Life on the Borderlands

Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant by Jose Angel N. (University of Illinois Press)

Illegal, like its author, doesn’t fit into any of the usual categories. Because the author is undocumented, the book is being published without his full name, but it is being published—and by a university press at that. Jose Angel N., the author, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1990s. He’d had a ninth grade education up to that point, came from an impoverished community, and was eager for hard work and regular pay. He wound up in Chicago, working first as a dish washer, then slowly making his way up to waiter.

While working as a dish washer, he pursued a GED. After the GED, he entered university. Once he’d graduated, he went on to graduate school. His major? Philosophy. Ultimately, he became a professional translator, married, began to raise a family,and lived what from he outside would look like the American Dream.

As American immigration laws tightened, he quit his job, rather than risk being identified and deported. Presently he’s a “house husband,” watching the ongoing bluster and stasis that is American immigration policy.

In a way, Illegal frustrates because it isn’t the “typical” story of an undocumented life. If one is looking for a narrative that can serve as an exemplar of the experiences of thousands, Illegal isn’t it. But “typical” is a label that rarely applies on the individual level. The label tells us more about those using it, ourselves, than it does about those we might apply it to. The fact is, as Jose Angel N. demonstrates, the U.S. undocumented population is hugely diverse, contributing to our communities and economies on multiple levels.

This book is as much meditation as autobiography, not surprising coming from a philosophy major. We are offered carefully examined snapshots of the intellectual and emotional experience of a life lived “in the shadows” (as one other reviewer rather dramatically put it). On a day-to-day basis, the author faces small events that, because of his immigration status, represent real dangers. Want to buy a beer at the ballpark? You can’t if your state doesn’t issue driver’s licenses to undocumented residents. Having a conversation about the current Presidential election with workplace colleagues? Think carefully about how not to reveal that you cannot vote; don’t get too engaged, so that others wonder why you aren’t wearing that “I’ve Voted” sticker come election day; remember your story, so it remains consistent.

Illegal gives testimony to both the promise the U.S. still holds for those outside its borders and to the contributions made by those often berated as “illegals.” Reading it will leave you, like the author, mourning the lack of a real national dialogue and policy on immigration, one that moves beyond political posturing and serves both immigrant and nation alike.