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Notes From The Undocumented 'Underground'

Underground America, the engrossing new book in the Voice of Witness series from McSweeney's — oral histories of people who have had their human and civil rights violated — makes one thing clear: The United States is, to the peril of its soul, doing a bad job of dealing with the 12 million to 15 million undocumented immigrants toiling in its fields and factories, farms and offices.

Novelist Peter Orner (The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo) and a group of volunteers interviewed a wide array of workers for this project. Their stories — some lengthy, others only a page — were compiled into 24 first-person accounts. The poor and politically oppressed, and those from Mexico and Central America, are represented, as one would expect. But so are immigrants from Iran, Pakistan, China and Cameroon, along with men and women holding university degrees and claiming middle-class backgrounds. Some spent years solely defined by grueling workplaces and bare-bones homes. Many have comfortable, and even prosperous, lives.

What they all have in common, though, is a sense of constant anxiety. With their families so far away, they are afflicted by loneliness. And because they fear deportation, they exile themselves to varying degrees of solitude. "You don't want to talk to other people. You're always quiet," says Liso, a 38-year-old teacher from South Africa who, like almost all of the interviewees, is identified only by her first name. "If you're illegal here, you're not free at all."

What Underground America argues is that this marginalization invites brutality and exploitation, which then festers into corruption that affects all Americans. Free from worker complaints, slaughterhouses, for example, can skirt sanitation and safety laws, compromising the food we eat. This is but one of many consequences of what is an ongoing social disaster, and Orner and company have produced an invaluable primer for understanding it.

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Oscar Villalon
Oscar Villalon is book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. A member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, he's also a long-time juror of the California Book Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. His writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer, and his reviews have aired on KQED's The California Report. He lives with his wife and son in San Francisco.