The Illegal Immigrant Among Us

By K. Daniel Glover

Three years ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of hosting a young Guatemalan man in our Virginia home for a few weeks. Andres came to the United States on a work visa for a job in Texas, but when he arrived, his sponsoring employer told Andres he had no work available.

The employer then told Andres he could use the short-term visa to work anywhere in the country. He chose Northern Virginia, in part because of the job market and in part because mutual friends introduced Andres to our family — including the three children we adopted from Guatemala.

We loved having Andres in our home. The children adored him and even took an interest in learning their native tongue, an idea they had resisted for years when Mom and Dad suggested it. We took Andres to the White House, treated him to exotic meals (by Guatemalan standards) and spoiled him as best we could while he struggled to make sense of his immigration status.

But after a trip to the Guatemalan embassy, we became concerned that Andres had no right to be in America. We paid an immigration lawyer who confirmed that suspicion.

Andres’ would-be employer had lied. His visa gave him the right to work only in Texas, only for that employer and only for a few months. He was an illegal immigrant — and living in our home. Worse, he was in a city on the prowl for illegal immigrants, with our house located just blocks from the “Liberty Wall of Truth.”

The lawyer advised Andres to stay in our home until he could take the earliest flight to Guatemala. We bought his airline ticket and sent him home to the needy family he had come to America to support.

I thought of Andres last week as I read and watched the confession of “undocumented immigrant” Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who lied for more than a decade so he could stay in America and rise to glory in a profession that prides itself on truth-telling.

I am part of that profession. I also happen to know Jose, who cited me as a source on technology and politics when he was a reporter at The Washington Post. (I was the editor of National Journal’s Technology Daily.) And I am shocked to see him being heralded as a hero.

The story of how Jose learned he was an illegal immigrant at age 16, four years after he came to America, is heart-rending. He was a victim of the deceptions of adults he trusted, his mother in the Philippines and his grandparents in California.

But there is nothing heroic about manipulating the legal system and lying to employers to get one’s way, as Jose did time and again once he knew the truth.

When he needed a Social Security card to live legitimately in America, he used a fake passport to get it. He hid the stamp on his Social Security card that said he couldn’t work without government authorization. He found a college scholarship program with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward immigration status. And he trekked to the nearest state with lax background checks when he needed a driver’s license to join the workforce.

There also is nothing admirable about willfully dragging otherwise law-abiding citizens into one’s deception, as Jose did in recruiting his “21st-century underground railroad of supporters.” Slapping a clever, historically friendly label on those allies doesn’t change the fact that Jose asked friends and colleagues to help him defy the law.

Yes, it took courage for Jose to tell his story, especially in a high-profile publication like The New York Times Magazine. Though unlikely, he could be deported because of it. But it took greater courage for our friend Andres to return to Guatemala.

Jose took a calculated risk by going public, but he is still in America, illegally. Andres is not.

The magazine no doubt paid Jose handsomely for his story, both because it is compelling and because he is an established writer. Andres works part time in an Internet cafe, along with one of his younger brothers, to help provide for his family.

Jose is now a national celebrity with a new mission in life to redefine what it means to be an American. To the extent that he can find work, Andres is laboring in Central American obscurity. He doesn’t have Jose’s megaphone or his friends in high places.

Andres is just as eager today as he was in 2008 to work, if only for a little while, in this land of promise. He calls periodically to ask if we can do anything to help him get a job. We can’t — and we hate to crush his spirit with that fact when he periodically contacts us.

To Andres’ credit, he has never broken the law — or asked us to help him do it. From what we understand, he easily could have stayed in America by getting phony paperwork right outside the Guatemalan embassy. Yet when the immigration lawyer we hired told Andres he needed to go home, he never hesitated.

As the father of three immigrants, I am sympathetic to Jose’s new cause. Our adoption trips to and from Guatemala convinced me that the U.S. immigration system is a bureaucratic nightmare, and that’s if you speak English. Good luck if you don’t. Our brief, baffling time with Andres reinforced that view.

But transgression is not the solution. Andres didn’t expect America to bend its immigration rules just because the employer who invited him to this country lied or because his family has a hard life in Guatemala. His American dream — getting a job to pay for the education of his sisters — tugs at the heartstrings, too.

But if Andres ever gets to work in this country, it will be because he obeys the laws governing his stay. He’s the hero worthy of admiration in my book.

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