The undocumented—or, for those who prefer plain speaking, illegal aliens—drive Americans to distraction. They make Lou Dobbs grimace. They spoil confirmation hearings. They drain public services and lower the price of our avocados. They spark debates about bilingual education and build functional communities that shame dysfunctional inner cities. They dare to sneak into a nation whose resources should be reserved for its Irish, Italian, German, Swedish, Polish, Russian, Ukranian, and Czech natives. Can’t somebody who speaks these people’s language ask them why they’re here? Following in the footsteps of oral historian Studs Terkel, McSweeney’s Books imprint Voice of Witness has provided a platform for Katrina refugees and the wrongly convicted, and in Underground America it turns its ear to those without papers. “How can we understand the problem if we don’t listen?” Mexican-American novelist Luis Alberto Urrea writes in the introduction. “How can we fix it if we don’t understand it?” The book offers a safe listening space for plenty of huddled masses, including testimony from undocumented Mexicans, Peruvians, Guatemalans, Bolivians, Iranians, and Chinese employed on farms, in factories, in households, in offices, and studying at universities. The book’s breadth is refreshing—it’s easy to forget that this thorny issue isn’t just about NAFTA and fruit-pickers—as is its insistence that non-citizens living and dying in America do more than suffer in-between. Of course, there’s plenty of suffering on display, and editor Peter Orner can’t avoid tales of woe—people speak about getting ripped off by fly-by-night contractors during post-Katrina reconstruction, hiding in factory equipment during immigration raids, and being sexually assaulted by the only people they think they can trust. “I felt it was God’s will for me to become a missionary, the right way to serve Him,” says a South African immigrant of her decision to leave her family to spread the Gospel in the United States—a decision that leads to backbreaking housework for a Texas pastor’s family at slave wages. While these trials are a fundamental part of the undocumented experience, Orner makes his subjects more than mere victims, spotlighting the cruel, arbitrary nature of United States immigration policy. “I’m taking human anatomy…where we’ve been able to dissect different animals,” reports an undocumented interviewee. “With the shark, it’s really hard to get the skin off, because it’s really stuck to the muscles.” This workaday observation comes from a Mexican high-school student and immigration activist with no memories of her “homeland”—her mother carried her into Southern California when she was 6 weeks old. Her adventures in dissection tell us nothing about coyotes, desert crossings, or border patrols, and comments from migrants about harvesting other people’s crops, toiling on other people’s assembly lines, and raising other people’s children are more about the new lives that began in the United States than old lives left behind. This is Underground America’s aim—by bringing the undocumented who live and work among “us” under the tent of that inclusive pronoun, Orner chips away at the other-ness that turns immigration debates into shouting matches. The lives shared here are often so memorable because they’re so ordinary.