Singaporean, 58, has been living illegally in the US for 28 years

Immigrants prepare to take the oath of citizenship to the United States at a naturalization ceremony at Liberty State Park on Sept 19, 2014, in Jersey City, New Jersey. -- PHOTO: AFP
Immigrants prepare to take the oath of citizenship to the United States at a naturalization ceremony at Liberty State Park on Sept 19, 2014, in Jersey City, New Jersey. -- PHOTO: AFP

He is Singaporean, but for 28 years he has lived illegally in the United States with no social security or bank account, and with a library card as his only photo identification.

Mr T, 58, who spoke with The Straits Times but would not give his full name, is skirting the law as an undocumented immigrant.

He is one of the estimated 11 million in the same category, many from countries such as Mexico, El Salvador and the Philippines. Some found their way in without proper documentation while others stayed beyond the date they were required to leave.

This week, all eyes are on US President Barack Obama. He is expected to act on immigration reform, which he has long said should include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked here for years.

Mr T is one such case. He quit school after Secondary 3 and came to the US in 1986 after losing his job as a senior telecom operator, transcribing voice messages into text.

"A friend told me to come to the US and get a job, but the situation wasn't what he said it would be," says Mr T, who currently works as a home care assistant for the elderly.

Dressed in a purple singlet and checked bermudas - bought on sale because he cannot afford to splurge - he says: "The first couple of years were very difficult, very tough... My first job was as a janitor in an office working for US$4 an hour."

After six months, his tourist visa expired, but he stayed on. "I liked it here," says the bachelor. "I just wanted to stay."

He has no bank account in his name so he often deals in cash. His passport expired after three years and he did not obtain a new one until this year.

He says employers never ask for official documentation so he was able to get by, but he picks the places he works in carefully.

"I never work in Asian restaurants because the officers come in more often... If a restaurant has Mexican busboys, I rather not work there."

He adds: "You have to be smart if you want to survive."

When immigration officers do come knocking, he ducks out. "I'll tell the manager I'm going for a smoke break and won't come back for an hour," he says.

Or, he adds, he'll "make friends" and chat with the officers casually to avoid suspicion.

Over the years, Mr T has taken all manner of odd jobs.

"I've worked at Macy's (department store), as an administrative assistant, personal secretary, restaurant manager, bus boy, landscaper, anything!" he says.

"I don't care about getting dirty." 

He changes jobs every two to six months and has stayed with friends in a number of states, so that the law does not catch up with him.

"I like the change, like to see new things and meet new people," he says.

When his mother died five years ago, he could not return to Singapore as he feared he would be unable to re-enter the US.

He hopes to become a US resident but his priority for now is to avoid the law and continue living in the US.

He says: "It is frustrating waiting to be a resident but I try not to think about it, if not I will get old fast."

Shrugging off the hardships of the past 28 years, he says: "I consider this my home."

simlinoi@sph.com.sg