I Was An Illegal Alien
Immigration, people tell me, is the hot-button political issue of tomorrow. Public anger is swelling. The 9/11 attacks got everyone thinking. Citizens' groups are springing up all over. Congressional and presidential candidates in 2004 are going to face a lot of questions about immigration, had better have well-thought-out positions on the topic. Etc., etc., etc. The tide is turning, my immigration-restrictionist friends tell me. The sleeping giant has woken. Etc., etc., etc.
Well, possibly. Getting Americans to think seriously about immigration, though, is uphill work. There is resistance to be overcome at the deepest level of the national psyche. To the degree that I am entitled to have an opinion on the matter (which, you may understandably say after reading this, is no degree at all), I myself am an immigration restrictionist, and can show published writings to that effect. Still I think we are under-estimating the psychological obstacles to firm, strictly-enforced immigration laws. I know whereof I speak, for I was once an illegal immigrant in these United States.
When people ask, I say that I came here in 1985. That is quite true. I arrived here in October of that year to work for a Wall Street firm, sucked in by the great mid-1980s financial boom. I entered on an H-1B visa, which is to say a working visa. In the fullness of time, and strictly according to proper legal procedures, I graduated to the fabulous Green Card, and thence to citizenship.
This has, however, been my second spell in the U.S.A. I came here once before, in my feckless youth — in August of 1973, to be precise. On that occasion I bore only a miserable B-2 visa. I was, in other words, a tourist, admitted for no more than six months, with no right to work or settle in this country. One thing led to another, however (cherchez la femme) and quite soon I found myself penniless in the streets of New York, without a return ticket to England. I subsisted for a few days on oatmeal cookies, which someone had told me — falsely, I now feel sure — offer the maximum nutrition per dollar. Then I went looking for work.
The guilty flee when none pursueth, and I assumed — so young! so innocent! — that the I.N.S. had agents lurking in every side alley, liable to leap out and demand to see my papers at any moment. I therefore sought the lowest, least visible kind of work I could think of. Dishwashing seemed about right. I went into a diner — it was Jack's, I recall, on the corner of Delancey and the Bowery — and offered to wash dishes for them. Jack growled that when he needed a dishwasher, he phoned for one. Whom did he phone? I asked. He told me. I phoned them. They gave me their street address. I went there.
The dishwashing agency was one of dozens packed into a grimy building downtown on West Broadway. The deal was, you showed up there as early in the morning as you could and sat with a dozen or so other aspiring dishwashers on wooden benches facing a man at a desk. Every so often the man's phone would ring. He would engage in some grunted exchanges, hang up, and call out something like: "Rockaway eight hours dollar eighty-five." This would mean that there was work in Rockaway for eight hours at $1.85 per hour, subway fares taken care of. If you were first to the desk, off you went for a day's work.
Now, your average New York City dishwasher is not a person with work ethic oozing from every pore. If you showed up at one of the agencies early on a Monday morning, you could often get a week's work all at once. Very few of those who took this option lasted past Wednesday, though. If, after a Monday start, you were still on site that Friday afternoon, the client regarded you with wonder and delight, and offered you a real job at 25¢ extra per hour.
So it went with me. By November I was a permanent full-time employee of a kosher catering firm in New Rochelle, promoted from dishwasher to kitchen porter. I rented a pleasant room in a rooming-house overlooking the harbor, ten minute's walk from my place of work. By February I had saved enough to buy a car. You see how people fall in love with America? I marveled at the ease of everything here. Job, lodgings, automobile — why, in a few years I might be rich!
I was still, of course, without any legal status, and it weighed on my mind. One day I confessed all to my boss, a genial fellow. He thought it a huge joke. What was this Social Security number I had been giving them for my pay stubs, though? I had made it up, I told him. He frowned. That wouldn't do, might cause trouble for them. He made a phone call to someone he knew in the local Social Security office. I should go up there, he told me, speak to a certain person, fill out the forms. I did so, answering all questions truthfully. Two weeks later I had a Social Security card. I parlayed this into a driver's license and a bank account.
Six months' steady work later, fecklessness kicked in again and I lost my job. By this time, though, I was brazen in crime. I went to an office-work employment agency, got a job as a computer programmer in leafy Westchester County, and sank happily into a middle-class lifestyle. After two years, quite by chance, my new employers found out about my immigration status (which is to say, my utter lack of any such). No problem, they said cheerily, we'll give it to the lawyers. They did so, and for the rest of my time in the U.S. I would periodically have to go to an attorney's office and sign my name to something, or fill out something. At last, well into the fifth year of my two-week tourist visa, family business called me back to England, my "case" still unresolved.
In spite of having committed gross and wilful violation of U.S. immigration laws, I had paid no penalty, done no time, suffered no inconvenience. None of the various Americans to whom I had confessed had conveyed the faintest disapproval, none had told me I ought to be ashamed of myself. In the 1970s, I can report, the normal reaction of an American on learning that the person sitting across from him was "undocumented," was puzzlement. They knew, of course, that there was such a thing as illegal immigration. The word "wetback" was then current. It was just that they didn't associate the phenomenon with well-spoken middle-class types with office-worker skill sets.
I am bound to report that I see little difference in attitude between the native-born Americans of today and those of thirty years ago. Nations, like individuals, have their own ineradicable quirks of personality. It is a peculiarity of Americans that they cannot be brought to think seriously about immigration. The two best immigration-restrictionist books of recent years have been by Peter Brimelow, who is an immigrant from England, and Michelle Malkin, daughter of recent Filipino immigrants. If you have been through, or sufficiently close to, the immigration experience, you think about it a lot. Otherwise, you don't think about it at all, and can't be made to. Take it from me, a sometime illegal immigrant: getting this nation to concentrate on immigration reform is going to be hard work all the way.
John Derbyshire is a writerónovelist, pop-math author, reviewer, and opinion journalistóliving on Long Island, New York.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.