Back of the House

04/12/2005 2:00 PM |

Naoufel has been in the United States for eight years, and for much of that time he’s been an illegal immigrant, one of nearly a million in New York City. He’s from Tunisia, on the  North African coast just south of Sicily. Brooklyn deli owners often mistake his tan skin and lilting accent for Italian, while in fact he speaks both French and Arabic fluently, in addition to English. Despite this linguistic proficiency, most of his jobs here have been in restaurants, as dishwasher and busboy. When he married an American woman and acquired a temporary work visa, he moved up the social ladder to the front of the house, as a server. But in a cultural climate increasingly hostile to both legal and illegal immigration, Naoufel is one of many immigrants at risk of deportation.
Tales of the porous Mexican border abound, from underground passageways built by drug cartels, to Mexicans starving or hunted in the Arizona desert — but Naoufel’s journey to America has been different. As a Tunisian immigrant, illegal or otherwise, he doesn’t have the established diaspora support network enjoyed by those from Latin America. Naoufel’s odyssey is isolated, and epic, and has seen him wander up and down the East Coast.
He came first to Washington D.C., with the help of a neighbor who was an ambassador to the United States. His only English was “I want job,” and he survived by washing cars for $40 a day. He felt hopeless, ready to go back to Tunisia, until he’d received a tip about a woman in Alabama who wished to “help serve humanity,” he says, by marrying illegal immigrants. She proved to be an interesting introduction to America outside its cities. Obese, over 50 years old, she lived deep in Alabama’s swamp country, coaxing immigrants like then 28-year-old Naoufel to marry her so that he might literally serve as her sex slave in exchange for working papers. Naoufel was horrified, though at the time he barely spoke enough English to protest. He escaped with the manager of a restaurant where he washed dishes, and the two fell in love. “It had nothing to do with papers,” he says. “Fuck papers, I thought, this is love.”
He divorced his “humanitarian” first wife, got remarried and received a temporary visa. He moved back to D.C., where one of his restaurant customers got him a job assembling robots. For the first time he had weekends off, enjoyed his work, and felt hints of the American dream, a vague idea he knew from movies, which had compelled him to come in the first place. But he had to leave the job when his wife’s mother got cancer, and they went back to Alabama to care for her. During this stressful time, he was arrested for marijuana possession, a misdemeanor fine in D.C., but nevertheless a wrinkle on his record that has delayed his permanent resident status approval.
Naoufel moved to New York to start over, but his visa has since expired, and he is once again an illegal immigrant stuck in the back of a restaurant, the simple pleasure of the five-day-work week a bittersweet memory. In common practice, an illegal immigrant who marries an American would have an interview with Immigration and Naturalization Services within three months to prove their marriage legitimate. But since Homeland Security absorbed the department, it is backlogged, overly bureaucratic, and especially confusing to immigrants who still struggle with English. Beyond the government’s attitude, since 9/11 the American public is increasingly opposed to any immigration, legal or not. It’s been two years, and the INS has not so much as returned a phone call to Naoufel. As an immigrant from a Muslim country, he’s had to re-register with INS several times, according to post 9/11 policy changes. “Just from the looks of the office I went to,” he says, “with boxes of files spilling out onto floor, I could see they were over their heads. I’m worried I’m lost in the system.”
Working in the same restaurant as Naoufel is Daniel, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, also married to an American woman, and the father of a three-year-old American daughter — but still, he has no papers. He appears daunted by the process, unable to afford an immigration lawyer, and fearful he will be deported from his wife and daughter. He supports his family on the four dollars an hour the restaurant pays him, plus a small percentage of server’s tips. He has never taken a vacation, or received a raise in five years with the same restaurant. Yet, in spite of his trials, when asked if he feels this treatment is unfair, he squints with incredulity, the answer obvious. “I want to give my daughter what my mother and father never gave to me,” he says.
The aspirations of immigrants like Daniel are part of the New York mythology we find enshrined in the harbor. But this new era of illegal influx is a different paradigm, particularly post 9/11. In 1989, mayor Ed Koch established the city’s unofficial “sanctuary” policy, joining others like Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston who violate federal law by not requiring police officers to inquire about a detainee’s resident status. It is a policy that Rudy Giuliani even defended before the Supreme Court. He lost, but vowed to go on publicly violating government policy.
Though free market ideologues talk about the economic benefit of illegal immigration, some politicians feel it leads to terrorism and crime, “a looming threat to western civilization,” in the words of Tom Tancredo, a conservative Colorado congressman. The crime rate in Los Angeles is high among its illegal population, and the city has repealed its sanctuary policy. Bloomberg repealed New York’s policy in 2003 after the rape and murder of a Queens woman by illegal immigrants (he re-instated it in a different form later that year). In Daniel’s restaurant, employees’ lockers are often robbed. One evening, a busboy passed around a business card in Spanish to other kitchen workers, advertising prostitutes for $30.
But these are the realities of urban poverty. Though workers may benefit their families by sending American dollars to their home country, their jobs don’t lead them out of kitchens here. They rarely have the time or money for education. Naoufel calls it “voluntary slavery.” The restaurants, he says, “prefer to hire people who will be desperately dependent on these jobs.” Naoufel shakes his head. “But still, you know, back home, we all hear about the American dream from movies, and never stop believing in it.”
That the INS will deport Daniel and Naoufel before they achieve legal status is a real possibility, one many immigrant families face everyday. Yet despite stricter laws, an increasingly xenophobic population, and vigilante border hunters in Arizona, illegal immigrants will continue to come to America, particularly to a city like New York. Their migration is inevitable in a globalised world in which the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider. “I prefer it here,” Daniel says, “because at least I am working for something, like achieving my dream.”
When asked what that dream is, Daniel cannot quite articulate it, beyond his phrase: “Living good.” Others, like Naoufel, may have had a taste of it, but lost it. But it’s somehow enough for them to know that such a dream exists, whether in the abstract or reality, and in that way they resemble thousands of young, legal dreamers in New York. But as those artists, musicians or writers discover, the city has a way of crushing dreams before it fulfills them. •