Peter Orner: Author of an oral history of illegal immigrants, discusses the nightmares experienced by this vulnerable population





The small Texas town where I live, Marfa, is the home base of one of the largest U.S. Border Patrol sectors, covering 165,000 square miles and encompassing 25 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border. From my house, I can hear the Border Patrol headquarters' intercom, alerting agents to calls on line two or line three; their green and white patrol cars are everywhere, around town and throughout far west Texas. It's a daily reminder that we are living on the edge of a line in the desert, a line that Homeland Security is vigilant about protecting -- keeping certain people in and certain people out. A line that migrants will spend thousands of dollars, countless days and untold psychological turmoil trying to cross in an attempt to make it into America.

So it's fitting that writer Peter Orner was recently working in Marfa as a writer-in-residence for the Lannan Foundation, a literature and arts foundation in Santa Fe, N.M., that offers a residency program here. While Orner is a celebrated novelist and short-story writer -- his novel "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" was a 2006 Salon Book Award winner -- his new book, "Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives," marks his departure from fiction. ("Underground America" is the third of the McSweeney's Publishing "Voice of Witness" books, a series dedicated to documenting social injustice through oral history.) Through 24 narratives, Orner, who edited the book and led a 22-person interviewing team, gives voice to a small handful of the millions who've illegally crossed into this country.

We hear about these migrants on the news: We watch pundits discussing immigration, we see videos of walls on the Mexican border, we know that they are here. But what do we know of their daily lives: Why they came to the United States? What they left behind in their home countries? In "Underground America," Orner and his co-interviewers attempt to answer those questions. The stories are heartbreaking and human. "My only crime was working hard," says "Diana," a 44-year-old Peruvian migrant working in post-Katrina New Orleans. Eventually caught by immigration officials who refused her access to a lawyer, she was detained in a prison, wearing shackles and chains, and allowed to shower only once a week. After struggling in poverty in Guatemala, 28-year-old "El Curita" came to the U.S. dreaming of a better life; he worked as a housepainter for an American woman who used his lack of legal papers to force him into domestic slavery.


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