Underground America: Permanent Anxiety


“The Arizona law is not the problem. The problem is that we continue, on all sides of the political spectrum, to not listen to those most directly affected by immigration policy: immigrants themselves.”

The following is an introduction I wrote for a collection of oral histories, Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, published in 2008 by McSweeney’s/ Voice of Witness. The book was translated into Spanish and published in 2009 under the title: En Las Sombras De Estados Unidos co-edited by myself and Sandra Hernandez.

I pretty much stand by what I wrote in 2008. In fact, the situation for most undocumented people remains largely the same now as it did then, with the possible exception that the dehumanization of these undocumented people has become more fanatical, as we see in this outrageous new law in Arizona.

But it should be said that the Arizona law is not the problem. The problem is that we continue, on all sides of the political spectrum, to not listen to those most directly affected by immigration policy: immigrants themselves – people who deserve to be heard not talked about incessantly as if they aren’t in the room. In our book, Underground America, we sought to listen.

It should also be said that in spite of President Obama’s strong words condemning the Arizona law as well as his repeatedly signaling that the administration would implement a more humane immigration policy, the fact is that the federal government has continued to pursue many of the Bush administration’s enforcement policies. So – in some ways this Arizona law gives us those on the left or center left in this country a chance to pat ourselves on the back. See – look at those right wing lunatics in Arizona! We aren’t like that!

No, we aren’t. But the U.S. under Obama, in spite of apparent good intentions, has yet to do anything especially meaningful to stop what remains a human rights crisis in this country. Word among many in the immigration community is that the government has stepped up enforcement against employers who hire undocumented immigrants as opposed to the Bush way of only going after the workers themselves. A good sign. The government is also working to create a new civil detention system that is not – as it is now – based on a criminal justice model. Again, a step in the right direction. Undocumented immigrants are not criminals. Under federal law, those who cross the border illegally are committing a civil, not a criminal, offense.

One last thought, and something I tried to address in this introduction a couple of years ago. The complicated issue of mixed families. So many of the people we met and interviewed for our book have one or more U.S. citizens in the family. Among the worst direct results of wrong-headed immigration policy (and again not only absurd, apparently unconstitutional laws like the one that passed in Arizona) is that the law separates family, divides mother from daughter, wife from husband, brother from sister. Our book tried to show that above all else, the immigration issue is about families.


Permanent Anxiety

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 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.

In Eduardo’s own words:

We stayed in his house. Even when the man was gone, we didn’t leave the house. We didn’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 couldn’t find it we’d tell the man, shaking with fear. He’d take out a whip and beat us, leaving our backs bloody. Or he’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 “quarter” meant. She told me, “It’s when they remove pieces of a person’s body when they’re still alive.”

When he was fourteen, Eduardo’s mother managed to have her son smuggled 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 over his case.1

Given the details of his story and the fact that being granted asylum rests primarily on a few basic principles—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 it might happen in the future—I went into the hearing with confidence. It was the confidence, I learned, of a naïve lawyer. That day in October 2005, the judge rushed through the case, comporting herself with an air of I’ve heard all this before. The entire hearing took less than an hour, with roughly twenty minutes devoted to Eduardo’s story.

Asylum denied.

Afterward, as Eduardo and I sat there dumbfounded, staring at the empty judge’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 would haunt me. Maybe Eduardo’s essential problem was his very existence. Perhaps the court had already met its quota of Guatemalans that day. Perhaps no matter how sympathetic Eduardo’s plight, it wouldn’t have mattered. His presence alone pushed the judge over some imaginary line.

Even so, at least the courts acknowledge people like Eduardo. His story was heard, if only for twenty minutes. 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 under current American law. Still, I couldn’t help thinking how many stories—legally tenable or not—go untold. The truth is that many millions of immigrants in this country, the so-called undocumented, are never heard from at all.

I may have lost Eduardo’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—a genuinely open-minded reader, willing to walk in someone else’s shoes—will set aside more than twenty minutes to hear a life story.

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 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 thirty people. 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. We received valuable assistance from generous individuals we met along the way, including an endlessly resourceful Catholic nun in western Kansas, a poet in Galesburg, Illinois, an airport shuttle-bus driver in Washington, D.C., and many other people who work directly with undocumented immigrants.

There were also times 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. We are, after all, talking about a segment of the population that is estimated to total somewhere between twelve and fifteen million people.

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 could not depend on the basic legal protections most of us take for granted. In story after story, the law was something to fear, not something to call upon for help.

Not only is the law not there to help undocumented people, it forces them 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.4 This 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 immigrants,5 as well as the capricious enforcement of laws, has led to serious human rights abuses, both by the government and by those who exploit the vulnerability of people who lack the rights of legal residents and citizens.

We were surprised by the willingness of 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 were willing to tell their stories, they welcomed the invitation to speak and be heard. For many of them, it was the first time anybody had ever asked them to really talk about themselves.

For the protection of our narrators, some of their names have been changed. It would have been far safer for them to remain silent. Lately, there have been cases in which the government has appeared to retaliate against undocumented people who have dared to speak up,6 to say, as Adela does in the second to last story in this book, Here I am. See me. But the individuals you are about to meet took a risk in talking to us and allowing their stories to be shared with the public—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 Farm Worker 2. Meatpacker 3. Construction Worker 4. Nanny 5. Day Laborer. We abandoned this idea after one of our narrators, the man who calls himself El Mojado, put it this way: “One 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 meatpacker… I’ve sold chickens.” Or take Inez, who told us, “I’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? I’m in a restaurant now. I work from five at night until twelve. I wash dishes for however many hours they need me. I don’t stop washing until my hands are rubbed raw.”

Yet the men and women whose stories you are about to read cannot be summed up by the jobs they do, no matter how hard or how many hours in the day they work. In fact, the only thing that truly links them together is their lack of federal immigration status, in other words certain pieces of paper. An undocumented person is not undocumented at all. We use the word because it sounds more polite than illegal. But of course they have documents: family photos, diplomas, driver’s licenses,7 love letters, emails, credit card bills, tax forms, child’s drawings, homework…

That the people in this book are an integral part of this society and this economy is indisputable. This is not a politically correct position; it’s reality. The first American combat casualty in Iraq was a Guatemalan man who entered illegally into the United States as a teenager in 1997. His name was José Gutiérrez. Two weeks after his death, the United States granted Lance Corporal Gutiérrez posthumous citizenship in honor of his ultimate sacrifice for his country.8

Nothing can be done to “solve” the problem of their existence until we own up to the truth that just as undocumented people are not truly undocumented, they aren’t even a separate, scapegoatable population. They’re us. They always have been and always will be.

Peter Orner

Although there is much pain in these stories, Underground America is not a compendium of suffering. This is a book of voices. Our 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 Minutemen, 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 status—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? It’s only that they must keep silent. And there’s nothing very American about not being able to speak up.

Consider this book one attempt to help them find their voice, our voice.


1 I was working as a volunteer with the Immigration Unit of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil rights, a national organization with an office in San Francisco. The Lawyer’s Committee matches lawyers with people in need of assistance with their asylum cases. I was assisted on Eduardo’s case by Leticia Pavon.

2 The good news for Eduardo is that it wasn’t lost for good. On appeal, his case was overturned and he was granted asylum, in an extremely rare reversal by the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is now living and working in California.

3 There may a legal difference between an asylum-seeker trying to prove persecution and what I might call an economic refugee, but I contend that in the face of a desperate human being, the difference becomes almost meaningless. Further, many legitimate asylum-seekers often do not even apply for fear of deportation should they lose, choosing instead to risk living here as an undocumented person.

4 Nor do I believe we would if we wanted to. If we genuinely decided, as a nation, that undocumented immigrants were in fact criminals deserving, en masse, of jail time and deportation, we could carry this out. We’ve accomplished difficult collective objectives in the past. We could organize a massive effort, a Marshall Plan, a moon shot, to root out every single illegal alien in our cities, our towns, our colleges, our primary schools. Instead, because we lack the political and social will, we choose to terrorize 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.

5 Or the perceived lack of protection. Many of our narrators will not go to the law even when it could help them, such as when they are victims of violence. Also, undocumented workers have the right to a minimum wage and safe working conditions. To see how this works in practice, see Abel’s story, a man who works in the fish industry in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

6 The most prominent recent case of possible government retaliation involves Elvira Arellano, 32, mother of an American-born son. After her deportation order, she refused to leave the country and moved into a Chicago church. She was arrested and deported to Mexico after leaving the church and traveling to California to promote her cause. See The New York Times, August 21, 2007, “Illegal Immigrant Advocate for Families is deported.” In another case, a Vietnamese family of an undocumented student was 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 parents. See USA Today, “Immigrant’s Family detained After daughter Speaks Out,” October 16, 2007.

7 In HI, ME, Md, MI, NM, Or, UT, and WA.

8 CBS NEWS, 60 Minutes II, August 20, 2003.

This Rumpus Reprint is from Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, published by Voice of Witness.

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →