Monday, April 03, 2006

My experience as an illegal immigrant

There has been lots of blogging ink spilt over the issue of immigration lately. I don't have much to say about it from a policy point of view. I am in favor of more, not less, free movement of peoples. Of course, every nation has a right to defend itself and that criminals and terrorists shouldn't have the freedom of movement. They should be locked up.

I don't have any answers. I only have a story.

Expat Teacher started his self-imposed exile from America in the summer of 2001. I was fed up with telling poor black kids that if they just worked hard they'd could achieve the American Dream. Lying as a full-time profession sucks.

I started looking for jobs somewhere where I didn't have to preach the American Dream. Europe seemed perfect. After all, I thought, it was a socialist paradise where everyone loves each other. After much searching, I took a job at a school near Venice.

It wasn't the best run school. They hired me and then started to worry about my paperwork. It was too close to the start of the school year to get my papers, so they just instructed me to come over with my wife on a tourist visa and we'd get everything set up from Italy. So Mrs. Expat Teacher and I arrived in Italy as "tourists" but with the intent to work and earn a living as a teacher. We immediately became 'illegals' or 'clandestini' according to our Italian friends. I'd like to claim naivete, but we knew, at least partially, what we were doing.

We were assured, in fact, I came to believe it, that because we were rich and white we wouldn't have any real problems. Since racism is rampant in northern Italy, this fact was unfortunately true. We didn't have any trouble with the law, unlike our fellow darker skinned clandestini.

That didn't make my life any easier. I didn't speak a lick of Italian. I didn't know anyone outside of my employer. I didn't know or understand Italian labor laws. I just did what my employer told me because I had no recourse. We were treated fine, but when I left the school at the end of the year I wasn't paid my final 500 Euros. I had no legal recourse to get them back. Those around the following year, when the school went bankrupt and didn't get paid the final 3 months wages were even worse off.

My employer tried to get us the correct papers. The Italian bureaucracy stymied our attempts many times. During our time as "tourists" we couldn't get correct medical papers, register a car, or even get a library card. We were paid in cash in envelopes at the end of the month. Without the correct papers we couldn't even get a bank account. We had to make sure that we didn't draw any attention to ourselves when officials and the police were around. That was especially hard because in our small town, we were known as 'i americani' at the local supermarket.

Just prior to our 3 month visa expiring, we were sent back to San Francisco to get our visa. The school gave up on getting us a work permit and decided to go the 'student visa' route. We were to be students at the school I taught at and my stipend was billed as a scholarship. We would continue to not pay taxes. After a long weekend in San Francisco we got the correct papers, but only because our employer called someone, who knew someone, who had a friend that did this thing with someone who worked in the San Francisco office.

So we headed back to Italy on "student visas" to go to work. Life was a little easier, but we still lived on a razor's edge that someone would discover the real nature of our work and turn us in. I was sure that we'd only be deported, but that thought was scary enough.

Like I mentioned above, we left the school after one year because it was poorly managed and run by a con-man.

So, Kumar, Future Man and others...what do you do with me? I went to Italy with the intent of breaking the law. I was doing a job no one in our small town was qualified or able to do, but I was breaking the law. In Italy, our lives were forever altered, lifetime friends were made and taxes unpaid. I wouldn't trade our experience there for all the money in the world. Is the conservative response to lock my wife and I up and deport us?

You'll be pleased to know that I'm legally living and working in the UK

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