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The The Battle to Stay in America: Immigration's Hidden Front Line

The The Battle to Stay in America: Immigration's Hidden Front Line

by Michael Kagan
The The Battle to Stay in America: Immigration's Hidden Front Line

The The Battle to Stay in America: Immigration's Hidden Front Line

by Michael Kagan


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2020 Foreword INDIE awards winner

"Day-to-day life in immigrant communities is described with refreshing clarity and heart... an unusually accessible primer on immigration law and a valuable guide to the ways it currently works to perpetuate an excluded immigrant underclass with diminished rights."

The New York Review of Books

The national debate over American immigration policy has obsessed politicians and disrupted the lives of millions of people for decades. The Battle to Stay in America focuses on Las Vegas, Nevada-a city where more than one in five residents was born in a foreign country, and where the community is struggling to defend itself against the federal government’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Told through the eyes of an immigration lawyer on the front lines of that battle, this book offers an accessible, intensely personal introduction to a broken legal system. It is also a raw, honest story of exhaustion, perseverance, and solidarity. Michael Kagan describes how current immigration law affects real people’s lives and introduces us to some remarkable individuals—immigrants and activists—who grapple with its complications every day. He explains how American immigration law often gives good people no recourse. He shows how under President Trump the complex bureaucracies that administer immigration law have been re-engineered to carry out a relentless but often invisible attack against people and families who are integral to American communities.

Kagan tells the stories of people desperate to escape unspeakable violence in their homeland, children separated from their families and trapped in a tangle of administrative regulations, and hardworking long-time residents suddenly ripped from their productive lives when they fall unwittingly into the clutches of the immigration enforcement system. He considers how the crackdown on immigrants negatively impacts the national economy and offers a deeply considered assessment of the future of immigration policy in the United States. Kagan also captures the psychological costs exacted by fear of deportation and by increasingly overt expressions of hatred against immigrants.  

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781948908504
Publisher: University of Nevada Press
Publication date: 08/11/2020
Edition description: 1
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 644,250
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 16 - 18 Years

About the Author

Michael Kagan is the director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, which defends children and families fighting deportation in Las Vegas and is Joyce Mack Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits that prevented the Trump Administration from adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. He has written for The Washington, and The Daily Beast and is a leading national scholar of immigration and refugee law.

Read an Excerpt


The highest hourly wage Fernando Gonzalez ever earned in Las Vegas was $16.54 an hour, and that didn’t last long.* For that, he picked cucumbers at a hothouse on the northern frontier of Las Vegas’s urban sprawl,
somewhere in between the Stratosphere and Nellis Air Force Base, where the desert meets the city.

“The cucumbers got infected,” he told me. That was the end of that job.

But Fernando didn’t come to Las Vegas for the money. I tried to get him to tell me a story of misery from Guatemala, where he came from. Something that would place him in a standard immigrant narrative. Some details about extreme poverty. Maybe some violence. But Fernando wouldn’t bite.

“All my family was here. My mom wanted us to be together.” At age twenty-three, he walked across the desert in Arizona and came to live with his mom and dad in a rented house just north of Route 95.

Fernando is undocumented, which seems a bit out of place in his family. His parents are legal permanent residents. His youngest sister is a U.S. citizen. He also has a brother, who came here with his parents as a boy; he’s a citizen. This all might seem weird, to have three different statuses in one family, but it is common. Many undocumented immigrants live in mixed families. This is probably why Fernando tends to just shrug if you ask him why he is one thing and his mom and dad are something else. These are the cards you’re dealt.

* Like most undocumented people in this book, this is not Fernando’s real name. I have also fictionalized the names of the family members of most undocumented people in this book. But everything else is true.

That’s life. What matters, his mom told him, is that they are all here together. All in one place. That’s what she wanted.

Fernando had been in Las Vegas for thirteen years when I met him, twice as long as me. Along the way, he had a daughter, who was eight when I talked to him. She was the product of a relationship that was long in his past, but his
daughter still lived with him for part of the year. She may be the only person who ever made Fernando cry. But that came later in this story.

For the first few years in Las Vegas, he worked for an employment agency for minimum wage. The agency had him doing a bit of everything. Sometimes cleaning, sometimes unloading trucks, sometimes stacking pallets for delivery. Whatever was needed, for not much money. “I was trying to do my best. I was good at any job they sent me to,” he said. He was initially happy with the transition to the hothouse vegetable business because the money was much better. But, of course, the vegetables did not cooperate.

After the cucumbers died, the pastor from Fernando’s church told him that he knew a guy who could give him some work as a painter. It did not pay as well—just $12 an hour. But Fernando sees it as a turning point in his life. It started him in the field of construction and handyman work. As a result of this job, which he got in 2013, he now does house repairs and remodeling. Painting, drywall, electricity. At each of the several meetings I had with him, his pickup truck was filled with a slightly different mix of supplies. Sometimes paint, sometimes plasterboard. Whatever the suburban homeowners in Southern Highlands or Summerlin need. It’s not hard to imagine why a homeowner would trust Fernando. His face is soft, and he doesn’t frown or smile much. His answers to questions are simple and concrete. No embellishment. He seems like someone who will tell you things as they are and will do whatever he says he will do. And that’s how he sells himself.

The homeowners who hire Fernando often know that he is undocumented. It’s hardly a secret, he said. He doesn’t think it’s ever cost him a job. “They feel kind of sorry for me because I don’t have the status,” he said. “I’m a nice guy. I like to help people.” Of greater difficulty, potentially at least, is the fact that Fernando doesn’t have a contractor’s license. Technically, therefore, he shouldn’t do anything much more than painting. He was interested in getting a license, but he wasn’t allowed to for most of his time in Las Vegas because he wasn’t in the country legally.

You might think that keeping undocumented people from getting a contractor’s license makes sense in terms of restricting them from working. But that’s not really what happens. My wife and I own a home in Las Vegas. When we hired a licensed contractor to do some remodeling, we shook hands with, and wrote a check to, a white man. He came to our house, drew some sketches, gave us an estimate, and told us when the work would begin. And on that appointed day, when the actual
workers arrive, they were often people like Fernando.

Fernando prefers to just work for himself. And it is his truck that makes that possible. Oh, the truck. It looks like just an old pickup. But it’s much more than that. Much like the man who owns it, it’s nothing fancy, but it does what it needs to do. It’s a Chevy. It’s white, or it used to be. Now it’s merely dirty. The body of the truck is marked, dented in some places, and just bruised in others. It’s worn and battered, but it gets Fernando where he needs to go, with his supplies and tools in the back. He bought it in March 2017. He paid $1,800. “A great, great price,” he said. It was a big improvement over his previous truck, which he said had engine problems and bad gas mileage. Owning a truck lets him work for himself.

As his work got better, Fernando’s life turned upward in other ways, too. In early 2017, he was on Facebook and—as one does on Facebook—he ran into someone from a long time ago. Reina, a girl he’d known in Guatemala since they were two years old. It had been a while. Somehow, after all this time, she’d ended up in Minnesota, where she worked as a manager at a Chipotle restaurant. She found Fernando. As Elvis said, so it goes—some things are meant to be. Fernando and Reina started exchanging messages. They started talking on the phone. Then they decided that Reina should move to Las Vegas. By early 2018, she was pregnant.

Now, let’s be clear. Fernando had problems. Working for himself, going from job to job, can be unstable. He had to keep his truck working, but he couldn’t always afford to fix the little things. He neglected to replace a broken brake light. And in April 2018, a cop gave him a ticket. But Fernando didn’t worry. It was just a brake light. He did not quite understand that in Nevada, minor traffic infractions like broken brake lights are criminal offenses. “Stop Lamps Req (Misdemeanor),” it says on the municipal court docket. That remains, to this day, the most serious criminal conduct for which he has ever been charged. The police officer gave Fernando a lecture about it, too, and so Fernando did the right thing: he spent some money fixing the light. It works now. However, Fernando readily admits that there was one thing he did not do. He did not go to court for the ticket. At the time, he didn’t really understand what that meant. He did know that he had to pay the ticket eventually. “I was having some financial problems,” he said. He saw the ticket as a debt he was having trouble paying, like a credit card or a utility bill. Sometimes, when money was short, he was late to pay those, too. But he always pays people back, eventually, if you give him enough time.

Things were not perfect, but Fernando was happy. Fernando had a girl. He loved her and she loved him. They had a small, decent place to live. They were starting a family together, and he was working for himself. It was never about the money with him anyway. So long as his truck kept working, so long as the jobs kept coming, he and Reina and their baby-to-be would be fine. He would find work and pay the bills. He always did. Like his mom wanted, they would be together.

That was how it all seemed, right through the summer of 2018. But this is no fairy tale. That broken brake light had changed everything.

Table of Contents


Preface: A Note About Word Choice ix
Introduction 1

Part I: The Targets
1 The Graveyards of Nevada 11
2 Plan B 25
3 The Cleaners 43

Part II: The Attack
4 The Unaccompanied 61
5 Two Arrests 79
6 Psychological Warfare 92

Part III: The Defense
7 How to Talk to Your Neighbors About Immigration 111
8 The Strip Mall Resistance 129
9 Dirty Immigration Lawyers 146
10 The Coming Battle 160

Acknowledgments 169
Glossary 171
Notes 175
Bibliography 187
Index 000
About the Author 197

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