Secret keeps man on margins of the economy

A decision on routes during a road trip forced Jose Arreola to reveal his secret to a friend.

Kai Ryssdal: We've been airing a commentary series the past month or so. It's called My Life Is True -- from people living on the edges of the economy.

Today, Jose Arreola and a secret he's decided not to keep.

Jose Arreola: We had to decide whether we were going north or south to get into California. My friend decided it would be best to go south to avoid the big snow storm up north. But south would take us through Arizona. I really really didn't want to go through Arizona. I got more and more nervous. I felt paralyzed. My friend kept asking me what my problem was. Finally I told him: I'm undocumented.

I came to the United States when I was three with my family. And Arizona had just passed a law that gave police officers the authority to check people's immigration status. If we got stopped in Arizona, I could be detained and deported.

My friend is white. He comes from a really privileged, upper-class background. He attended a private high school, the Santa Clara University with me -- I went on scholarship. Politically he sees things a little differently than I do. We've had our disagreements.

He was quiet for a while. Then he barraged me with questions; I answered the best I could. Silence again. Then he told me about his grandfather. How he hadn't been able to find work in Ireland, so he decided to hop on a fishing boat and get off in New York. He worked as a janitor without citizenship. Now his son, my friend's father, is a high-ranking bank executive.

The whole time through Arizona my friend drove like 50 miles an hour. He didn't even want to change lanes. He told me he wasn't going to lose his best friend. He wasn't going to let that happen.

The immigration debate became real to my friend in the car that day. We had a very different conversation than the one politicians are having right now. The minute actual undocumented immigrants are included, the conversation always changes.

Now I'm completely open about my status. I'm still afraid. Conversations don't always go well. And it's always a risk. But as long I remain in the shadows, I will never really get to know you, and you'll never really know me.

Ryssdal: Jose's story comes to us from My Life Is True, a project of the New America Foundation. Let us know what you think -- write to us.

This commentary first aired on KQED in San Francisco.

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Days later I am still irked by this story. I'm a natural-born American, but my great-grandparents on my mom's side were off the boat from Ireland. Both of them were dirt-poor from different parts of the country; my great-grandmother was used by her father as a prostitute to make money for the family by the time she was 13 (and yes, they were Catholic). I mean, really sad stuff. They both saved up the money to come over at different times...legally...to escape terrifically horrible situations. They both had their names changed, were subjected to embarrassing body checks, and both were prouder than anyone I know to become Americans. Being here was no picnic, as they faced discrimination and nasty stereotypes, but they pushed all of us harder than any natural-born American does today to be proud of being American. They. Loved. This. Country. They never once displayed the Irish flag or cared about any of that nonsense (except they did find comfort in their predominantly Irish parish). They weren't hyphenated or any of that. They were Americans, period. They went out of their way to assimilate. How many immigrants--legal or not--can you say that about now?

My point is, my nana and papa stayed in their squalor until they could get sponsored to come here....legally. I'm sure Jose's parents escaped from equally bad situations, and they have my utmost respect for doing so. But in all the years that Jose has been here, there was no attempt (at least, he did not say there was) to become legal. It was they who put him in this situation, not America or any messed up immigration laws. For once I'd love to hear an illegal who was dragged here by his or her parents a decade-plus ago express anger to their parents for putting them in this situation.

Hi Jackie,

Sorry that you have faced discrimination before. In Mexico there is a heartwarming, sad story about the "Patricios" who switched sides in the war with the United States on account of a combination of the anti-irish discrimination in the US and their catholic faith (the wily Mexican general that convinced the unit to switch sides appealed to their catholicism and them fighting along a protestant army against fellow catholics). The green flag "Erin Go Bragh" was designed by that unit and attached to Santa Anna's Mexican forces. The suffering that unit was put through after the war was incredible. Some survived. Irish immigration into Mexico has always been there, and they have done by and large a good job assimilating (comedian Louis CK is a famous modern example - did you even know he's "Mexicano"?) The point I'm trying to make here is that everyone has histories of discrimination. They are all bad, and one person's suffering being greater than another doesn't make either of them right.

Now about the legality issue. I am one of those immigrants that came perfectly legally and have assimilated. But our extended families are much closer today than they used to be, so you will necessarily not find the same rate of "assimilation". Forgive me, but I still speak Spanish to my family in Mexico, am starting to insist my kids can speak Spanish as well and I think you should be in your right to speak Gaelic Irish should you wish to do so. In addition, here in California (and New Mexico, and Arizona) there has always been Mexican culture, because of its history. It didn't disappear when the administration changed. So there has been a continuous of Spanish being spoken, even if it wasn't by the leadership. Hearing Spanish spoken and seeing "hispanic things" around is no more threatening that seeing fantastic beer, Oktoberfest's and a lot of Germanics in Wisconsin (enough of them, in fact, that there were public pro-germany declarations in the late 1930s. I don't blame them - nobody knew or was aware of what the evil Nazi regime was up to before the full war broke out).

Also, the limits on immigration and penalties of today are very different from what your parents had to deal with. Today it's deportation and not coming back for even a visit for another 10 years. And the limit on bringing in a family member for Mexico are so large that, for example, in order to legally bring a brother, if you have the money to guarantee support, it takes 18 years. And by the way if you don't have a "sponsor" person, you're out of luck. Did you know that? Did you also know that only Mexico (our neighbor) and the Phillipines have a family limit? No limit on Irish. So I'd advise to familiarize yourself with the law and these peoples' plight before you make a determination based on their "different-ness".

So now tell that to a person who came when he was 4 and is now an American adult. Just as afraid as some Americans are to visit Mexico because of the crime and many problems the country has. Now threaten him with deportation. Add to that the language barrier (some of these kids don't speak Spanish anymore) and you'll see the size of the societal problem the laws have already caused. So this essentially American kid will now be sent to Mexico for 10 years through no fault of his or her own. To a much poorer environment. Or he can stay and not be able to get a job, further education or improve his/her lot in life. No matter what their skills. Interesting legal set-up. The result is a permanent underclass. Hey, but at least your tomatoes are cheap, right?

English common law is familiar with the concept of natural law and how laws on the books need to reflect reality. You may want to look that up and understand it. Based on what my understanding of English common law is, these laws need to be changed because they are creating a society that nobody wants.

Now imagine if in your example you nana and papa had been not only poor, but illegal, with no possibility of approval for citizenship. With today's laws in the books, that would have happened, since now you need a legal family sponsor or a series of special skills, or a plea for asylum. There is no avenue for immigration for economic conditions anymore like your family used.

But let me turn it around for you in a way that may hit closer to home. A lot of people pirate music or movies in the US. A lot of them are young US citizens, and in fact it's estimated that over half of all college students have done it. It is illegal and carries fines of $250K per copy and jail time. A kid with 100 copied movies owes $2.5 million. Are any of these your own kids? Have you ever ripped a DVD into a computer file? Or shared a song? Tell me - should we throw the créme-de-la-créme of our youth and young adults away into a jail and press multi-million dollar fines on them just because the law is on the books? Or should we change the laws because their enforcement would create a society nobody wants?

Lots of stuff to think about, but since you're so incensed, I thought you deserved a thoughtful response.

Dia dhuit,

It's unfortunate that this article continues to spread an unfortunately misunderstanding that seems universal outside of Arizona. The police do not, under SB1070, have the right to check immigration status, only federal officers specifically trained in immigration can do that, e.g. Border Patrol, ICE, etc. What the local police can do is hold someone they suspect may be illegal if they are stopped for another offense until federal authority arrive and verify the suspects immigration status. In other words, if Jose was stopped for speeding, and he had no identification, and no driver's license and he didn't speak English, he would very likely be held. This is the most common scenario. I suspect that Jose has a driver's license, as many states issue them regardless of immigration status, and his English is outstanding, so he would have had nothing to worry about. However anyone who drives at 50 mph on I-10 with its 75 mph speed limit and typical traffic moving at 80 plus, is very likely to attract unwanted attention from the police, as well as raised fingers and yells from other motorists.


What a pity the New America Foundation has so little compassion for the millions of Americans, many of them minorities, whose wages, lives, and living conditions are adversely impacted by competition with illegal immigrant labor.

This is such a sad debate, no one trying to understand the truth that underlies the conflict, everyone seeking only to defend their own selfish perspective. For most of this nation’s history we had one immigration policy, if you could get here you were welcome to stay. Certainly there were factions opposed to the arrival of new peoples, mostly those selfishly bent on preserving their exclusive franchise in society. This debate is still at its root about the same thing. How to hog the pie that is our American economy to ourselves and away from others, with so many voices demanding our government assure our status and income and keep out those seeking the same opportunity. To all fascist rabble rousers banging the zero tolerance drum over what constitutes LEGAL/ILLEGAL let’s get to the truth, you don’t want anyone threatening your slice of the economic pie. Every era of economic growth in our history is populated with new peoples arriving on our shores and renewing our culture. Every era of economic loss in our history is pockmarked with fear-mongering, name calling and blame laying. Jose didn’t choose to come here, his parents did. Can you blame him for wanting to stay? People are constantly lamenting that illegals are taking away good jobs. Gee, how many of you are lining to scrub toilets, cook food, harvest crops, slaughter meat, mow lawns or any of the multitudes of low wage, low skill, back breaking jobs most natural born Americans turn their nose up at whenever offered. Immigrants revitalize our society and bring new life and energy to our nation. The people trying to put a stop to it are living in a fairytale being spoon fed to what to think by right-wing zealots. And you progressives who think I am banging your drum need to stop and take another look. The only thing government programs have ever created in this country’s history is government jobs. Government programs never solve problems, because if they did the government employees running those programs would find the reason for their job disappearing. What we need in this nation is less government, less social engineering and more freedom to choose.

Whether outsourcing American jobs or insourcing immigrants, it all amounts to the same thing: wage arbitrage and the lowering of costs to business. You can say that immigration is part and parcel of the history and tradition of the U.S., but to compare recent history with the waves of Irish and European immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries is to ignore eighty years of labor rights organizing and subsequent legislation. What about the sacrifices of previous waves of immigrants, who were exploited during the industrial revolution; who fought for union organization, child labor laws, public education, and public services? The fact that race now happens to be a component doesn’t change the Grapes of Wrath nature of the issue. This is an issue that is consistently mischaracterized, I think because both parties are beholden to business, corporate, and financial interests. And we all know what they want. It really comes down to whether we are a country that invests in its people, or a corporation in search of the cheapest, smartest; most powerless, desperate, and industrious labor on the planet. Should American jobs really be up for auction an any given time? If somebody does something better, cheaper, and faster than you, should you be fired and replaced? Should scholarships be given at the expense of Americans, regardless of the promise of achievement? That’s not a country; that’s a for-profit cattle farm. Such a policy not only discourages investment in Americans, both public and private, it encourages the exploitation of other countries’ social services.
There is a practical side to this argument, as well as a moral one. First of all, of the 50 million Latinos in America (11 million illegal), most came post Reagan, many no doubt escaping repressive right-wing regimes backed by our government and the conservative economic ideology that began with Ronald Reagan. I don’t blame them one bit. Now, after decades of incidentally flooding the labor force, driving up rents, and impacting social services, conservatives’ answer is to roll back social services for everyone so that the same Americans who first paid by losing their jobs can pay again by losing their social services. This is capitalism at its nuttiest and most egregious. The practical side is simple: Even if we had an aggressive policy of deportation, where 5000 Latinos (that’s just Latinos) were deported every day, including Sundays and holidays, it would take six years to achieve it (not including those born to legal status in the interim). It isn’t going to happen. Building a fence isn’t going to work. Jailing illegal immigrants and putting them to work (Arizona’s plan) isn’t going to work, and is an idea even more exploitative than exploitation by private industry. What WOULD work is a national registration and public human resources agency that tracks and accounts for all hiring and firing in the U.S. (as well as provide for employment services for the unemployed—competing directly with private HR firms who further disenfranchise American workers). The freedom to slave and displace American workers is not a freedom we should be proud of. In short, the focus should be on illegal hiring, and holding employers accountable, not the targeting of immigrants. A simple data base would do it—updated and monitored on a national scale—and it would immediately create jobs for PUBLIC human resources workers, who would be working for the unemployed, not just employers. I welcome a multicultural environment; I’m a progressive independent and would vote for a party similar to Canada’s NDP if we had one. But playing into one authoritarian regime to escape another is no answer to the immigration problem. We have shifted so far to the right, it takes some reviewing: On the “left,” we have Obama appealing to Reagan Democrats with a call for another amnesty for illegal immigrants; on the “right,” we have Newt calling for the same. We already had an amnesty bill back in ‘86, signed into law by Ronald Reagan. Not only did it do nothing to curb illegal immigration, by all evidence, it encouraged it. (See link to NPR story below.) In truth, you can be sure that most legislators favor anything that serves their primary constituency—business and finance. Both parties and the media always succeed in missing the hippopotamus under the rug in this debate: LABOR. You can talk about race, civil rights, entrepreneurialism, voting trends, humanitarian issues, and traditional American values, but whatever you do, don’t talk about labor.


"If somebody does something better, cheaper, and faster than you, should you be fired and replaced?"-
The answer to this question is absolutely! I don't understand why Americans feel they are more privileged than the rest of the people in the world. If there is a man who is better at his job, does it for less, and does it faster, do you really think that just because you are American you deserve that job more than he? Shame that you allow yourself to feel so privileged. Capitalism is based off competition, and competition says that the person that is better wins. That's the current problem with America, we feel that we "deserve" a certain way of life instead of working for it, which is why we allow our politicians and corporations to take advantage of us and all we can do about it is complain. Americans have become lazy and complacent, while the rest of the developing world has become more innovative and determined. If you are afraid of competition, move to Cuba, if you're not then learn to take personal responsibility for yourself and your future and let other American or non-American, do the same.

Illegal immigration is a "hot topic" and as the comments on this site indicate and one where there are strong opinions. My grandfather immigrated from Puerto Rico and as did most of his siblings sometime between 1917 and 1925. Some of that immigration was legal and some -- may not have been so. As a teenager, and a legal citizen born in the USA and with a very American accent (my mother was born in NYC with a very NYC accent), I was subjected to the Border Patrol, as a teenager while working on my father's farm (a "white" man). I don't wish that on anyone.

I work at a university. I support higher education. I support education K-12. My research sites are in Latin America where education beyond the 6th grade is private, expensive, and exclusive. However, education leads to responsible citizens and the potential for a better life.

To those who believe that "illegal immigrants" cost the tax-payer for the education of their children, I challenge that assertion. Illegal immigrants must have documentation in order to be employed, albeit fraudulent, but this means that employers deduct taxes and pay then them to the state and the feds. Illegal immigrants rent apartments and houses where their landlords pay property taxes. In most areas of the country, property taxes support public schools. The logic flows then that illegal immigrants are paying taxes to support the programs that their children are receiving.

Reasoned thinking, critical thinking, substantiated data, seeking all viewpoints and presenting the pro's and con's of each, for me, is preferable when considering controversial issues.

No doubt this is a difficult issue. Perhaps a more appropriate discussion would be how to create social and economic equality in the countries that these people are fleeing. I do not, however, see a reason to blame the children who were brought by their parents to the USA. My grandfather always to all his grandchildren, "You are Americans. America has opportunity for those who work hard. Is your homework done?"

No Jose, you're not "undocumented", you're "illegal". There's a significant difference, and I am tired of hearing that illegal immiogrants "haven't broken any laws". Do we now get to choose which laws to obey and ignore the others with impunity? You're completely open about your status? Been to the INS? Told the state? The IRS? Your employer? You already took a spot on scholarship at a university. How much slack do you want?
Yes, native Americans got, and continue to get, a crappy deal. I think the Spanish and Portuguese are as much to blame for that as anyone. By the time their diseases had finished decimating (an understatement) the populations the depredations of the British/American peoples were simply the coup d'gras.
Let's focus on the present even if we learn little from the past.

Thank you for this segment. The only people who can legitimately complain about U.S. immigration are Native Americans.


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