So, where are all the illegals?

A fence along our border with Mexico may seem like a solution to our illegal-immigration problem, but it’s a sideshow, a distraction from the thorniest of immigration issues: the 12 million or so illegal immigrants who already live here.

Who are these 12 million people? I decided to ask one of them.

Angela is an attractive young woman who enrolled in my freshman composition class a couple of semesters ago. For the first nine or 10 weeks she did her work quietly and said very little. But when she spoke up one day in favor of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, someone asked her why she cared about this. She said, with only the slightest of Spanish accents, “Well, I’m illegal.”

Twelve years ago, when she was 13, Angela’s parents presented themselves and their children at the border crossing into Brownsville, Texas, and asked for permission to cross over for two weeks. They had arranged their lives in Mexico to mask their intention to stay in the United States. They hadn’t quit their jobs and they hadn’t withdrawn their children from school. They brought enough money, but not too much. Angela says that the agents at the border were rude to them, but they gave her family permission to stay for six months.

Her mother cleaned rooms and cooked at a motel in the Rio Grande Valley, and her father mowed lawns and picked up day labor. All five of them stayed in one of the rooms.

After a few months they moved to Corpus Christi. Her mother worked in a hotel’s housekeeping department, and her father cut the grass and cleaned the pool. Angela enrolled in middle school. She didn’t speak English, so her friends told her that if an Anglo spoke to her, she should shrug her shoulders, say “Whatever” and walk away. It worked.

She took extra tutorials after school to learn English quickly because, she says, she knew that it was essential to better jobs. And she wanted to help her parents learn it, too.

Soon Angela was in high school, playing soccer and dancing in the ballet folklorico. The family worked hard and their lives settled into a routine that must have allowed them occasionally to forget their illegal status. Still, when Angela’s grandfather had heart surgery and her mother traveled to far South Texas to visit, she walked through the desert on the way back to bypass the checkpoint, emerging after three days, covered with dirt and ticks.

Now Angela is doing well in college. She also works full time as a receptionist at a hotel. To get her job, she borrowed a Social Security number from a friend’s mother. Everyone at the hotel thinks her name is Dolores. She’s capable and dependable, and management wants to promote her. But she declines, knowing that more responsibility would lead to closer scrutiny of her background.

Her future is uncertain. For around, $3000, she can find a citizen who’ll marry her and start her on an uncertain road to citizenship. Then there’s the guy in the Navy who would marry her for free. But she doesn’t love him, and citizenship law requires her to stay married for six years.

She’s thoroughly bilingual, so she could support herself easily in Mexico. But even though she’s proud of her Mexican roots, after 12 years here she’s much more American than Mexican. This is my home now, she says. She has an immigrant’s appreciation for the privilege of living in this country.

Angela is a criminal. Even a traffic stop for a minor violation threatens to turn her world upside down.

But her crime needs to be understood in context of the long-standing, mutually beneficial relationship between Mexico and the United States that has not only permitted, but encouraged, labor to cross the border in order to supply us with cheap hotel rooms, cheap fruits and vegetables, and well-manicured lawns.

So when we think about these 12 million illegals in our country, we should consider that many of them are like Angela. She’s an intelligent, contributing member of our society who’s already demonstrated the initiative and responsibility that make for good citizenship. For those like her, an expedited, humane amnesty is called for.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)