A day after N. first crossed the U.S. border from Mexico, he was caught and then released onto the streets of Tijuana. Undeterred, N. crawled back through a tunnel to San Diego, where he entered the United States forever. Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant is his timely and compelling memoir of building a new life in America. Authorial anonymity is required to protect this life.
Arriving in the 1990s with a 9th grade education, N. traveled to Chicago where he found access to ESL classes and GED classes. He eventually attended college and graduate school and became a professional translator.
Despite having a well-paying job, N. was isolated by a lack of official legal documentation. Travel concerns made big promotions out of reach. Vacation time was spent hiding at home, pretending that he was on a long-planned trip. The simple act of purchasing his girlfriend a beer at a Cubs baseball game caused embarrassment and shame when N. couldn't produce a valid ID. A frustrating contradiction, N. lived in a luxury high-rise condo but couldn't fully live the American dream. He did, however, find solace in the one gift America gave him–-his education.
Ultimately, N.’s is the story of the triumph of education over adversity. In Illegal he debunks the stereotype that undocumented immigrants are freeloaders without access to education or opportunity for advancement. With bravery and honesty, N. details the constraints, deceptions, and humiliations that characterize alien life "amid the shadows."
There was a time when coming to America was dreamed upon and the promises of prosperity and a better life were the catalysts that drove so many from their native homelands starting new in this country that promised it all. Immigrants from all over were welcomed and embraced to be part of a country whose cultural diversity symbolized its melting pot. So many stories of people coming here with nothing and making a better life was the definition of the American dream.
So, why can’t everyone have that American dream? Depending on which side of the issue your thoughts lie, Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant, really put in perspective a face on a stereotype of the person who comes into this country illegally. When I started reading, it brought many conflicting thoughts. Even though so many people all over the world come here illegally, the focus has only been on one segment of the population. Even though I don’t agree on how the author and so many alike came here and the methods used to obtain identities, his story is one that represents the ones who should be given the opportunity to work for the dream.
This memoir isn’t just about the life of the author but for others similar. It really gives the reader an opportunity to understand and hear the perspective of many of the undocumented who wants to come here to live the American dream. These aren’t the stereotype of the freeloaders who just want to take but not give. These are the kind of people that want to be a part of what makes us great to: have a nice job, family, get an education and be a participant in everyday life. Even for those like himself that get the experience life on the outside with all the benefits of hard work, his honest reflections tells a tale of the humiliations of all that comes “living in the shadows” undocumented and how it imprisons your life.
Whether you choose to read this book based upon your own personal thoughts, it definitely gives a voice and a perspective on an issue that has divided our opinions for some time now. Chances are, you are like many, whose has had a relative come here as an immigrant with the same passion in their heart to live what so many can only dream about. Even though the methods for so many are not the right way to become citizens, we can find a way to make it better to encourage the right way for those who want a better life.
Reviewed by Michelle Bowles
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 2/15/2014