Feature | Afraid to Talk: Undocumented Chinese workers struggle for justice 

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“I must tell you one thing first,” insists Kemer Gao, a 28-year-old undocumented Chinese immigrant, before beginning his story of how he came to America. “God helped me to come here. Without God, I could never be here.” Gao says this emphatically, drumming his hand over his heart as he searches for the words in English, his right thumb stiff to his hand, now months after it was smashed to pieces in a work accident. When Gao left his home in Tsingtao, China, as a struggling college graduate, after making it to the United States last year, he felt welcomed by the opportunity, pride and most importantly, the faith of his new home.

“America is a Christian country,” Gao says. “God blessed America and that is why America is so powerful.” While God may have blessed Gao with faith and hope he’d never known before, it wasn’t until he came to Utah that his newfound faith would be tested. Gao toiled for months at a Sandy-area Chinese grocery store where, he says, he worked for an under-the-table wage at a brutal work pace: 12-hour-plus shifts, six days a week, with no rest breaks during the day, working fast and hard on the loading dock at the back of the market. This past October, Gao was scrambling at the end of a long night to unload a diesel truck when he accidentally smashed his thumb between a wall and a pallet jack loaded with hundreds of pounds of merchandise.

Gao claims the “Boss Man,” Eugene Han, owner of the Super China Market told him he would have to tell doctors that the accident happened at home and not at work. Gao listened to his boss, only to have his boss withhold months of wages from Gao because the injury kept him from working at his pre-accident pace.

“I had no reason to say “no” to him,” Gao says. “At the time, I had been in America less than one year; he [Han] had been in America 10 years.” Han repeatedly refused to comment on Gao’s allegations.

Gao, like other undocumented laborers at the Super China Market, lived in a world far removed from home, isolated by language and culture. All any of them could do was what the Boss Man told them.

But Gao could do more, and he did. Because of his English skills, he found a way to receive workers compensation benefits for the time he would spend recuperating after two surgeries on his thumb. But, once the compensation checks started to come in, it wasn’t long until Han fired Gao and kicked him out of his employee housing. Gao wasn’t the first. A few months before Gao lost his job, so did his friend, WanZhi Zhu.

“Uncle” Zhu lost his job after getting into a fight with another employee. The work quarrel spiraled into a fight at the mobile home where several employees lived. Sandy Police were dispatched, and the fight ended with blood spilled. Zhu was taken away in an ambulance after being stabbed twice. When Zhu came back from the hospital, his job was gone, and he was kicked out of the house onto the streets. The middle-age Chinese man settled into the Road Home downtown shelter, speaking no English and having no friends or family in the city, the state or even the country.

Lost in a world where he had no idea where to turn for help or even how to speak the language, Zhu joined many others of Utah’s undocumented immigrants, lost by the law and its protection. But, for Asian immigrants like Zhu and Gao, the challenges of immigration are especially trying: dramatically different language systems, fear of government authority and a lack of a strong safety net for legal advocacy—leave little hope in the minds of these immigrants of a better tomorrow.

Far From Home

Gao didn’t understand what America was about until he made it into the country. “I was in Los Angeles when I saw a man with a shirt that says, ‘Be proud of America,’” Gao says. “He was right.”

As a graduate of Shan Dong University in China, Gao had been living a simple life finding work where he could with his computer-science degree. And, thanks to the English he had learned in his spare time, he did translation work. In China, he had heard a lot about America—part myth, truth and lies. It was like another world he never needed to worry about.

“The [Chinese] government talked too many bad things about America. But they just try to fool us,” Gao says. “But I was a university student, I was open-minded. I could check the Internet.”

Gao responded to an ad from a man willing to pay someone with English skills who could help get his girlfriend into America. Soon, Gao was flying across the ocean, with a man and a woman from his hometown, traveling to see for themselves what America was about.

Landing in Los Angeles in January 2007, Gao acted as an interpreter for the U.S. consulate where he explained the trio was seeking a business visa for a short-term visit to a concrete expo in Las Vegas. Gao was the interpreter and his companions were “company representatives.” Their visa was granted, but they never made it to Las Vegas. After leaving the consulate, the trio split up, the woman to New York City and the man to Miami. Without a work permit, Gao stuck close to the large Chinese community in Los Angeles.

“They told us we were very lucky,” Gao says. “Someone said it is maybe 99 percent impossible that I could get [a business] visa at my age. “That’s why I think God helped me.”

For Gao, Los Angeles (like many U.S. cities) was an “employment center,” a place where the friendly Chinese community could link up immigrants with jobs all across the country—for wages above the table and under. Soon, Gao had a phone interview with a man named Eugene Han, who owned a market in Utah. By August 2007, Gao had left California for his new home in Sandy.

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