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3) Find work. Not so easy when it comes down to it. How can an employer pay you if you don't have a Social Security number? If they pay you cash, it means they're screwing themselves over by not declaring the expenditure. And why would anyone want the trouble of an illegal foreign employee, with all the fresh opportunity inherent in America's youth? This was the dilemma I found myself in when starting work at a restaurant in Soho. The prospect of living off my tipson a weeknight in the slow month of February an average of $40 per 10 hour shiftwas not a seductive one, and without a Social Security number, I couldn't claim my shift pay. Which was why my co-workers, a Hungarian student and a Mexican chef, took me aside one night and let me in on a little secret technique that's really quite simple . . .
4) Assume someone else's identity. Give your nice, kind, and sympathetic American boss your roommate's name and Social Security number to put on the weekly paycheck. Then give your weekly paycheck to your roommate, who will cash it and give the money back to you. The other option is to assume a deceased U.S. citizen's identity and take over their Social Security number. There is a mystical place somewhere off Times Square that will go to all this trouble on your behalf for a minimal fee. Or find a place that pays cash-in-handthe going rate for an illegal alien as a bartender or waitress in this city is currently $4 an hour. The charge that illegals are making your taxes higher seems slightly ridiculous when you consider that we're pouring tax dollars into the IRS with no expectation of future benefits, or that any job paying cash-in-hand is not the kind an American citizen would be willing to perform anyway.
5) Open a bank account. I opened a bank account perfectly legally in Florida, where a number of aliens work on luxury foreign-owned yachts and the bank staff are used to nonresident clients. One Dominicano friend seduced his latest lustful American maiden into opening a bank account for him at Chase Manhattan. The account is in her name, but he has the debit card and access to it. The account will, I feel, last longer than the relationship.
5) Seek out your own kind. If you can't speak English, go to Queens, ask around, seek out the small Italian restaurants, the falafel bars, the strip joints, the dumpster truck businesses, the jobs no self-respecting American would touch with a barge-pole. Then do so well at your job that your boss realizes it's definitely more in his/her interest to employ a friendly Mexican/Korean/Slovakian/Hungarian than an overweight, whining American teen.
6) DON'T LEAVE. Once you're here, stay put. Nicaraguans and Cubans who have lived in the United States illegally since 1995, along with their spouses and unmarried children, were automatically granted legal resident status under NACARA, as long as they applied by April 1, 2000. A little reward for being wily enough to slip past Customs and Immigration. Hey, it could happen again.
Everyone is illegal in New York. Your cab driver, your doorman, the lady who does your pedicure, the kid who makes you a cappuccino, the girl in the street who looks like a modelwe're all immigrants, all displaced people, trying to find a place to settle, wrestling with laws and obstacles and dangers and strange customs. The Mexican chefs in my workplace speak of their homeland with a wistful sadness. Why are you here, then? I ask Gonzalo, a round, tubby-faced lad of 19. I want to be a periodista"a journalist"but university is expensive in Mexico." He says can earn more money here in one week than in a month back home. He's saving up for school. None of the chefs at my job can speak English. They all want to learn, but they don't have the time or the money for lessons. They live with other Spanish speakers, and they work mainly with non-English speakers. Maybe in the future, they say. Maybe when they get American girlfriends.
Renatka, a slim, elegant, blond Romanian, frequently comes into the restaurant with her boyfriend, an older American schoolteacher. Renatka came over to New York five years ago, and at first lived in an apartment with 20 other Romanian illegals. Gradually, she started a night-class college course, learned English by watching TV, and became qualified in picture framing. She now works for a highly specialized Manhattan firm, dealing with the most exclusive collections of art in New York City, and shares an elegant Soho apartment with her boyfriend. She is still not a permanent resident, and when I ask her what type of visa she has, she sighs, and waves a slim, manicured hand impatiently. I have problems with my visa right now. They don't want to renew it. I don't want to talk about it. But I'm not going back to Romania. Her boyfriend slips a tender arm around her waist and hugs her close.
In the taxi home, the Indian driver, finding that I'm acquainted with his homeland, starts to talk endlessly about the Himalayas, about how much he misses it, how he can't wait to return and see his family. I went to Ohio, to see the mountains there, he says, but they just weren't the same.