Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant
“Whatever the reader may think about American immigration policy and N.’s rather unusual personal situation for a Mexican immigrant, we have to appreciate his determination to take full advantage of the American window of possibility that he has pried open by living a lie.”
Immigration is a cornerstone of the American dream of upward mobility based on individual initiative, hard work, and freedom to pursue opportunity. No doubt immigrants have added vitality and a wide diversity of experience and aptitudes to the American melting pot.
Yet this foundational myth is based on a very circumscribed concept of immigration that implies: whiter and Northern European is better—or at least easier—to melt into that melting pot we hold so precious. As well, legal status increasingly is a prerequisite for ensuring an appropriate place on the achievement and status ladder.
Illegal is the compelling and timely personal narrative of a young Mexican immigrant who has clawed his way many rungs up this ladder, only to lose momentum repeatedly because of his illegal status, which forces him to live his life “amid the shadows.”
N. (authorial anonymity is required for his own protection) starts with the familiar story of joining the anonymous army of poor, would-be migrants attempting to sneak into America under cover of night. Having no real idea what this passage would involve, N. blindly follows his coyote guide “this Mexican Moses who promises to deliver us from the jaguar’s oppression.”
He burrows under the tall, rusty iron curtain that marked the border in 1990, sprints through the darkness, hides from searchlights in the treacherous desert scrub, and crawls through a noxious pipe to a pleasant suburb of San Diego.
“So far in my journey, I have felt only humiliated and robbed of human dignity. But now, breaking into somebody’s backyard at night, I’ve become an intruder, and it shames me deeply.” Already we can see that N. is a reflective man whose pursuit of a better life is driven by hungers other than sheer physical need.
Arriving in America with only a ninth grade education—though that is considerably more than many of his compatriots—N. makes his way to Chicago. There, he works a variety of menial jobs for a decade while studying ESL, getting his GED, and graduating from college and graduate school.
Obtaining a middle-class office job as a translator and buying a luxury high-rise condo, N. was able to live the American fairy tale. Meanwhile, his relatives in the city clung to their Little Mexico cocoon, lacking the need and the will to learn English.
What makes N. different? His hunger for education.
Yet N.’s “success” is always contingent on concealing his illegality and has come at a huge price. Isolated by his lack of valid documents, law school, travel, and big promotions are out of reach as they require identity checks. In fact, he lives in perpetual anxiety about losing his job.
In everyday life, fear and humiliation are constant pinpricks in N’s assumed American skin. A police officer ridicules his broken English; he can’t buy a beer for his girlfriend at the ballpark when a vendor challenges his ID; he declines to present a paper at an academic conference because of his heavy accent; he is unable to buy a bottle of wine from a liquor store or go out for a drink with his coworkers.
Most isolating, unlike the majority of Mexican illegals in the U.S. who go home from time to time, as a professional N. has too much to lose from the high risk of detention at the border. He fabricates a trip to Mexico to appear normal in office chit-chat, but in reality he can only visit on Skype. “When they miss family, other people I know schedule a visit. I, a video chat.”
N. notes that this feeling of being in America, but not fully living in it is not confined to illegals. “Whoever got the idea of identifying foreigners with the label of “alien resident” knew exactly what he was doing. A green card may grant you legal status, but it doesn’t take away the stigma of alienation. It doesn’t guarantee your integration in society.”
In sum, N.’s life under the radar is permeated by an everpresent sense of “distance, clandestinity, criminalization, vulnerability, fear, lack of mobility, exclusion, uncertainty, humiliation.”
Although often frustrated, N. does not complain much about his precarious circumstances. “I’ve grown used to living in the shadows. Although it is plagued with inconveniences, I’ve learned to embrace this lifestyle wholeheartedly. If I had to, I’d choose to live it all over again—every single minute of it. I’ve come to appreciate the anonymity . . . There is ample room for growth in the shadows.”
And N. has grown immeasurably in the many solitary evenings he has spent reading philosophy and literature while listening to music and sipping a cabernet in his condo aerie.
The main deception N. has encountered in America is betrayal by politicians. As candidates they promise, eloquently, a secure future for illegals but shelve this contentious issue once in office when faced by the noisy posturing of anti-immigrant groups. “In the conservative discourse, I am a trespasser and a criminal.”
Immigration reform is due to be debated again in Congress soon. N. is not holding his breath. “Let them try to come out in my defense. Let them call me names. It is all a show. It comes down to nothing. They are all actors craving the spotlight, the microphones, the cameras!
N. wrote the main body of this memoir between 2008 and 2010. It is written in a unique style and format. He eschews chronology for a spiraling unraveling and reweaving of the strands that comprise his new American identities.
This makes the narrative at times repetitious and the man himself elusive. So N. made a good decision to add a short postscript in 2012 after he learned his book would be published.
This addendum brings N. into focus, out of the shadows. Now married to his American girlfriend, he is a new father and a homeowner. As long feared, he lost his job over his false ID and worries about making house payments.
N. gardens, does some DIY, and even engages in a modest form of community activism, though cautious about attracting attention. And he continues to read and write, which seem as necessary to him as breathing.
Whatever the reader may think about American immigration policy and N.’s rather unusual personal situation for a Mexican immigrant, we have to appreciate his determination to take full advantage of the American window of possibility that he has pried open by living a lie.