Arriving Without an Invitation: New Book Offers Unique Perspective on the Life of an Illegal Immigrant

A FI2W Essay

By John Rudolph, FI2W Executive Producer
A Mexican migrant in the Arizona desert - Photo: Valeria Fernández.

(Photo: Valeria Fernández)

“The route is full of dangers. In summer there are usually soldiers guarding the footpaths who arrest anyone trying to get through illegally. There are just as many armed bandits lurking too, waiting to pounce and rob the illegal migrant of what little he owns. Whoever refuses to empty his pockets gets the thrashing of his life. In winter there are fewer soldiers, fewer bandits. Instead it’s a toss-up between dying in the snow or being eaten by wolves.”

Change a few details, and this could easily be a description of the perils facing undocumented immigrants as they cross from Mexico into the U.S. But the writer is Albanian, and the route he describes is his own passage from his native country to neighboring Greece, which he entered illegally in 1991.

Gazmend Kapllani

Gazmend Kapllani

In the current debate over immigration reform it is easy for Americans to loose sight of the universality of human migration. Around the world, national borders are constantly being crossed, both with and without governmental approval, as people facing difficult –sometimes desperate– circumstances search for safety, economic security and opportunities they can’t find at home.

“A Short Border Handbook” (published in the U.K. by Portobello Books), a new book by journalist Gazmend Kapllani, reminds us that the experiences often associated with undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are endemic to all who leave their homeland and show up in a new country “uninvited.” Using a blunt style and, at times, dark humor, Kapllani’s short book tells the story of walking to Greece in 1991 after the government of Albania opened its borders following the fall of the country’s totalitarian Communist regime.

The parallels are striking between Kapllani’s experiences and those of Latino immigrants in the U.S. today.

“The fact that you arrived uninvited makes you feel uncomfortable, and deeply guilty, and you may never get over that feeling. Because apart from everything else, they won’t let you forget it. This is your original sin,” he writes.

Across the country Latinos have taken center stage, both as lightning rods for anti-immigrant sentiment and as leaders of the movement to change the nation’s immigration laws.

To be sure, Latinos are the country’s biggest new immigrant group, and make up the majority of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. But characterizing immigration reform as a Latino issue –or the issue of any one ethnic group– makes it easier for both sides in the debate to get sidetracked by racial politics. As a consequence it becomes harder to fix the broken immigration system.

Kapllani entered Greece illegally along with thousands of other Albanians who for years had been barred by their own government not just from crossing the border, but even from going near it. Once in Greece he found a life that was different than the one he left behind, but not necessarily easier. The borders that had confined him for most of his life were replaced by new barriers.

You tell them you want to be legalized, that it’s unbearable trembling every time you see a Black Maria (slang for a police van that carries prisoners) and anyway, who wants to feel like a scared mouse all the time because he hasn’t got the right papers in his pocket?

I may have arrived without an invitation but I work just like the rest of you do, and most importantly, my boss, or rather my bosses, need me. Yes, I do realize that you are feeding me, but let me tell you that I more than repay it.

Yes, I am dependent on you for my survival, but you depend on me for your wealth. That’s life. Give and take. I have started to build a new life here, I have got used to this city, and who knows, this city might eventually get used to me. So why am I illegal and worse than a stray dog?

The city is deaf to your defence. The city is deaf. And on the news, the journalists give voice to the vox pop and want to make sure that you never manage to shake off your nickname, your name, your label: illegal immigrant, illegal life, illegal.

It’s easy to picture an undocumented Mexican day laborer in Los Angeles or a Chinese immigrant without papers working in a New York restaurant experiencing the same kinds of feelings. It’s hard to imagine that all immigrants in the U.S. –whether legal or undocumented– will reach the same level of success Kapllani has achieved in his adoptive homeland. His first jobs in Greece were as a cook and construction worker. He now writes for Greece’s largest circulation daily and has his own radio show.

Kapplani writes about a time almost two decades ago and a place half a world away from the U.S.-Mexico border. But by pointing out that the impulse to migrate and the challenges of illegal immigration are not just felt in North America, and are truly global, perhaps this book can contribute to finding a new way to view –and ultimately untangle– the incredibly complex immigration situation here at home.

AboutJohn Rudolph
John Rudolph, Executive Producer, is a journalist with more than 40 years experience as a public radio program host and producer of documentaries, podcasts and news reports. John produced the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, which was the debut for the Feet in 2 Worlds project.