers who were already lining up in the tiny storefront, whistled at the cashier, and set her stuff down. She was an hour and a half late.

“When you’ve been working at a store like this for a couple years, it turns into your home,” she told The Politic. “I’m here 6 days a week, I know all the customers, I know where the gum is on the sidewalk outside. I can smell when our cleaning staff changed their detergent.”

“When you know a place like I know this one, so what if I’m a little bit late. They treat me like family,” she said with a shrug.

On the corner of West 146th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York, Amsterdam Pharmacy sits wedged between a fried chicken joint and a pizza parlor. The storefront’s green paint is chipping, and the sidewalk leading to the pharmacy is in desperate need of renovation. A pair of teenagers sits outside the store and smokes cigarettes, conversing in Spanish and English.

Although the CVS building two blocks away is three times larger and often cheaper, Amsterdam’s customers remain loyal. For some of the Bronx’s residents, the local pharmacy is a safe haven amid national political turmoil.

Maria moved to the Bronx from Mexico fourteen years ago with her then-six-month-old daughter. She heard the Bronx had other people like her: single mothers fleeing abusive relationships, hoping to build stable lives in the U.S. Since then, Maria has obtained legal status in the United States. After obtaining legal status, she found Amsterdam pharmacy, which offered her employment.

Since 1989, New York has been a “sanctuary city,” a place where local law enforcement officials and public servants limit their assistance to federal immigration officers. These cities—which include New Haven, New York, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore—often do not use municipal funds to enforce immigration laws and do not allow local police officers to inquire about residents’ immigration status.

When Maria initially moved to the Bronx, Maria joined a community of about 110,000 undocumented residents. 

She explained that she was lucky enough to become a legal resident of New York City. “I found a place here… I’ve lived here for fourteen years. I’ve raised my kids here, I pay taxes,” Maria said.

But not everyone can be as confident as Maria.

Michael is a loyal customer to Amsterdam Pharmacy. He walked in at noon, hugged Maria, and picked out a birthday card for his girlfriend. He couldn’t find one he liked, but he wasn’t concerned.

“Yeah, a big drugstore would have a lot more options, but I know the manager here, I know [Maria], I know them all,” he said in an interview with The Politic. “They’ve helped me through some rough times…they knew me when I barely spoke English. I love it here.”

Michael works as a handyman around the city and sends money to his parents in Mexico as often as possible. After the 2008 financial crisis, Michael found that New Yorkers were less willing to take on home projects, and he struggled to make ends meet. With a tight budget, Michael began frequenting fast food chains. “White people, they go to Shoprite maybe, buy apples or chicken maybe. I couldn’t do that. I’d be a fool if I did that.”

Soon, Michael’s low-budget eating took a toll on his health. He suffered from gastritis and high cholesterol. Lacking proper insurance, he ignored his illnesses. But he could not deny that he needed medical attention when, four years ago, he collapsed in a customer’s home on a job.

Michael began frequenting Amsterdam, where the staff helped him find over-the-counter medicines he could afford. 

“You think CVS would do that for me?” He laughed at his own rhetorical question. “That’s why I come back every week. Local joints like this one, people like me owe them everything.”

But Michael knew that Amsterdam’s support was no substitute for government policy. In January 2017, the Justice Department threatened to issue subpoenas to twenty-three sanctuary citiesincluding New York—if they did not prove that law enforcement officers were cooperating with federal immigration officers. Attorney General Sessions has attempted to cut off sanctuary cities’ federal funding, and Immigration and Customs Officials have increased their immigration raids, often arriving in courts, unannounced, to make arrests. Given these realities, The Politic has used the pseudonyms Maria and Michael to protect our sources’ identities.

In President Trump’s first 100 days in office, New York saw 17 arrests of undocumented residents at city courthouses. By contrast, the last two years of the Obama Administration saw a total of 19 arrests, according to the Immigrant Defense Project, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization.

Former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly defended the arrests, in part by pointing to the criminal records of those arrested. “75 percent of the people that the great men and women of ICE have taken into custody, 75 percent are criminals,” he said in February of 2017 on Fox and Friends. “The other 25 percent are not innocent…but they are not necessarily convicted criminals.”

New York’s local government has also responded to federal policy that puts undocumented people at risk. Mayor de Blasio allocated over 16 million dollars for legal services to support undocumented immigrants in detention, refugees, and undocumented children. “The City is doing everything in its power to protect and uplift workers,” a spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio’s office told The Politic.

In 2017, ICE issued 1,526 detainer requests to the New York Police Department to detain undocumented immigrants for up to 48 hours. In keeping with New York’s standing as a sanctuary city, the department refused to cooperate with any of the requests.

“I feel lucky to live in New York, I do,” Michael said. “De Blasio does what he can, and I keep working as hard as I can…I pretend that stuff in Washington, that doesn’t exist if you keep working hard.”

He laughed. He said he knew he was fooling himself, but he paid for his birthday card, said his goodbyes to the staff, to Maria, to me, and walked out Amsterdam’s foggy glass door. He’d be back tomorrow.