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  • Beth Delany

Q&A with: "Illegal" Author Laz Ayala

Author and former undocumented immigrant Laz Ayala explains that America doesn't have an illegal immigration problem, but an illegal employment problem.

Not nearly enough do we hear or listen to the stories of Americans and dreamers who have traveled the journey that we see on news networks and social media. The scarring images of children in cages continues to haunt Americans, but who is giving a voice to the voiceless and providing context to the journey before meeting America's border?

Laz Ayala emigrated from a war-torn El Salvador 40 years ago. He's since moved to Oregon, started a family, worked in corporate America and is a popular member of his local rotary club. As an accomplished adult, Ayala thought he had processed the arduous journey he traveled four decades ago, but when he started colloquially sharing his story out loud, he realized he hadn't. Kids are known for resilience after all and it wasn't until a friend in his rotary club nudged him to write it down that Ayala felt a responsibility. He felt an overwhelming duty not just to himself, but to those experiencing the same journey he did and to the American citizens who yearn to understand the journey.

In Illegal, the story of immigration becomes more than a hot topic. Following the journey of Ayala's 14-year-old self is almost unbelievable to imagine and leaves readers prompted to find a solution for undocumented immigrants. Illegal is a map for just that. Ayala provides tangible solutions that honor the American dream while reminding us that "there is no such thing as an illegal human."

Here, Ayala outlines his hopes for the future while looking back on the writing process that allowed him to heal.

Why did you write this book when you did? What about the last few years motivated you to share your story? It was a dilemma [and] probably the biggest decision of my life [to share] my story [and] my life with the world. Not because there’s anything about my story that isn’t worth sharing, but because of the potential repercussions that I could face from being open [about] a very controversial topic, especially given the climate today around this issue and the issues of race. I came here at the age of 14 and I’ve never had to experience anything even remotely close to what we are expereicing today in terms of the division and the narrative around immigrants. With that reaching the levels it has reached in recent years, I honestly felt like my own dignity and my own humanity was under attack. Those are my relatives who are still continuing to come. They’re looking for safety or economic opportunity. I felt like the accusations of undocumented immigrants being murderers and tax cheats and drug dealers was not the description that fit my story or the story of others. It really stuck with me and frightened me. It wasn’t an attack that was necessarily directed at me, but it felt like it was. I felt compelled to share my story. It took me a year to decide to say, “Ok I’ve got to do something; I’ve got to speak up.”

Is your immigration story something that is always on your mind or did you have to reprocess your experience? For me it was, "If i don't do this, I'm going to die a miserable man. I’m going to die a failed man," because I felt like this was my moment. It was still very emotional. I cried and cried and cried. I don’t know if i cried out of frustration with the narrative at the time or if it was reliving those moments as a young boy living in El Salvador. I always thought I had come to terms with it and I think I had processed most of it. It wasn’t so much about reliving in that moment of writing my experiences of the past. It was more of the frustrations with the current system and the mix of the current issue with [my] past.

What is one of the most important realizations that Americans can take action on now? It's to fix what’s broken with this system [and] what I call a system of exploitation. I compare [it] to modern day slavery. The solution is to revamp our existing worker programs to meet the demands of our economy in our industries and to create a legal path for workers who come here and provide the labor that domestic workers are unwilling to provide. Give these people a legal [and] humane path that allows them to work and return to reunite with their families as opposed to this system that separates families and criminalizes people. These people are paying taxes. They have no hope, they have no representation. We need to humanize them.

What's a common misunderstanding of why immigrants seek refuge in America? We don’t have an illegal immigration problem. We have an illegal employmenet problem that exists by design and is systemic exploitation. Of course we blame the undocumented immigrants, but we don’t hold the employers [accountable]. Our system is actually finding loopholes for employers to hire undocumented workers. That is not discussed. That is not talked about. And then we’re talking about a wall that you and I are paying for, which at the end, is going to produce no positive results. Because as long as the demand for illegal employment exists on this side of the border, people will keep coming.

What do you hope for readers to take away from your story? One is to trampoline this discussion [to a] national level. We are, documented or not, all humans. We’re all people. No immigrant, legal or illegal, is less human than the next.


Learn more about Illegal The Project here.

Purchase Illegal: One immigrant's life or death journey to the American dream here.

Stay in touch with the Illegal documentary here.


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