ALL STORIES ARE REFUGEES FROM DANGEROUS LANDS
by Luis Alberto Urrea
Undocumented immigrants have no way to tell you what they have experienced, or why, or who they are, or what they think. They are, by the very nature of their experience, invisible. Most of us pass them byâ€”some of us might say a prayer for them, some of us wish they would return to their countries of origin. But nobody asks them what they think. Nobody stops and simply asks.
Let me tell you a brief story.Â
Outside of Chicago, there is a pancake house. The busboys are all undocumented. Nothing particularly unusual about this. Yet one of them is particularly worthy of notice: Iâ€™ll call him Alex. Alex is short and fierceâ€”he looks like an Aztec warrior. He has a ponytail. His arms are covered with tattoos. He is a death-metal guitarist.
Heâ€™s also straight-edge: no drugs, no cigarettes, no alcohol. He lives six miles from the restaurant, rooming with an undocumented single mother. They are not romantically involved.Â
Alex helps his hostess keep house; he pays rent; he cooks for her; and he helps the children with their schoolwork. They show him how to use the computer. He rides to and from work every day on a bicycle donated to him by a Republican businessman who eats breakfast at the pancake house several days a week and noticed that Alex worked faster and harder than the waitresses. He chose to reward Alexâ€™s excellent work ethic.
That the benefactor is a Republican is not really shocking. After all, the suburb where Alex works is overwhelmingly conservative: Bush/Cheney bumper stickers still, though tattered, proudly adorn many SUVs. The businessman, of course, is legal. It is always important to point this out. Legal aliens always do.
It is also not surprising, for those who know much about the squalid border situation, to hear that Alex has parents back in Mexico who, betrayed by Mexicoâ€™s chaos and corruption, are old and infirm and have no money with which to survive. Alex sends the majority of his money home to help his parents and, more importantly, his kid brother. Alex doesnâ€™t want this brother to come north. Alex isnâ€™t proud to be here. Heâ€™s working so hard he canâ€™t afford to return home to see his brother get marriedâ€”but he is managing to help pay for that wedding and that familyâ€™s sad homestead in the Motherland.
Hereâ€™s the part that you might find surprising.
After one of the busboys from the pancake house hanged himself in his closet, unable to take the pressure of the illegal life, Alex discovered a lump in his own throat. The owners of the restaurant got him to a clinic. The biopsy cost five hundred dollars. It was cancer. There was no way Alex could afford the surgeryâ€”he couldnâ€™t even afford the biopsy.
Alex was going to die.
But the American businessman of the American pancake house had another idea. He didnâ€™t want Alex to die. The old-timers who ate their oatmeal and waffles every day, the moms stopping by after dropping their kids off at school, the cops, the store clerks from the strip-mall, they didnâ€™t want Alex to die either. Not like that. Not alone and forgotten.
They took up a collection and paid for the entire thing. They covered the medical costs and the surgery. Right there in the pancake house, they took up collections and set up donation jugs, and they saved Alexâ€™s life. And this, too, is a reason why he doesnâ€™t think he can go home yet. He feels he owes his service as thanks.
There will be people outraged by this story. Why is Alex our problem?Â
Maybe itâ€™s a human story.
* * *
In listening lies wisdom. Decide whatever you want to decide. Put on your What Would Jesus Do bracelet and carry water around Arizona for the parched souls wandering in the desert, or put on your night vision goggles and get your lawn chair out on the Devilâ€™s Highway and hunt down some illegals. But first, inform yourself.
I have been struggling to silence my own prejudices on this issue for years. I am trying to pay attention.Â
It should serve as an indication of how truly lacking understanding is on this issue that those who suggest we stop and educate ourselves are often vilified as apologists for the invasion. If one were to, oh, letâ€™s say edit a book of oral histories of the -immigration -experience, that editor would be amazed at how quickly claims of America-hating follow. It might be interesting to note here that looking at the stories of these immigrants does not, perforce, dictate that the looker is against our sovereign nationâ€™s well-being. The old clichÃ©, knowledge is power, is true. Perhaps we should recall that the first great American anti-immigration political movement of times past was called the Know-Nothing Party.
I am telling you this not as a traitor, but as a patriot. I love my country, and so do the editors of this book. Real patriots are not afraid of the truth, and they are not afraid to love the stranger. How can we understand the problem if we donâ€™t listen? How can we fix it if we donâ€™t understand it?Â
by Peter Orner
In the fall of 2005, I represented an asylum-seeker in a case before the Immigration Court in San Francisco. It was my first case since I left the law to write fiction. My client, Eduardo, was from Guatemala. In the 1980s, the Guatemalan army carried out a campaign of systematic murder against indigenous people like Eduardo. His father was killed, but Eduardo, his mother, and sister were spared death. Instead, they were held captive and terrorized for nearly a decade in the home of a paramilitary officer. It was in this house in a slum far from his native village that Eduardo and his sister grew up.Â
In Eduardoâ€™s own words:
We stayed in his house. Even when the man was gone, we didnâ€™t leave the house. We didnâ€™t play with other children in the area. When I was about five years old, I pastured cows with my sister. Sometimes we would lose one and stay out until five or six in the evening to try and find it. If we couldnâ€™t find it weâ€™d tell the man, shaking with fear. Heâ€™d take out a whip and beat us, leaving our backs bloody. Or heâ€™d use an extension cord or television antenna. When my mother tried to defend us, he would shove her and threaten her with a machete. Anytime there was a problem, that man would hit my mother and tell her he was going to torture her, quarter her. One day I asked my mother what â€œquarterâ€ meant. She told me, â€œItâ€™s when they remove pieces of a personâ€™s body when theyâ€™re still alive.â€
When he was fourteen, Eduardo managed to escape to Guatemala City, where, for the first time, he went to school. Seven years later, his mother and sister also escaped. It was then that his former captor made it known through his network of paramilitary contacts that he was looking for Eduardo. So, at twenty-two, Eduardo fled Guatemala, making his way north through Mexico to the U.S. border. There he swam across the Rio Grande into southwestern Texas, where he was arrested on the north bank. Eduardo requested asylum and was placed in temporary detention, a place he later said was a lot like jail. Later, with the help of lawyers and relatives, he was released and eventually made his way to California, where I took on his case.(1)
Given the details of his story and the fact that being granted asylum rests primarily on a few basic principlesâ€”including whether the asylum seeker has been persecuted in the past on the basis of at least one of several factors, among them ethnicity, and whether he reasonably fears that such persecution might happen again in the futureâ€” I went into the hearing with confidence. Call me naÃ¯ve. That day in October 2005, the judge rushed through the case, comporting herself with an air of Iâ€™ve heard all this before.
Afterward, as Eduardo and I sat there dumbfounded, staring at the empty judgeâ€™s chair (in my memory, it keeps spinning after she departed), the opposing government counsel came over and said, not without sympathy, that Eduardo had been credible and that our case had been a strong one. She suggested that the judge might have just simply seen one too many Guatemalans that day.
One too many Guatemalans. Over the next few months those words rattled around my head. Eduardo had survived a horrific experience only to be considered one of too many. Maybe Eduardoâ€™s essential problem was his very existence. His presence alone seemed to have pushed the judge over some imaginary line.
Even so, I thought, the courts acknowledge asylum-seekers like Eduardo. His story was heard, if not quite listened to. Afterward, I began to think about all those other people out there implied in the phrase one too many Guatemalans, which seemed to me another way of saying one too many stories.
Of course, not everyone who enters this country illegally has a good case under U.S. asylum law. Poverty, for instance, no matter how severe or degrading, is not considered a cause for asylum. Still, I couldnâ€™t help thinking how many storiesâ€”legally tenable or notâ€”go untold. The truth is that many millions of immigrants in this country, the so-called undocumented, are here to workâ€”for themselves and for their families. We hear a lot about these people in the media. We hear they are responsible for crime. We hear they take our jobs, our benefits. We hear they refuse to speak English. But how often do we hear from them?
I may have lost Eduardoâ€™s case,(2) but as a writer I believe strongly in the power of stories to render absurd certain distinctions drawn by our laws.(3) I also have faith that a reader willing to walk in someone elseâ€™s shoes for a while will take more time than a hurried judge to listen to a life story.
So with the help of a dedicated team of graduate students in the Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State University, as well as a group of volunteer lawyers, writers, and independent filmmakers, I began searching for stories. These stories became a part of Voice of Witness, a book series devoted to publishing the oral histories of people around the world who have had their human and civil rights violated.
Our interviewers spread out across the country to listen and collect the stories of more than sixty people.(4) We went to New York City and Washington, D.C. and Chicago and Houston. We traveled to Dodge City, Kansas; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Mount Vernon, Washington. We talked to people in living rooms, on the street, in public libraries, in nursing homes, and once in the parking lot of a putt-putt golf course. We received valuable assistance from generous individuals we met along the way, including an endlessly resourceful Roman Catholic sister in western Kansas, an airport shuttle-bus driver in Washington, D.C., and a poet in Galesburg, Illinois, among many others.
There were also times when we did not have to go looking very hard to find stories. A number of our direct connections were made through friends and family. Consider your own life: what is the degree of separation between you and someone who lacks documents that allow them to stay in this country legally?
Our process was hardly systematic, and this book is not a comprehensive examination of the life of undocumented immigrants in the United States in 2007. Yet Iâ€™m not even sure such a thing is possible. We are, after all, talking about a diverse population that is estimated to total somewhere between twelve and fifteen million people.(5)
Although statistics show that a significant proportion of the undocumented come from Latin America, we cannot begin to talk honestly about this population without recognizing that they hail from across the globe. What follows in this book are the accounts of individuals from more than a dozen countries, including Mexico, China, South Africa, Colombia, Peru, Pakistan, Guatemala, and Cameroon. As we gathered these stories, recurrent patterns began to emerge, the most predominant being that many of our narrators cannot depend on the basic legal protections most of us take for granted. In story after story, the law is most often something to fear, not something to call upon for help.
Further, the law forces undocumented people to live in a state of permanent anxiety. The sheer number of undocumented immigrants makes it impossible for the government to enforce immigration laws uniformly. Because we lack the resources, political will, and social consensus to uniformly enforce, meaning deport twelve to fifteen million people, we choose to penalize the few, and allow the majority to live in fear. But the undocumented are not, to use a term I must have picked up in law school, per se criminals no matter how much we treat them as such. Needless to say, arbitrary enforcement leads to incredible paradoxes. Some of the narrators in this book are in college and live more or less openly; others toil on farms and in factories for fifteen hours a day and hide away at night. One narrator owns various businesses, employs many legal workers, and has assets worth almost a million dollars. Another is a cleaning lady whose daughter died in federal custody while chained to a bed.
The lack of legal protection afforded to undocumented immigrantsâ€”as well as the capricious enforcement of lawsâ€”has led to serious human rights abuses, both by the government and by those private individuals who would exploit the vulnerability of undocumented people. It is not that undocumented people do not have human rights.(6) It is that exercising these rights in the real world is another matter entirely.
The culture of anxiety that is every day life in America for the undocumented all too often precludes people from seeking protection, even when that protection may in fact be available. The fear of deportation, of being separated from oneâ€™s family, of losing oneâ€™s job, frequently overrides any wish to go to authorities. Examples in this book abound where the lawâ€”in the form of immigration agents, police officers, the county sheriffâ€”is far more interested in whether a person is here illegally than other, and perhaps more egregious, violations of the law.
Yet we are a country that prides itself on our human rights record, so much so that weâ€”to our creditâ€”monitor violations committed by and in other countries throughout the world. At home, however, undocumented people experience significant human rights abuses that include, to name only a few here: unsafe working conditions, separation of families, arbitrary detention, forced labor, harassment, working for less than minimum wage,(7) and violence.(8)
Given the dangers they face, we were surprised by the willingness of undocumented people to talk to us. One academic expert on labor and immigration issues told us we were wasting our time, saying that the undocumented would never put their stories on record. Yet we discovered that most people we approached were not only willing to talk, they welcomed the invitation be heard. For many of them, it was the first time anybody had ever asked them to really talk about themselves and their families.
Lately, there have been cases in which the government has appeared to retaliate against undocumented people who have dared to speak up,(9) to say, as Adela does toward the end of this book, Here I am. See me. The individuals you are about to meet took a risk in talking to us and allowing their stories to be shared with the public. They did it because they wanted you to read them.
In the beginning, we thought of organizing the book by occupation. The table of contents would look something like: 1. Migrant Farmworker 2. Meatpacker 3. Construction worker 4. Day Laborer 5. Nanny.
We abandoned this idea after one of our narrators, the man who calls himself El Mojado, put it this way: â€œOne job? Last year I worked in a dairy. Now I lay carpeting. I used to work in a body shop. Before that I was a meatpackerâ€¦ Iâ€™ve sold chickens.â€ Or take Inez, who told us, â€œIâ€™ve lived here for three years. The Hudson Valley, New York. At first I picked cherries. I got to be as dark as this chocolate brown sofa. So much sun. After a while a girl asked me to work with her on housecleaning. You see how all my life is work? Iâ€™m in a restaurant now. I wash dishes for however many hours they need me. I donâ€™t stop washing until my hands are rubbed raw.â€
These men and women cannot be summed up by the jobs they do, no matter how hard or how many hours a day they work. In fact, the only thing that truly links them together is their lack of federal immigration statusâ€”in other words, certain pieces of paper. An undocumented person is not undocumented at all. Of course they have documents: family photos, diplomas, driverâ€™s licenses,(10) love letters, emails, credit card bills, tax forms, homework, childâ€™s drawingsâ€¦
That the people in this book are an integral part of this society and this economy is indisputable. This is not a partisan position; itâ€™s reality. Among the first American combat casualties in Iraq was a young Guatemalan marine who entered illegally into the United States as a teenager in 1997; his name was JosÃ© GutiÃ©rrez. Two weeks after his death, the United States granted Lance Corporal GutiÃ©rrez posthumous citizenship in honor of the ultimate sacrifice he made for his country.(11)
* * *
We cannot begin to understand the situation facing undocumented people in this country unless we start listening to them directly.
Although there is much pain in these stories, Underground America is not a compendium of suffering. This is a collection of voices. These narrators are neither uniformly saints nor sinners. When they are not being detained or deported, when they are not hiding from ICE agents, the border patrol, or Minutemenâ€”when they are not being abused on the job, when they are not being preyed upon by those who take advantage of their lack of statusâ€”the people in this book are struggling the best they can to get through the day, to keep their families safe, to make a little money, maybe even to save some. Is there anything more American than this? Itâ€™s only that they must keep silent. And thereâ€™s nothing very American about not being able to speak up.
(1) I was working as a volunteer with the Immigration Unit of the Lawyersâ€™ Committee for Civil Rights, a national organization with an office in San Francisco. The Lawyersâ€™ Committee matches lawyers with people in need of assistance with their asylum cases. I was assisted on Eduardoâ€™s case by Leticia Pavon.
(2) The good news for Eduardo is that it wasnâ€™t lost for good. On appeal, his case was overturned and he was granted asylum, in a rare reversal by the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is now living and working in California.
(3) There may be a legal difference between an asylum-seeker trying to prove persecution and what one might call an economic refugee, but I contend that in the face of a desperate human being, the difference can become almost meaningless. In addition, often people do not even apply for asylum out of fear of deportation should they lose, choosing instead to risk living here as an undocumented person.
(4) Twenty-four of which were chosen for this book.
(5) No reliable figures exist because the undocumented have not been counted. Congress has estimated the number to be about twelve million people, while other estimates, including one released by Bear, Stearns & Co., place the number at twenty million. See: Christian Science Monitor, â€œIllegal Immigrants in the U.S.: How many are there?â€ May 16, 2006.
(6) Including those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as certain Constitutional rights, among these the right to free speech.
(7) In violation of state and federal law. For example, see California labor code Â§1171.5, which states: â€œAll protections, rights, and remedies available under state law, except any reinstatement remedy prohibited by federal law, are available to all individuals regardless of immigration status who have applied for employment, or who are or who have been employed, in this state.â€
(8) Undocumented people are often reluctant to report crimes to the police. For a discussion of this particular issue, see the Republican Debate in November 2007 when Mitt Romney took Rudy Giuliani to task for allowing undocumented immigrants to report crimes in New York City without disclosing their immigration status. (Washington Post, November 29, 2007, â€œIn Debate, Romney and Giuliani Clash on Immigration Issuesâ€)
(9) A prominent recent case of possible government retaliation involves Elvira Arellano, 32, mother of an American-born son. See the New York Times, August 21, 2007, â€œIllegal Immigrant Advocate for Families is Deported.â€ In another case, one involving an undocumented Vietnamese student, the legally present parents and siblings were jailed temporarily after their daughter commented publicly on the DREAM Act, a pending bill in Congress that would open a path to citizenship to undocumented children who came to the U.S. with their undocumented parents. See USA Today, â€œImmigrantâ€™s Family Detained After Daughter Speaks Out,â€ October 16, 2007.
(10) In Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
(11) CBS News, 60 Minutes II, August 20, 2003.