How to Be an Illegal Alien


Illegal immigration? It won’t happen here! cry the Republicans. We’re making America a SAFE PLACE, free from all you filthy non-American potential terrorists, especially you well-known Bin Laden supporters, the Mexicans. . . .

On March 2, 2005, I entered this country from the U.K. on a tourist visa. I’d never been to New York before. It seemed like a fun place to be. The friendly immigration official gave me a cheery wave as he stamped my passport and sent me off with a polite “Have a good day, ma’am.”

I was in the United States of America, without papers, without friends, without a job. Yet in two weeks, with a little help from my fellow illegals, I was ensconced in a loft apartment in Brooklyn, with a full-time waitressing job, a Social Security number, a bank account, and a new boyfriend.

But it’s easy for someone on a U.K. passport, you say. You’re white, you dress like us, you speak the same language (debatable). Wasn’t your Prime Minister that cute guy who helped ol’ George out with the whole Iraq debacle? You’re our friends!

In actual fact, though I have a degree from one of the best universities in the world and a glittering career in publishing, the tightening of immigration laws and the reduction in the number of H1 work visas available after 9-11 have forced me to become an illegal if I want to stay, work and make my life in New York City. Prior to 9-11, I could have rolled up on a tourist visa, applied for a job, and three months later been sitting pretty in my Park Avenue office space playing with the back massager on my comfortable office chair and ordering the secretary off the phone to go and fetch me a Frappuccino.

As it is, if I go the legal route to a new life in New York, I have to find a job willing to sponsor me, apply for a visa by April 1, and, because of government restrictions, wait until October at the very earliest before being able to officially take up my position as a paid employee of an American company. If I miss the April 1 deadline, it’s likely that the soonest I could take up legal employment would be October 2006.

For those would-be immigrants out there who lack the first-world privileges I grew up with, the prospect of coming here legally is growing increasingly remote. Under President Bush’s “Guest Worker Program,” the idea is that employers will be matched up with workers for a three-year period, but afterward, the workers will be no further along the path to gaining permanent resident status or citizenship. Bush’s hazy program has given false hopes of an amnesty for illegals, and in the days after he made the proposal in January 2004, the number of illegals attempting to cross the border actually increased.

And is border control the real issue at stake? The vast majority of illegals I’ve met have merely overstayed their tourist visas, meaning they entered this country in a perfectly legitimate fashion.

I think you’re missing the point, Mr. Bush. I and my fellow illegals—whether Mexican, Slovakian, Haitian, Italian, Nigerian, Indian, Australian, British—we’re not here to make your taxes increase, leach off your welfare system (I’d stay in the U.K. if I wanted to do that), or make “your” America an unsafe place. We’re just here to live our lives the best we can, and to do that, we’re working 60-hour weeks on minimum wage, dodging immigration officials, and devising any way possible to stay in this great country of yours.

Here’s what I’ve learned about how to be an illegal alien in New York.

1) Get into the city. There are numerous routes—planes, trains, automobiles, or boats. I came in on Flight 101 with American Airlines. My friend Sergio rowed over from Mexico on a little boat with his family. What was it like? I ask him. “Aburrido,” he says, and shrugs. Boring. Another girl I know, from the Ukraine, made friends with a lovely, kind American doctor, who promptly invited her over—some Eastern European passport holders aren’t allowed into the country without an “invite” or sponsor. The girl promptly overstayed her tourist visa and decided to . . .

2) Get married. Marriage to a U.S. citizen gets you a green card in three months. After three years you can get permanent residency, which means you can live and work here without a U.S. passport. You will need to find someone stupid enough to take on financial responsibility for you for five years after the marriage. If you run up the credit cards and disappear, they get the bills. I like the way this country works sometimes. You also have to put up with the IRS nosing in on your bank accounts, rent payments, mortgages, etc., to make sure you really are financially co-dependent. An Italian bartender I know entered the U.S. eight months ago, and for the first three months lived solely off tips earned from bar tending. In month four, he met a Puerto Rican Baptist from Queens, 10 years his junior. In month five, he started passing on pay checks to his new Puerto Rican girlfriend to cash on his behalf. In month nine, they are intending to get married with a pleasant little ceremony in a church on the East Side. It can be done, mis amigos, and in a mere five years, you can be pledging your allegiance to the U.S., or, if going tandem’s not in the cards . . .

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 tips—on a weeknight in the slow month of February an average of $40 per 10 hour shift—was 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-hand—the 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 model—we’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.”

This is what I find so endlessly fascinating—that this city is made up of people like my bartender friend and Gonzalo and Renatka and me, all invisible people. In some ways we are more New York than people who’ve lived here 20 years. We’re how New York started. We’re how it will go on, with or without immigration reform.