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Photos Show Rare Glimpse Of How Immigrants Really Live In America

"Anything we can do as people in this profession to just humanize this horrible thing."
09/18/2015 09:49am ET | Updated September 18, 2015

Immigrants. Illegals. Undocumented. Outsiders. It seems like they're all over the headlines now more than ever -- whether about Syrian refugees or whatever comes out of Donald Trump's mouth about Mexico -- with pejorative adjectives used the loudest.

Through her series, "Undocumented," photographer Mary Beth Meehan transcends labels, showing that, underneath all the politicization, these are people -- they've made homes, they go to church, they volunteer at their kids' schools, they're trying to live a life -- just like the rest of us.

"Undocumented immigrants have no recourse in defining their own presence in the media," Meehan told The Huffington Post. So she set out through New England to photograph the interiors of where some live, most of them in tiny spaces, decorated modestly with things that remind them of home.

Mary Beth Meehan
Meehan describes the stories behind the photographs as part of her series, "Undocumented" -- "The mother left the rural poverty of Guatemala in search of money to raise her six children. She left them behind and walked nine hours from the Mexican border to Phoenix, where she then headed to relatives in Rhode Island. Since then, she has sent money home monthly, succeeding in bringing four of her children to the U.S. Two of them she has not seen since she left, twelve years ago."

Meehan found that "people are kind of straddling" a life between America and from where they came. "I don’t think there’s ever that full arrival," she said.

"Whether it was a big, huge Guatemalan flag or these symbols that people are maintaining in their home," Meehan said she was inspired by the glimpses of identity in their surroundings.

"There's a basement apartment, and it obviously doesn’t look real to me, the way the landlord has thrown up sheetrock and created this dwelling in this basement. And it’s a basement, so the windows are way up high and the Guatemalan woman had roosters on everything, napkins, placemats, shower curtains, because they reminded her of Guatemala. It was just poignant to me, very not-nice apartments and they’re trying to make it feel like home. I went to see this Mexican family and there was this bouquet of roses on the dining room table. The husband buys her roses every week. I thought, 'Oh my god, look at these people. He’s working, he’s buying his wife roses, their kids are in public school.' But because of this label, we’re supposed to think of them as criminals."

Mary Beth Meehan
"The woman, a widow, left Guatemala after her son was killed by violence there, 8 years ago. She rents a basement apartment in Rhode Island with another woman, and sends money home from her job cleaning carpets to her other children, who remain in Guatemala," writes photographer Mary Beth Meehan.

While these photographs were taken in 2010 and '11, when Arizona's immigration policy made headlines, they feel just as relevant now as they were then.

Part of the series was most recently on view at Photoville, an outdoor exhibition at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York, in sight of the Statue of Liberty.

"I was really moved by that and I guess it made me wonder if I should start this project up again, expanding my look and that portfolio," she said. "Anything we can do as people in this profession to just humanize this horrible thing."

Check out more photos:

Mary Beth Meehan
"The young Mexican couple spent five years working in Rhode Island with false Social Security numbers before they had saved enough to buy their own home, four years ago," Meehan writes. "They are active in their church and at their childrens' schools. At a kids' birthday party in the fall, the mother sat in the corner with tears in her eyes: Her father had died in Mexico, and if she had tried to attend the funeral, she would not have been able to return."
Mary Beth Meehan
"The man is from the West African country of Guinea Bissau, spending time first in Cape Verde before coming to the United States," Meehan writes. "He works nights doing factory work, and studies English as a Second Language."
Mary Beth Meehan
"The young man came from Cape Verde to Rhode Island with his family as a child and attended the public schools. He had embarked on a life of his own here before being incapacitated by a stroke. He is now back living at home and being cared for by his parents."
Mary Beth Meehan
"The teen-aged sisters are from El Salvador, high-achieving students and aspiring artists who dream of going to college in the United States. Although it is possible to attend college as undocumented immigrants, they have not found their way there, and are now working in a local restaurant that caters to the Spanish-speaking immigrant community."
Mary Beth Meehan
"The Colombian woman's children have begun to question her about why they continue to live in the United States with no clear path open to them. 'We try to keep our kids busy and not think about the situation, and try to do the best we can,' she says. 'Here is a great opportunity for them. They need to work hard, and focus on the future.'"
Mary Beth Meehan
"Cape Verdean man."
Mary Beth Meehan
"Colombian family."
Mary Beth Meehan
"The man from Guinea-Bissau prepares dinner for other friends from Africa."
Mary Beth Meehan
"The young woman is living in Rhode Island on an expired tourist visa from Cape Verde, working in a donut shop and doing hairdressing on the side. Together with her sister, who is also undocumented, they are raising her son."
Mary Beth Meehan
"The man from Guinea-Bissau lived in the apartment with his wife and daughter, until disagreements between them ended the marriage. He now sublets the rooms to other men, from Africa and Cape Verde."

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