Across the Border
Senior editor John Spong talks about finding Immigrant X, listening to him talk about coming to America, and learning about how he lives his life here illegally.
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texasmonthly.com: Obviously, immigration has been a hot topic. I’m guessing that Texas Monthly planned on doing a piece on immigration but had to find the right one. How did it come about that the piece would be on one individual? And how did you land the assignment?
John Spong: It was interesting the way those immigration rallies seemed to sneak up on people this spring. It was as if one day immigration was a policy story in the news-out-of-Washington section of the newspaper, and the next day there were half a million people marching through Dallas. Our editor, Evan Smith, knew that the issue would only be getting bigger over the summer. Congress was going to be addressing it, and even if they did nothing more than pay it lip service, it would be loud lip service as the two parties tried to pin each other down prior to November’s Congressional elections. So it was decided that the issue would stay on people’s minds and that we needed a story in the magazine right now.
But it was going to be hard to do a full-blown policy story so quickly. It’s such a big topic, both in terms of importance and in terms of breadth; there are stories to write on the people working on the legislation and in the movement, stories on opposition groups like the Minutemen, stories on the industries effected by immigration, and stories on the lives of the immigrants themselves. We decided that the story with the quickest turnaround would be one that focused on an individual immigrant, knowing that we’d be able to do the other, longer stories later.
texasmonthly.com: How did you find Immigrant X? Was it difficult?
JS: Immigrant X is a friend of a friend. I met him about a year ago when I went to drink a couple beers after work with that mutual friend. We hung out for about an hour that night, and I had no idea until the end of the evening that he was illegal. He didn’t fit any of the stereotypes that get attached to those people by the left or the right. He was clearly a hard worker, but he spoke great English. It wasn’t until somebody sitting around the cooler with us mentioned that I used to practice law that Immigrant X asked what I knew about immigration law. He said he was thinking about hiring a lawyer to help get him legal, but he had heard horror stories about how those deals usually play out. He said he had friends who’d paid $3,000 and $4,000 retainers to a attorneys and then never heard anything back about their cases. I gave him the name and number of one of the better immigration lawyers in town, but I came to learn later that he never called her. The research that he did on his own had showed him how stacked the law is against immigrants, and he’d decided that there was no real use in pursuing things in court.
texasmonthly.com: Do you speak Spanish at all? Was that ever a concern going into this piece about language? Immigrant X speaks English, so there wasn’t much of a problem with language. Is language really a problem for immigrants?
JS: I don’t speak a lick of Spanish beyond the typical dirty words you learn in high school and being able to say “No habla.” That’s one of the reasons I got lucky when Evan decided we could tell the story of someone living in Austin. Originally we’d wanted to find somebody in Dallas to write about, since Dallas seems to be ground zero for the movement in Texas. But once Evan okayed Austin as the setting for the piece, I had the green light I needed. That meant I could go back and find this guy I’d met last year.
As far as language being a problem generally for immigrants, the illegals I’ve met who couldn’t speak English were guys I couldn’t talk to. So obviously we didn’t talk about the language barrier or much else. But I have spent a fair amount of time with guys like that. They were all laborers. Some were guys I worked with on construction projects and in people’s yards. In truth, from what I could tell, language wasn’t their biggest problem. They had all built pretty good lives for themselves and their families. They bought groceries at stores and got health care at clinics where the clerks and nurses could speak Spanish. And their kids who were in school here were speaking English. So their worlds were insulated from what you might call mainstream middle America, and the language barrier was part of that. But they probably would have been insulated anyway.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this feature?
JS: I was most impressed that Immigrant X was paying income tax. I knew that most illegals were having social security taxes withheld from their paychecks, a tax from which, by the way, they’d likely never see any benefits. But I had no idea so many of them were meeting the same April 15 deadline the rest of us are. And when Immigrant X told me he’d gotten money back, I was doubly impressed, and I didn’t hide my surprise. He told me he had a good accountant, at which point I just shook my head. I don’t have one of those.
texasmonthly.com: Did you already have some kind of framework for this piece before you interviewed Immigrant X?
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story? Why?
JS: The biggest concern was hiding his identity. He’s really risked a lot by telling his story to a magazine with nearly two and a half million monthly readers. But he said it was worth it to do whatever he could to help the immigration reform movement at this critical moment. He seemed to be aware that this is a historical time. Still, there was every chance that if we weren’t careful, we could present him in such a way that he could be discovered and deported. Forget that such an outcome would break my heart. The tragedy would be what that would do to his family.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think Immigrant X will ever become a U.S. citizen?
JS: I hope so but really have no idea.
texasmonthly.com: Texas Monthly has written about immigration and Texas. In your opinion, how do you think most Texans feel about illegal immigrants?
JS: It’s hard to generalize for the whole of the state. But it’s interesting how little middle ground there seems to be on the subject. Every American citizen I’ve ever talked to about it came down squarely, passionately, on one side or the other. Either they think the government needs to get off these people’s backs and come up with a way to make them legal right now, or it needs to round them all up today and ship them out of the country as quickly as possible.