Reviewed: Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives
Compiled and edited by Peter Orner
Softcover, 384 pages
Publisher: McSweeney’s, 2008
A story: A man or woman, sometimes a child, sometimes with a child in tow, grows up in a country fractured by extreme poverty, an oppressive government regime, or torn apart by warring factions—sometimes all three. Deciding to escape to a better life, the person then contacts men who promise them entry, for a fee, into that golden land of opportunity, where everyone is treated as equals. The shepherds sell them on an arduous, but worthwhile journey into this land of milk and honey. They sell them on the promise of America.
The refugee then saves, borrows from family and friends, loan sharks or even the men escorting them—known as coyotes to Latin Americans, snake-heads in Asia. The trip is far more difficult than advertised. The prices double, triple, quadruple. They are stuck in intermediary countries for months at a time, becoming the prisoners of their guides. They are extorted, threatened, sometimes beaten. When they finally do get to America—if they get there, having eluded the border authorities and surviving the rough crossing—they are then further squeezed for funds. When they are finally allowed to go off into the country they’d dreamed of, they find that the American dream is no more real than any other fable. The American nightmare, however, is entirely within the realm of possibility.
Work is scarce. They take whatever jobs they can, the type legal citizens would never willingly choose. They work in factories with no real safety regulations; in strawberry and grape fields, toiling under the hot sun; doing dirty work for wealthy people to whom they are practically invisible. They work long hours with no overtime, for pay below the minimum wage. They pay into taxes, but receive no tax benefits. When they get hurt on the job, they receive no compensation. Going to the hospital proves risky, as they are without papers. If they complain about safety conditions, unfair pay, or lecherous treatment by the bosses, they risk having immigration called on them.
They try to get citizenship. They are usually denied. Lawyers promise help, only to drain their pockets without delivering lasting protection. The authorities are as harsh and unsympathetic as the gangsters that brought them in. Judges don’t care. Politicians argue over immigration reform, failing at every level to do anything, except once in a while passing a measure that makes it harder for immigrants, or letting one expire that protects them. Asylum is denied. People are sent back. Sometimes one person eludes the authorities, while their spouses or children aren’t so lucky.
The person makes the trip again and again. They are always sending money home. They live in squalid conditions, usually in a small apartment packed with others like them. They invoke God’s plan. The invoke God’s love. The two seem mutually exclusive, if they exist at all. This is not the old country, whatever that country might be. The Virgin will not heal their wounds. The cross won’t appear in the sky. The bush won’t burn and speak to them. This is America. God is of no help.
This is, by and large, the story of the people profiled in Underground America, the third in McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series, which puts out oral histories of individuals who have witnessed or experienced crisis firsthand (other titles in the series include stories of Hurricane Katrina, the US justice system, and two volumes of accounts from war-torn African countries). Underground America was edited by Peter Orner, lawyer turned fiction writer, and compiled with the help of a group of grad students in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University, who collected dozens of interviews with undocumented immigrants.
Most of the histories included in this book follow the rough template above, except for a few where the collapse of societal compassion in the face of an individual’s basic human rights is even more extreme, such as the story of El Curita, a man from Guatemala who, along with his sister and brother-in-law, was basically held hostage by his employer for a year, and subjected to slave labor; or Olga, a mother from Mexico, whose transgendered daughter, also undocumented, ended up dying of untreated AIDS while in the custody of US immigration authorities.
Granted, as oral histories, there’s no real way to verify the harrowing accounts given in the book. And often, one gets the sense that a detail here or there might be blown out of proportion or given as too one-sided. Everyone knows people who like to hyperbolize when they complain about the rotten conditions of their own job, and there’s no reason to think that undocumented immigrants are any different. But everyone also knows that immigrants in this country are not protected by the same rights as other workers, and toil in industries most Americans avoid. On the whole, the stories remain convincing, and I can’t imagine any reader who isn’t a frothing-at-the-mouth conservative or outright racist not being infuriated at the cruel and broken justice system and political system in the US—though some outrage can be saved for the immigrants’ countries of origin, given the horror stories of their treatment there.
Despite this outrage, in diving into these narratives one is also presented with a disturbing sense of anger—or at least I was—at the storytellers themselves. One can hardly blame them for simply trying to earn a living while keeping their heads down, but after a while, the acceptance of victimization, as well as the endless invocations of God, become infuriating. When South African immigrant Liso—who, in spite of her many other bills and debts, insanely sets aside 120 dollars per month for tithing for her church—responds to someone’s comment that she “works like a slave,” she responds “if I am anyone’s slave, I’m Christ’s.”
Leaving aside the troubling notion of Christ as a slave master, at some point one has to wonder if, when a person accepts the notion of themselves as a slave—even as a religious ideal—their exploited condition becomes one they’re to some extent complicit in. I was reminded, when reading narratives such as Liso’s, of the famous (and misattributed) Emiliano Zapata quote: “I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” One can’t help but wish for a similar spirit of resistance in the narratives, which so often express an acceptance of subservience.
In his introduction, Peter Orner writes that the point of the book is not to try and sway anyone’s mind on immigration policy, but simply to expose them to the reality of life as an undocumented worker firsthand. While an undoubtedly noble and worthwhile endeavor, the narratives in Underground America are unlikely to sway anyone from their previously held assumptions about the policy and politics of the subject. Though it will affect any reader with an ounce of compassion, the book as a whole may have an unintended effect: to disillusion the idealist who reserves hope for a better future for undocumented people living in this country. My feeling of the hopelessness of it all was epitomized in this sentence by Yogesh, a twenty-four year old student from India, who, though coming here as a legal orphan at the age of eleven, was stripped of his legal status after he stopped being a dependent on his adopted parents’ green card. He says of his uncertain future: “I’ve become optimistic lately because I would be covered by the DREAM Act, if it passes.”
The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) was a congressional bill that, if passed, would have allowed for those like Yogesh who hoped to attend college the opportunity to obtain legitimate, legal residency status. It’s been introduced several times since 2003, and in late 2010, with the largest share of Democratic congressional power in decades, it was pushed forward again. It passed in the House and went on to the Senate.
In the Senate, it was killed.