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February 20th, 2008 By Beth Slovic Bslovic@wweek. | News Stories
 

He’s an... Illegal Eh-lien

He’s stealing our jobs and our women. Plus, he talks funny.

     
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Draft Dodger in Reverse: Morgan in his attic bedroom and art studio in Northeast Portland.
IMAGE: darryl james

On a construction site in North Portland, an illegal immigrant pounds nails and cuts two-by-fours. With each swift motion, he’s breaking the law.

He could be the poster child for anti-illegal immigrant zealots: He’s nonchalant about his status for the most part, unconcerned about not paying U.S. taxes and indifferent to the fact that he’s “stealing” the job of a U.S. citizen.

But he passes through Portland mostly untouched by the spittle spewing from the seal-our-borders-now camp.

Why? Because he’s not Mexican.

He’s an illegal Canadian. A Canuck. An iceback. A frostback. A canalien.

A hoser, eh?

Morgan (who agreed to let us publish his photograph and his first name, but not his last name) is not the face of undocumented immigrants in this country.

Tall and white with a light-brown fauxhawk, Morgan, 27, looks more like a typical Portlander, someone born and bred in the nation of Bruce Springsteen.

With his piercings and tattoos, he might stick out in The Dalles or on the campus of the University of Portland. But on Northeast Alberta Street, where he sometimes hangs out, Morgan is just one more passing soul, an artist and a painter who skateboards or bikes to work because he can’t afford a car. “I’m just your average Joe,” Morgan says. “A honky and a hoser. Irresponsible. A dreamer.”

Morgan’s been in the United States—undetected and unbothered by federal immigration authorities—since fall 2002.

One could argue that Morgan’s reasons for coming to the United States are less understandable—perhaps even less admirable—than those of the immigrants who come to the United States illegally from south of the border. Morgan’s just a single guy with a GED who’s looking to clock his 40 hours a week, spend time with his friends and pursue his art. He’s not escaping crime-filled cities or harsh economic conditions at home. He’s not “homeless, tempest-tossed” in search of higher wages to feed his family. He’s not yearning for a better education for his future children.

He says he has no aspirations of buying a house in the United States. He doesn’t want a bank account, a credit card or even a movie-rental membership, all of which he currently lacks. Compared with the estimated 6 million undocumented immigrants from Mexico in this country today, his goals are much more modest—perhaps even a tad selfish.

Much of what he needs—including health insurance—he could get in Canada. Instead, he wants a green card. He says he loves America, and Portland specifically, more than some Americans do. “I’m constantly defending this place,” he says.

Yet if his American dream were to end suddenly, he wouldn’t be totally devastated. He could return to his home in British Columbia—just six hours north by car—and resume his life in a similar fashion.

Morgan admits he has much less to lose. “The Mexican immigrant has more right to be here than I do,” he says. “It’s almost more noble. The idea is, he’s trying to find a better life for himself and his family. I don’t have an agenda.”

He’s not exactly remorseful about leaving the North to flout U.S. immigration law. He appears to have company. The Urban Institute, a research group in Washington, D.C., estimates between 65,000 and 75,000 undocumented Canadians currently live in the United States.

“If I wasn’t told I was breaking the law, I wouldn’t know I was breaking the law,” he says. “Am I supposed to apologize for that?”

He then jokes: “For the record, I’m sorry.”

At a time when politicians at all levels of government—from Portland City Hall to the Oregon Legislature to the U.S. Capitol—are grappling with undocumented immigration, Morgan’s story punctures the ideological perspectives of the left and the right.

He is no model immigrant. Nor is he a threat to our national identity, unless the occasional use of the word “eh” and maple syrup one day become as horrifying to the foot soldiers of the Minuteman Project as hola and arroz con pollo.

But whether lawmakers are talking about opposing work sites for Portland day laborers, requiring Social Security cards for Oregon drivers or building fences to curb the flow of illegal immigrants to the United States from Mexico, Morgan’s presence in this country is both a confirmation of the failures of U.S.

current immigration policies and a testament to the absurdity of attempts to change them.

The immigration debate in this country is, in fact, no longer a debate. It’s a three-ring circus with a very crowded clown car.

A half-inch scar runs down a finger on Morgan’s left hand, evidence of one central irony of Morgan’s life in the United States: If he lived in Canada, he would have easy access to one of the world’s premier healthcare systems.

In the United States, he doesn’t even have health insurance.

About two years ago, Morgan cut a tendon in his right hand while demolishing a wall at a construction site. He was alone, and he learned the hard way the degree of risk involved in living in the United States without health coverage.

When he emerged from the house, he was bleeding profusely, but he stopped a passerby on the street from calling an ambulance for him because he knew he couldn’t afford to pay for emergency transportation. The bill for stitching his wound alone was $2,700, which his bosses covered and Morgan repaid several months later.

Now when he cuts himself he sews his own wounds, and the half-inch scar on his left hand is one example of his handiwork.

The accident again happened while he was at work—when a cabinet fell on his hand and an exposed nail pierced his skin.

After work, Morgan went to a Rite Aid pharmacy and bought doctor soap and butterfly bandages. At home he boiled a sewing needle and gathered fishing wire, which he did not think to clean.

The wound was small enough and shallow enough that it required only two or three homemade stitches. Morgan didn’t try to do anything to dull the discomfort. “I just gritted my teeth,” he says.

Morgan would never ask anyone to feel sorry for him. And, besides, he enjoys living off the grid, he says. But his life in the United States does present a number of other challenges that wouldn’t exist if he were permitted to live here legally.

He doesn’t have a Social Security number, so he can work only for employers who will agree to pay him under the table. He earns $10 an hour, a wage that puts his annual salary at $20,000.

Most banks require just two forms of picture identification, which Morgan has. So he could open a checking account here. But Morgan says he doesn’t want to put down too many roots, in case he ever has to leave in a hurry. When he needed a cell phone, he turned to a friend to find him one. Now each month when it comes time to pay his phone bill, he puts cash in a sock and shoves the wad through the mail slot at his friend’s house, he says.

All of Morgan’s financial transactions are cash-based. When he can’t afford to pay for something outright—like his tattoos—he pays for his purchases in installments. He also doesn’t have a credit card. “I’ve always hated plastic,” Morgan says. “Banks and all that.”

Compared with those hurdles, Morgan’s day-to-day life is relatively hassle-free. In fact, it is shockingly easy for him to get by.

His friends and bosses know he’s not supposed to be here. If anyone else asks, he repeats the line he uses at border crossings and airports. “I’m just visiting,” he says.

That he can fly under the radar so comfortably is not lost on Morgan, who grew up middle-class in British Columbia. His mother is a kindergarten teacher at a private Christian school, and his father works on a road-maintenance crew. They live in a Dutch Reformed farming community east of Vancouver.

Morgan moved to Portland from British Columbia after a friend from Canada moved to Oregon to attend Multnomah Bible College.

Six years ago, border agents had no reason to stop him. That first time Morgan crossed the border, on his way to Oregon in his friend’s car, he was automatically granted permission to travel in the United States for six months. Unlike Mexican citizens who enter the United States, Canadians aren’t required to obtain visas. (They have six-month “visa waivers” instead.)

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly half of all undocumented immigrants entered the United States lawfully but have overstayed their business or tourist visas, which calls into question the wisdom of the plan to build a higher and longer wall along this country’s southern border.

Morgan wasn’t just visiting, of course. He moved into an artists’ co-op in Southeast Portland where rent was about $300 a month. To pay for it, he immediately set about trying to find work. That, too, came easily.

Morgan’s first job was through a friend of a friend and was off the books: He sold Oregon Christmas trees out of a parking lot in Sarasota, Fla., for $10 an hour. For four weeks, he lived in a motor home with other vendors who were also recruited by the grower.

He moved back to Oregon and has easily gotten work through word of mouth ever since. And because he doesn’t have a Social Security number, he’s always been paid under the table. “’It’s wrong,’” Morgan says his mother tells him. “’What you’re doing is wrong.’”

In all his years here, Morgan has never sent a cent of his earnings to Uncle Sam. He also doesn’t pay Canadian taxes, he says. Instead, he spends a good portion of his money on helping the homeless, he claims. “My measly little morsels,” he calls his salary. “My crumbs off the table.”

At first, Morgan returned to Canada every six months to visit friends and family and, more importantly, to restart his six-month visa waiver. He has sometimes driven across the border. Other times he’s flown. (But because he was working during his trips to the United States, he was nonetheless breaking the law.)

Now he goes home just at Christmas. His friends in Portland say they never know if they should expect him to return. When Morgan leaves, they ask him if he’s coming back. “’Don’t know,’” he tells them.

He has been searched and questioned at the border before, but only once have border agents turned Morgan away. They told him that he’d be “red flagged” if he tried to return. He did anyway. He simply waited a week then crossed at a different border gate in the car of a friend from Portland who drove to Canada to get him. “I don’t know what they know and what they don’t know, whether it’s all there and they turn a blind eye or it’s all guesswork,” Morgan says.

On and off for one period, Morgan worked for a contractor who employed other illegal immigrants—men who happened to be from Mexico. They weren’t treated as well at work, Morgan told his friends.

“He was in the same boat as they were immigration status-wise, yet they were much worse off than him for doing the same job,” Morgan’s friend Amber Whittenberg says.

When Morgan realized this contractor was going to stiff the illegal crew, Morgan quit in protest.

Off the job, Morgan walked around Portland carrying a backpack with a Canadian flag. At a bus stop one day he met a Latino worker who joked he would never do the same with a Mexican flag.

“America is still racist, you can’t deny that,” Morgan says. “It’s woven into its history.”

He says he feels a certain connection to other undocumented immigrants, but he doesn’t pretend to have the same reasons as they do for coming here.

Nor does he face the same pressures. He lives in an attic that serves as his bedroom and art studio in a Beaumont-Wilshire home where a friend lets him stay in exchange for landscaping and housework.

“I just feel like I’m observing,” Morgan says. “I feel like a bench warmer for the real players who are actually playing the game. I would never call myself an alien. I would never call myself an immigrant.”

The central debate in Oregon concerning illegal immigration right now doesn’t faze Morgan.

On Feb. 11, the state Senate voted 23-7 to strip undocumented immigrants of driver’s license privileges. On Feb. 13, the House overwhelmingly approved the same measure. Two days later Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed the measure into law.

Senate Bill 1080 directs the Oregon Department of Transportation to require valid Social Security cards for Oregon licenses. Last fall, Kulongoski’s office said Oregon had become a “safe haven” for people seeking official American identification cards, even though they could not establish “legal presence” in the United States.

On Feb. 4, the first day of the special legislative session and the day SB 1080 was introduced in Salem, protesters from both sides of the immigration debate gathered at the Capitol.

To each shout of “Go home!” from the anti-illegal-immigrant front came equally jarring taunts from the pro-immigrant side. If anyone has any doubt that immigration has become a highly charged and seemingly intractable issue, spend two hours listening to an unhappy chorus of “Sí se puede,” or “Yes, we can,” and “What part of ILLEGAL don’t you understand?”

“This reminds me of the Alamo,” says Robert Heriford, who stood with three dozen people and his wife, Betty, on the steps of the Capitol earlier this month. “We’re being surrounded by illegals.”

Across from the couple, on the sidewalks surrounding the Legislature, nearly 1,000 Oregonians—almost all of Mexican or Latino descent—gathered in protest to show their opposition to SB 1080. If they weren’t undocumented themselves, many of them professed to know someone who was.

“They target Mexicans first, then Latinos in general,” says Romeo Sosa, an organizer for VOZ, a Portland group advocating immigrant workers’ rights. “It’s obvious they’re not going to accept it, but it’s real: This country has a history of racism.”

The new rules have little relevance to Morgan. Sure, he can’t get an Oregon driver’s license. And if he wanted to buy a car, he couldn’t get car insurance without that identification.

But Morgan can and occasionally does drive his friends’ cars using his Canadian driver’s license, which—by itself—is not illegal. Spokesmen for the Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division and the Oregon State Police confirm a Mexican immigrant could legally drive using his Mexican driver’s license, even under Kulongoski’s measure.

Latino groups have still come out in force against the executive order and SB 1080 because they say the changes unfairly punish undocumented immigrants. They also say the new rules will make Oregon more dangerous, not less, because some immigrants who drive to work will now do so without insurance.

Morgan prefers not to drive if he doesn’t have to, in part because he worries about being stopped and questioned by police. “Part of being here is, you always feel a little edgy,” Morgan says. “You want to keep yourself safe.”

On the two occasions Morgan actually has been stopped by Portland police officers, for making an illegal left turn in 2005 and then again in 2007 for jaywalking across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, he gave the police his Canadian license as identification. (He was driving a friend’s car when he was pulled over.) Both times police mailed his tickets—with fines of $154 and $144, respectively—to Canada. As of February, he hadn’t paid either of them.

In 2007, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 273,289 people, up steadily from 116,017 in 2001.

In roughly the same period, the estimated number of undocumented immigrants climbed from 8.5 million to 11.6 million, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Meanwhile, the fury grows over what some people call a problem and others see as an opportunity. Portlanders will continue to fight about the appropriateness of building a site for day laborers, many of whom are here illegally. Oregonians will push their battle over identification cards to the next front: the fight over the implementation in Salem of the federal REAL ID Act, which imposes stricter nationwide standards on driver’s licensing programs.

And Americans, including several presidential candidates, will carry on in their efforts to builder bigger, tougher, more expensive walls along the southern border.

None of this will stop Morgan. He romanticizes his evasion of U.S. policy, alluding to a previous migration of young men across the U.S.-Canada border during the Vietnam War.

“I am a backwards draft dodger in a war that doesn’t need me, in a war that exists to Americans only in the protests they attend, the flags they fly,” Morgan writes in an email.

His attraction to the United States—and Portland in particular—isn’t the same as the pull for other immigrants, to be sure. It’s not as plain as wanting a better life.

His parents say their son gets a thrill from living in the United States, in part because he’s breaking the rules. They don’t think he should be here. “His mum feels he’s always liked to live on the edge a little bit.” Morgan’s father says. “I think he’s rubbing [authorities’ noses] in it a little bit, saying, ‘I’m here and you haven’t done anything about it.’”

Morgan admits his parents’ assessment is true; he enjoys being here in some small way simply because he’s not allowed. He jokes about finding an American woman to marry him.

His friend Amber Whittenberg says Morgan’s reasons are even simpler. “It’s because it’s his home,” she says. “He’s here because Portland is his home.”

But his friend Eric Roser says Morgan’s dreams could be satisfied in Canada. “It really comes down to the fact that he wants to be here,” Roser says. “Does it mean he has any less right to be there than, say, a refugee? Yes. But does it mean he shouldn’t be here? I don’t think so. I think there’s room enough for him.”


Using U.S. Census data and Department of Homeland Security figures, the Urban Institute gives estimates of the undocumented population in the U.S.

The Urban Institute estimates there are about 250,000 undocumented immigrants from China and between 65,000 and 75,000 from Canada in the United States.

Mexico is the largest contributor of illegal immigrants in the United States, with about 6 million. Another 2 million-plus come from other Latin American countries.

The Canadian Consulate in Seattle estimates a total of 80,000 Canadians, including students and professionals with work visas, reside in Oregon.

 
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