Video games aren't what kept José Muñoz in his parents' basement for much of the past seven years, slipping into depression. They aren't why the former honor roll student dropped out of college, and they aren't why he couldn't get a job. Video games aren't what sent him to a therapist's couch, and video games aren't what kept him on one in front of a TV, day after day.
Video games, in fact, got José Muñoz off the couch. They gave him a chance, the kind most take for granted.
Muñoz, 25, is like a lot of Americans his age, the third of four kids, with a mom who worries and dotes on him. He's a sports nut living in the self-styled Bratwurst Capital of the World, and for a city in Wisconsin, that's saying something. People from this part of the country have an accent that seems to smile at you, and that describes José, too.
But as you have probably guessed, he is not a citizen of the United States, despite growing up, graduating from high school and living here for the past 24 years. His family came to the country, from Mexico City, when he was one year old. They entered the country lawfully, on a visa. They just never left when it expired. Much of the U.S. undocumented immigrant population ends up here in this way.
"I always felt different," José says. In school, he was put in ELL classes—"English Language Learner," which actually means someone who doesn't speak it natively. But that didn't last long. "When they started putting me in regular classes, it felt weird," José said. "My senior year, I was in an honors class with just 20 people, I only talked to, maybe, two of them. I'd just be quiet and pay attention, while everyone else would be busting jokes and whatever."
José knew from a young age that he and his family were not American citizens. "I'd hear my dad come home and say things to my mom, like, 'I can't go work there, because they check,'" he said. "That's pretty much how I figured it out."
"They check" is, for an undocumented worker, a big red X over that business address. If you lie about having U.S. citizenship on an I-9 form, and it's discovered—at any point—it's over. You are forever inadmissible to the United States—that means you lose any chance at citizenship. While there is a don't-ask/don't tell structure to the labor economy of undocumented immigrants, where some employers either knowingly pay illegal labor in cash or, more benevolently, assume they're citizens without asking for proof, these jobs aren't in a field most would consider a career ambition.
After graduation, José briefly enrolled at the community college taking marketing courses. "It didn't feel right," he said. José hadn't taken the ACT to apply to the University of Wisconsin because, well, they check. And as a nonresident, he'd be paying the out-of-state rate, which is vastly more than the family could afford. The community college was a more affordable workaround, but one day, the pointlessness of his situation just came crashing down.
"I told my mom, what if I do well in class, what if I go out and get a job doing this—they'll ask for my citizenship," he said. "Why should I go to school if it's not going to work out in the end?"
So he came home, sat on the couch, and picked up a controller.
"You talk to EA Sports, do you think they'll make another FIFA World Cup edition?" José says brightly when I tell him what I do.
"José, I assure you they will make another next year," I say.
"You know, EA Sports needs to hire me," he laughs. "I'd put the Madden back into Madden." I tell him I hear that all the time, and ask what idea he has that's so special. "I'd bring back the soundtrack."
Wait, the soundtrack? You mean EA Trax? The thing we all mute after a week of hearing it in the menus?
"It matters! That's where I found most of the bands I like, playing video games," he said.
Jose's life since graduation was really that cloistered by video games. He'd babysit his little brother, and he'd drive him to school or his mom to her work, though his first license expired two years after he got it and he couldn't renew it, thanks to new proof-of-citizenship requirements the state passed in 2008. He took the risk of driving with an expired license anyway. "I would still drive them, because I'm a good driver," he said, sounding like every American his age.
Then he'd spend most of the day playing Madden on his older brother's PlayStation 2. In 2006, he got an Xbox 360, whose 20GB hard drive today seems so small. José opened an Xbox Live Gold account using his dad's credit card, but registered it under his name, and began filling up the drive with trailers and free game demos. WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2007 was the first one he downloaded.
At night, he'd create a lobby and chat with his cousins in Las Vegas. "We wouldn't even be playing the same games, it was just me talking to them," José said. "They'd come over here every summer, I really looked forward to them coming over here.
"Basically, in the day it was TV, Internet, then at nights, going online with my cousin in Xbox Live," José said.
But his sense of purpose was draining out as the days passed, empty and unused. "Oh yeah, I got down on myself," he said. "The only thing that would make me feel better was talking to my cousins at night. Sometimes you can make yourself forget about it but, yeah." He started seeing a therapist.
His father offered ideas for jobs where José wouldn't have to lie to get on a payroll, but in the nadir of his depression, nothing sounded like a good option. "My feeling was, I just want to work here, I've been here since I was little, and it wasn't my decision," José said. "Why should I be punished?"
José had moved on from Madden and FIFA to other sports titles, as well as Crackdown and the Gears of War series. "On Black Friday (in 2011) I bought Batman: Arkham City," he said, and it provided a solid distraction for a couple of months. He preordered UFC Undisputed 3. "I didn't spend any money on anything besides video games," he said.
In June, the DREAM Act, a proposed bipartisan immigration reform bill, had stalled out completely in Congress thanks mostly to election-year politics. In response, the Obama Administration issued an executive order called DACA, meaning Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Meaning José, and some 2 million people like him.
Basically, the Department of Homeland Security was offering a legal stay of two years (which are renewable) to undocumented immigrants between the ages of 15 and 30. With this deferred action status, in Wisconsin, they can get a driver's license. They can get in-state tuition. They can get a work permit.
The news of DACA sent about 50 people to Milwaukee to Davorin Odrcic, an immigration attorney who has been practicing in that field since 2006. He'd acquired an interest in immigration law through work he'd done on a student project at Notre Dame law school, and was drawn back to it after a few stressful years practicing as an attorney in corporate law elsewhere. Like José, he tried to manage that stress by playing video games late into the evening with someone in Las Vegas. I know this because, full disclosure, that someone was me. Dav and I are personal friends, having known each other for about a dozen years. We once set a point spread and bet on a CPU-vs.-CPU matchup of our alma maters in NCAA Football 2003. He won.
When the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began taking DACA applications in August, José and his mother visited Dav in his office. The requirements for DACA are straightforward: A person has to show they arrived to the U.S. prior to age 16; that they were under 31 years old on June 15; that they have a high school diploma or GED (or are currently pursuing one), and that they have been in the country, and not left it, for the past five years. José fit all of that.
Except there was one problem. He couldn't prove he'd been living here since 2007.
"For a lot of my clients who are younger, the easiest way to establish continuous residency is that they're in high school, with the transcripts," Dav said. Other than that, it's usually proven by utility bills, leases or other rental agreements. "The problem for him is he was born in 1987, he graduated in 2005, and since then, José wasn't working during this period, and living at home.
"I've had 50 of these cases, this was the most problematic one I had," Dav said. "One of the important things about being a lawyer is to listen closely to your client and ask questions that could elicit information to help your client," he said.
So he went over Jose's life since 2007. Were you ever in the hospital? Were you going to the dentist regularly? Odrcic asked. No, and no.
"What about the video games," Jose's mother said. "All you do is play video games."
Then it hit Dav.
"José, do you have any records of your games purchases?" he asked.
José has a record of everything he ever downloaded from Xbox Live during those sad, dead-end days on the couch, a record stretching 21 pages. A record that shows he was here in 2007. And 2008. And 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, at the same address in Sheboygan, Wis. All these demos and all these trailers, all downloaded and since deleted, all the free avatar items and themes; the Gears of War map packs, the UFC Undisputed roster packs, were not the residue of six wasted years. They were proof he lived in the United States.
"In addition to the other documents attached to my application," José swore in an affidavit dated Sept. 10, 2012, "I am also providing true and correct copies of my X-Box 360 purchase history."
Dav notarized the statement, put it in an envelope, and sent it to USCIS, hoping this would work. You never can tell with a bureaucracy. There's a list of commonly accepted forms of proof and, obviously, "Xbox Live Gold membership," is not on it. If the paperwork ends up with someone either too junior or unsure, there's the dreadful chance it gets kicked up to a more senior bureaucrat who arches an eyebrow and stamps DENIED.
José waited by the mailbox for the next two months. "We would get these letters, saying they got my application," he said. "Another one saying to go get my fingerprints done. They took a picture, too. The day after Thanksgiving, I got another letter."
His deferred action was granted. "It still feels surreal," José said. "My mom and my sister cried. It really took me a couple of days to understand how big this was. Mom told me she couldn't believe it, and she was happy for me. Nothing was holding me back, and I could go and do what I wanted to do. I could go to work, to school.
"I could feel good about myself," he said.
Dav himself seemed touched by the outcome. "I've been playing video games all my life," he said. "I had an understanding with José, because of video games.
"The reason I feel so good about it, though, is this: One of the saddest things for me as an immigration attorney is when someone comes in, you go through their history, they've lived here all of their lives, and I have to inform them that there is nothing I can do for them. Someone's in removal proceedings, they're not married, they have no kids, and I have to inform them that there is nothing I can do.
"To see José get a driver's license, to be able to work lawfully, and live here without this threat of being sent back to a country he knows nothing about; to have him live a normal life here and be included in our society, the way he should be, is extremely gratifying," Dav said.
José renewed his driver's license. He's working two jobs now, cold prep at a restaurant on the weekends, another at a paper manufacturing plant, shrinkwrapping pallets before they get shipped off. It's a start. He's not spending all of his money on video games; his wages support his family.
"Back then, I wasn't living," José said. "Now I am, and I'm working, and I'm feeling good. And I want more. I want to make up for those years I missed."
The deferred action is not citizenship, nor by itself is it a path to it. But that's for another day. For now, José can work without lying about who he is or where he's from. He's driving a car and making a payment on it, and the insurance. He kisses his mom before he goes off to his job. College and bigger things are on the horizon.
Maybe one day José Muñoz will, in a municipal building somewhere, be able to take a test and take an oath, and become an American. For now, video games have proven he already is.