Credit: Jeffrey Marini

Editor’s note: José Ángel’s last name is being withheld to protect him from retribution based on his status as an undocumented immigrant.

One evening in mid-February, José Ángel drove his wife and two-year-old daughter to Midway and watched them disappear behind security. Several hours later they materialized on his computer screen, waving to him from his mother’s house in Guadalajara. The Skype conversation was loud and chaotic, with his uncles and aunts and mother and grandmother all talking over each other and his daughter banging away on her cousin’s drum kit. The excitement was palpable—his wife and daughter were meeting his family for the first time. But he could only watch from a distance. “I’m torn inside,” he said the next morning. “I’m grateful that my mother gets to be with my daughter, but it also makes me sad.” It’s been two decades since he’s seen his mother in person, and as much as he wanted to be there with his wife and daughter, he couldn’t—at least not if he wanted to be able to return to Chicago with them.

That’s because two decades ago, José Ángel tunneled through the U.S.-Mexico border with the help of a coyote, and he’s been in the States ever since, trying not to get caught. In his new book, Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant, he writes about how the single decision to cross the border without a visa—made when he was 19—has both greatly expanded and greatly hampered his life. “I have been lucky enough to find my way into the social fabric of the United States,” he writes in Illegal, “and this is my satisfaction and my loss.”

Like many immigrants, José Ángel came to the U.S. for financial reasons. Like some, he set a course toward the American dream—learning English, working hard, even putting himself through college and grad school. His determination largely paid off: he was able to buy a condo and live comfortably while regularly sending money home to Mexico. But what he hasn’t achieved is true freedom, and this is what he and so many others stand to gain from immigration reform.

They likely won’t gain it anytime soon. The Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill has stalled in the House, and a path to citizenship—or even legalization—for the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the country appears to be off the table for 2014. Republicans want to gain control of the Senate in the midterm elections, and House Speaker John Boehner recently cited a lack of trust in the Obama administration as a stumbling block.

José Ángel says that if he has no opportunity to adjust his legal status, there are two likely outcomes. The thought of the first, family separation, is unbearable to him. “I’m married to an American citizen, and I have an American child, and I might not be able to stay with them and see my daughter grow up—that’s the part that terrifies me the most, not being with them.” The other, moving the family to Mexico, is almost as terrifying. “It wouldn’t be if Mexico were a more stable country,” he says. “But the news is filled with horror stories: violence, corruption, pollution, lack of opportunity. This is what is waiting for us if we have to go. I don’t want my child to grow up in an environment like that.”

José Ángel has lost his job due to his status as an undocumented immigrant and hopes that immigration reform will allow him to do more to support his wife, who’s American, and their daughter.Credit: Jeffrey Marini

José Ángel’s own childhood was overshadowed by extreme poverty. He was born in Guadalajara in 1973 to a 16-year-old mother and a father who died a few days later. (José Ángel never learned the cause of death, though he’s gleaned from conversations with family that it was health related and that his father might’ve survived if he’d had access to health care.) He grew up in his grandmother’s cramped one-bedroom house, which he shared with his mother and her nine siblings. There were no sit-down family meals, the bathroom always seemed to be occupied, and José Ángel slept wherever he could, usually on a floor already packed with bodies.

Everyone had to work—José Ángel was no exception. As a child he sold pastries around his neighborhood with an uncle. When he was 13 his mother remarried, and José Ángel began dividing his time between his grandmother’s home and his mother’s. A few years later he failed the entrance exam for high school, losing his shot at continuing a formal education. He wasn’t surprised. No one from his family had gone to high school—it’s not compulsory in Mexico—and less than half of Mexican adults achieve the equivalent of a high school degree, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“If you don’t go to high school or college, you have two options,” he says. “You live a hand-to-mouth existence, working unstable jobs, or you go to the States like everyone else. When I was 19, I joined the ranks.”

On the first try he got swept up in a raid on a safe house in San Diego. The second time he made it to Chicago. It was April 1993. He had a $2,000 smuggling debt, and he spoke no English. Relatives in the south suburbs took him in and helped him get oriented. He bought a fake social security card on 26th Street, obtained a driver’s license and state ID, and quickly found work mowing lawns and washing dishes at a Mexican restaurant.

It was a sustainable world—he could exist in Spanish, among others who understood and shared his predicament—and it likely would have been the one he remained in but for a trip to Orland Square Mall with his cousin Pedro.

Although Pedro had been in the U.S. for nine years, he relied on his five-year-old daughter to translate for him as he bought a pair of shoes. “Witnessing my cousin’s complacency and his total dependence on his child was a decisive moment,” José Ángel writes in Illegal. “It made me feel embarrassed and afraid at the same time. What if fate had something similar in store for me?”

José Ángel acted quickly to ensure that it didn’t. He signed up for ESL classes and stayed committed to learning English, even when his thick accent drew blank stares or snide comments.

He took GED classes—and after failing the exam for the certificate he tried again and then a third time before passing it. “I thought I was done with school,” he says. “Everyone told me a GED is your entrance to future jobs. But I met some waiters and waitresses at the restaurant who were back home for the summer and they told me about college. I’d always thought it was out of my league, but working side by side with them, I thought, ‘If they can do it, I can do it—they don’t seem to be geniuses.'”

Within five years of arriving in Chicago, he was enrolled at Moraine Valley Community College. There, for perhaps the first time since he’d arrived in the U.S., he made a decision that had nothing to do with economic gain: to major in philosophy. “Maybe I should have studied something that would have been profitable,” he says, “but the whole idea of ideas caught my attention.” José Ángel had grown up with only two books in his house—a Bible and an atlas—and now he was reading ravenously. “It was like access to a secret universe,” he says.

“I was forced to evade questions and tell lies all the time. I had to be on the constant lookout for anything that might give me away.”
— José Ángel, author of Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant

He transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2000, paying for his courses out of pocket by working at the restaurant and as a teacher’s assistant. He received his bachelor’s degree a couple of years later, when he was almost 30, and went directly into the master’s program at UIC in Hispanic Studies. Around this time he met a group of young Latino writers who were putting together a monthly Spanish-language cultural magazine, Contratiempo. He hosted staff meetings in his apartment in Pilsen and wrote essays for the magazine on art and literature.

After graduate school—and after 12 years of working at the restaurant in various capacities (dishwasher, busboy, bartender, waiter)—he landed a job as a professional translator. Within a year he was able to put money down on a condo in a high-rise building in Edgewater that overlooked Lake Michigan. “It was amazing for me to be able to have something of my own,” he says.

For most of the time that he’s been in the U.S., José Ángel has been been able to regularly send his mother money. He kept the family afloat after his stepfather, a construction worker, fell off a scaffold and couldn’t work for about six months. He also impressed upon his half brothers the importance of applying for high school, and then helped put one of them through college.

But as José Ángel takes stock of his life, his accomplishments seem bittersweet. In addition to not seeing his mother for two decades, he hasn’t seen his brothers—now 27 and 23—since they were small children.

Because José Ángel doesn’t have a travel visa, he can’t visit his family in Mexico without jeopardizing the life he’s worked so hard to build in the U.S. His mother and grandmother tried to visit him, but their applications for tourist visas were denied. (Mexicans without property or other financial assets usually have trouble convincing consular officials that they have a strong incentive to return.)

José Ángel’s successes have also alienated him from his own culture. The further he moved beyond the world of dishwashers, the sadder and more isolated he says he became. As his circle of acquaintances changed, he found himself in the midst of middle-class people who assumed he was documented—and that meant he needed to be extracautious. After Illinois began enforcing parts of the Real ID Act, which Congress passed in 2005, José Ángel was unable to renew his state ID and driver’s license because his social security number wasn’t valid. He began declining social invitations, not wanting his lack of ID to draw attention to himself. He even kept his legal status from most of his Contratiempo friends, some of whom were immigration reform activists.

“I was forced to evade questions and tell lies all the time,” he says. “I had to be on the constant lookout for anything that might give me away.”

A few years after he started working as a translator, he accrued enough time to take a two-week vacation. He chose the dates he’d be away and informed his colleagues, who responded predictably: they asked where he was going. José Ángel feared that his colleagues would be suspicious if he said he was staying home. So he told them he’d be visiting his family in Mexico. Instead he spent most of the vacation holed up in his Edgewater condo, worried that if he stepped outside he’d bump into a colleague. When the self-imposed lockdown became unbearable, he put on an old coat, a hat, and a hoodie, masked his face with a thick scarf, and took a bus downtown, where he saw a movie and then walked around Michigan Avenue.

In a sense, it was a day like any other—he was hiding. This time it was just more exaggerated. “I was adding a few extra layers to the lie of my daily life,” he recalls.

Like many undocumented workers who pay into the social security coffers, José Ángel received yearly no-match letters from the SSA, informing him that there was a problem with his social security number and that until he corrected it, the money taken out of his paychecks would not be put toward his retirement. The first time he saw the letter, the part about retirement money didn’t register—he wasn’t aware of the public benefits available to citizens. He just worried that he’d been found out. In later years he came to see the letters as the government’s tacit approval of his employment. “I thought, they may be keeping my money, but at least I get to keep working,” he says. Still, he knew he had to be cautious around his employer, and whenever there was talk of having him travel for work, he had an excuse at the ready—usually an ill family member.

José Ángel had learned to live pretty well with the constant threat of exposure and the fear that he would lose everything.

“It was always hanging on the horizon,” he says. “But months and months and years and years passed and nothing happened.”

In early 2009, José Ángel began dating an American high school teacher he’d met through a language exchange—he tutored her in Spanish, she helped him with his English. After a few months he confided in her about his legal status. “I felt like it was time,” he says. “It was killing me inside. We were sharing a life.”

They were married in 2010, at a small wedding at the Chicago Cultural Center. “I never missed my family so much,” he recalls.

Immigrants who’ve crossed the border legally can apply for permanent residency—even if they’ve overstayed their visa—if they have an American spouse. Those who, like José Ángel, crossed illegally and married an American can apply for citizenship only if they’re first granted a waiver of inadmissibility for unlawful presence here.

Such waivers are difficult to obtain; they require the couple to prove that deportation would cause “extreme hardship” for the spouse who’s a U.S. citizen. “Extreme hardship” can be successfully argued in such cases where the U.S. relative has significant health issues, would suffer serious financial trouble, or would be unable to adapt to harsh conditions in the immigrant’s home country. “You have to show something that goes beyond the difficulties of physical separation,” says Kathryn Weber, an immigration attorney with whom José Ángel has consulted. Even if the waiver got approved, he’d have to apply for an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate back in Mexico, which a consular official could deny if another ground of inadmissibility (like fraud or misrepresentation) were discovered.

A few months after the wedding and after five years at his job, the question he’d been dreading finally arrived. The new head of his company’s HR department sent him an e-mail asking him to act quickly to fix the problem with his social security number. This was different from the no-match letters he’d been receiving; this was his own company asking for clarification. The next day he handed in his resignation.

“It was a terrible time to lose my job,” he says. His wife was pregnant, and she’d just bought a house where they’d raise their child.

José Ángel with his daughter at their Lincoln Square homeCredit: Jeffrey Marini

For the last couple of years, José Ángel has stayed at home with his daughter while his wife works to support the family. In recent months he’s been volunteering for a Mexican orphanage, translating letters between the kids who live there and their American sponsors. His condo, which he’d hoped to keep as an investment property, went into foreclosure, and his wife ended up having to sell their house. The family now lives in an apartment in Lincoln Square.

Over the years José Ángel has closely followed the debate on immigration reform, and the cycle of hopes raised and dashed has left him weary and cynical. Now that he’s a husband and father, the stakes are higher than ever. “If I was still alone, I could keep going the way I’d been living,” he says. “I’m pretty good at that. But now I worry about my wife and daughter—we don’t want to be separated. My daughter needs me, and so does my wife.”

José Ángel is now considering applying for a waiver of inadmissibility for his unlawful presence in the U.S. Another option—pleading his case before an immigration judge—could happen only if immigration agents first arrested him. Though it’s always a possibility that he could be detained, the chances of that now—at least under the Obama administration—are probably slim, says Weber. “He’s not an enforcement priority. ICE has issued memos saying they’re going to focus on threats to national security, repeat offenders of immigration law, and people with criminal convictions.”

Knowing this has helped José Ángel relax a bit. He’s recently come out about his undocumented status to some friends, and he will make some public appearances to promote his book (including one on March 15 at the Book Cellar). Finding himself in front of a judge, as scary as it would be, would afford him an opportunity to make a case for staying—perhaps his only opportunity to make a case. Still, says Weber, “It’s a difficult case to win, and the consequences are dire.”

His best bet might be to keep holding out for immigration reform. The American Families United Act, which was introduced last October with rare bipartisan support, seems designed to help families like Ángel’s, and if Republicans favor “piecemeal” legislation, as they have claimed, there might be some hope for the bill, which aims to “inject common sense and fairness” into the immigration system by flipping a judge’s focus. Rather than punishing the undocumented immigrant, it would protect the interests of U.S. citizens whose immigrant spouses, parents, or children are barred from legal status because of minor immigration violations. Under the act, immigration judges would have discretion to consider each case on its own merits, and families would have only to prove that separation causes hardship, not “extreme” hardship.

For the time being, though, José Ángel feels stuck. Hoping to start over with his family in a new country, he recently applied to PhD programs in Canada. McGill University in Montreal offered him a spot in the Department of Hispanic Studies, but Canada denied his application for a study permit. “I’m a pariah,” he says. “The U.S. doesn’t want me because I didn’t come through legal means, even though there were none available to me, and Canada doesn’t want me either, because I can’t provide proof of legal residence in the U.S. Trying to get on the right side of the law seems almost impossible.”