Law and Literature: Illegal Immigration



T. C. Boyle’s novel, The Tortilla Curtain, can cause even the most heartless person to empathize more with the ever-pressing issue of illegal immigration, and with the illegal immigrants themselves as real people. This novel paints the perfect picture of the American Dream, and how it can mean something different to people who are not similarly-situated politically, socially, and economically. The interconnected lives of the "haves" and "have-nots" is a compelling way to infuse such a current and politically-charged topic into a story that is bound to affect one’s view of the issue in some way.

For the majority of Americans, the end of a long work day means driving home through congested traffic, pulling into your garage, and opening the door to your home, only to find your spouse and children looking at you with large, hungry eyes, and saying "what’s for dinner?" before you can even kick off your heels and set your briefcase down. At this time, you promptly whip up something to eat, ask how everyone’s day was, and sit down to watch the evening news. Regardless of what news channel you’re accustomed to tuning into, whether local or national, you’re likely to see some story regarding the issue of illegal immigration, and the effect that the so-called "illegals" are having on America’s economy. The news story will usually refer to these illegal immigrants in such a way that makes them less than human. In fact, it seems that oftentimes we forget while sitting in the comfort and safety of our enclosed homes that these are real people, and regardless of their status in the country, they feel, taste, smell, hear, and see just like the rest of us.

Now, picture this: instead of driving through congested traffic, you walk through inclement weather conditions, in the brush alongside a highway, with hoards of cars whizzing by. Not only do you have to avoid becoming road-kill, but you also constantly fear that someone will call the police due to their lurking suspicion that you may not "belong here." If you were lucky enough to find work that day, you are also lugging grocery bags in order to satisfy the hunger pains that slowly eat away at the lining of your stomach. If you eventually make it safely to your "home", which consists of sleeping bags on the hard ground, you have just enough time to whip up some type of meal that must hold you over until the next evening (if you are lucky). You promptly go to sleep, because tomorrow will be here before you know it, and the hike to the labor exchange is a long one.

Next, we’ll explore the issue of illegal immigration through the eyes of the "haves" and the "have-nots" in The Tortilla Curtain.

The Tortilla Curtain


To many illegal immigrants, the people in the first scenario described above have achieved more than the American Dream, and have now become greedy and wasteful. In The Tortilla Curtain, Cándido observes traffic hurtling past him. He wonders, "…what was the hurry, the constant hurry? Making a buck, that’s what. Building their glass office towers and adding up the figures on their dark little TV screens, getting richer—that’s what the hurry was" (91). From their point of view, Americans are always in need of more: more money, more property, more clothes, more cars, more of everything. The "haves" never seem to be satisfied, and they are constantly challenged in trying to figure out how to pay less to get more.

In addition to this never-satisfied attitude, American citizens may seem to be ignorant to the fact that illegal immigrants are living, breathing human beings. In fact, it seems that illegal immigrants are merely a statistic in our society, a statistic that continues to grow, and continues to affect the economy in some way. When Delaney is speaking with Jack at the supermarket, Jack puts forth his view on illegal immigration and how it is affecting both of them in a very personal way. Jack says:
The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us. They’re peasants, my friend. No education, no resources, no skills—all they’ve got to offer is a strong back, and the irony is we need fewer and fewer strong backs every day because we’ve got robotics and computers and farm machines that can do the labor of a hundred men at a fraction of the cost. (101)
Jack speaks in such a manner that implicates both arrogance and ignorance. He represents the arrogant, wealthy person who cannot see past the end of his or her nose. He is so consumed by his own world, and is part of the ever-constant hustle-and-bustle of the save-a-buck-to-make-a-buck society. But Jack is also representative of the ignorant individuals in today’s society. The only thing that Jack knows is that these invaders are worthless, and he accepts this as a fact, and leaves it at that. He fails to see them as individuals, with very personal hopes and dreams, and consolidates them into a group that seemingly has no collective value.

No matter what your opinion may be with regard to illegal immigration, this issue is very problematic, and is a topic of national concern. For those of you situated in the Midwest, far away from the day-to-day drama of the borders, the issue seems to be a little more difficult to grasp. In fact, many people may view illegal immigrants collectively as both a statistic and a problem. Many people believe that the government should implement a team of people to comb the streets, slowly weeding out the "illegals" in order to improve the economy. In other words, many people are ignorant "Jacks". However, your view may change after reading The Tortilla Curtain. You may come to recognize that these are people, with real feelings, and real obstacles that they must face.

The most poignant part of the novel is when the author reveals that Delaney’s license plate reads "PILGRIM". Although the majority of us American citizens did not personally immigrate to this country, it is likely that our ancestors made the trek over to the New World. We are a nation of immigrants—a nation of pilgrims who made a long journey. Today, although we may not have engaged in such long travels to reach the United States of America, we are pilgrims, too. But our pilgrimage comes from within our deepest core—our beliefs. We must allow ourselves to journey both mentally and psychologically from viewing illegal immigrants as both a statistic and a problem, to viewing them as human beings, just like us.

Finally, let’s wrap this editorial up by going over a few key points.



In this editorial, we’ve explored the issue of illegal immigration through the eyes of the "haves" and the "have-nots" in T.C. Boyle’s novel, The Tortilla Curtain.

The purpose of this editorial is to encourage people to become more educated on the topic of illegal immigration, and to encourage people to become more informed on how it affects our society on a day-to-day basis. Novels are a powerful way to humanize such controversial topics. Pick up this novel, and start reading about an issue that has a profound effect on our world.

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