The sound of America dreaming

Twelve million to 15 million undocumented workers call the United States home, a mere number until one hears their stories. Take Diana, a 44-year-old from Peru who worked graveyard shifts cleaning casinos until Katrina washed them away. After the storm she spent 15-hour days helping to rebuild Biloxi, Miss. -- grisly work, dangerous and harmful to her health, but she needed the money.

A year later it dried up, though, and Diana's reward for this service? She was picked up by INS, refused a lawyer, shoved into a series of prisons and punished for having asked for an attorney every step of the way. "But we're here in this country where human rights are respected," she protested to another woman, in a cell not fit for livestock: "Who told you that?" she replied. "Those are just stories."

"Underground America" is part of a series of oral history projects Dave Eggers started under his McSweeney's publishing company, which includes books in the voices of exonerated prisoners and Katrina survivors. Like Mark Twain, that other great self-publishing American novelist, Eggers is dedicated to capturing the sound of America dreaming.

But the America of this book is a very different place from the mythical place many of us occupy. It's a nation where an undocumented worker gets paid less than minimum wage to, say, whitewash a fence, then is sent home as a criminal when done. His crime is simply dreaming of a better life.

Believing in this myth also makes many undocumented workers a target. Mr. Lai, a 40-year-old cook from China, did and paid dearly. He gave smugglers $30,000 to get him into the U.S. He arrived after a yearlong journey only to be told he now owed $60,000. All his wages go to paying the interest, and any chance his family will follow is gone.

Another man brings his family up from Mexico and works at meatpacking plants where most of his salary goes to buying supplies: "The checks I received were supposedly for about $300," he says. "I ended up with something around $150 after they charged me for the equipment."

The editors have chosen these tales carefully, with an eye for human-rights violations and abuse. But they have also found some inspiring stories. One undocumented Mexican woman is a college student and an activist for migrant workers in North Carolina. A cook develops a cancer and restaurant patrons pay for his treatment.

Time and again, though, hard work is punished because of the accident of one's birth. A middle-age Pakistani man with diabetes living in Medford, N.Y., returns from work one day at 9 p.m. to be greeted by 10 INS and FBI agents. "Do you know Osama bin Laden?" they ask him before deporting him.

Another man left Iran in search of work decades ago and has built a business fortune in the U.S., employing at one point 25 Americans. After Sept. 11, he has to register with Homeland Security, and is threatened with deportation. "I believe they would take my life in Iran," he says on the eve of his hearing. "I cannot take that risk." And so if he leaves, he will probably go to another country -- one where dreams aren't punished.