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An illegal alien gone legitimate

Keith Wangle freely admits it: He was an illegal alien.

That's right. An undocumented worker.

But before you call the INS, consider the story of the likeable fellow who is clean-cut and appears law abiding.

"I've actually worked twice as an undocumented worker — in the Czech Republic and both times it was for the Czech state," says Wangle, 39, a 1987 Crater High School graduate.

He offers his experience as an insight to the challenges facing undocumented immigrants coming to the states.

It began in the early 1990s when Wangle, fresh out of college, offered his services as an English teacher in the Czech Republic. Fresh out from under the repressions of the former East European communist bloc, the country needed all the English teachers it could get, documented or not.

"I was hired without all the necessary paperwork," says Wangle, now the business manager — completely documented — for Beaver Tree Service.

He and his wife, Jitka, a Czech native he met while both were exchange students in Germany, and their four children returned to his hometown of Central Point in 2006. For the previous 10 years, he had owned and operated an English teaching firm in the Czech Republic.

Most of the teachers were young Americans. And most were illegal aliens for a time as he grappled with endless Czech red tape.

"The process was Byzantine and nearly impossible to navigate," he says.

It wasn't for a lack of smarts or education on his part.

Wangle, who speaks Czech and German as well as English, has a bachelor's degree from Cornell University and a master's degree from the University of Michigan, both in German literature.

"I became an illegal alien the first time when I graduated from Cornell and I went to the Czech Republic to be with Jitka, then my girlfriend," he explains.

That was December 1991. Formerly known as Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic had largely been a closed country from 1948 until the collapse of the communist empire in the late 1980s.

He was offered a job as an English teacher in a public high school in Jitka's home town just north of Prague. With English teachers being in high demand, the school director gave him the highest salary available and found them a coveted apartment on the historic town square.

Suffice it to say Czech strings were pulled. Wangle received his first few paychecks under the table.

"They weren't used to foreigners coming into the country at the time," he says.

After teaching there for two years, he moved with his growing young family back to the States so he could attend graduate school in Michigan. In the mid-1990s, they returned to the same Czech town where he was again hired as an English teacher.

Without proper paperwork at the outset, of course.

Wangle began freelancing on the side, morphing that endeavor into a business providing English teachers to both private and government entities. He quit his day job.

"The big job I got that pushed me out of the public school system was a contract to teach English to the Czech army," he says.

His firm grew to 18 employees, including about a dozen full-time English instructors, most of whom were newly-minted college graduates from the States.

They needed work permits and visas but often worked without them because of the glacially slow process.

"I would pay every ounce of tax for the people who were paid under the table because that cash that goes out as wages shows up as profit," he says.

Never mind the foreign police office that handled the paperwork was only a short walk from his office.

"We couldn't apply for the visas there — we had to apply out of country," he says.

After completing the application forms in Wangle's office, the applicant had to go to the most convenient Czech embassy which was in Dresden, Germany, some 150 miles distant. That embassy would then send the paperwork back to the foreign police office near Wangle's office for processing for up to six months.

If the paperwork was approved, it was then sent back to Dresden where the applicant picked it up and brought it back to the foreign police office near Wangle's office.

"To do everything right, the American applicant would have to fly into the country to get their paperwork, fly back out, process their visa, then fly back in," he says. "That was all for a job that pays about $5,000 a year."

However, in the early 1990s, $300 American a month was plenty to live off of in the Czech Republic, he says.

Happily, the red tape has shriveled in recent years, making life easier for the firm which is now run by his younger brother, Jason, a former English teacher.

"But there were so many catches in the process at the beginning that it rarely went smoothly," Wangle says. "We would wind up hiring people and paying them under the table through September, October, November and sometimes beyond that. It was a difficult way to run a business."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

An illegal alien gone legitimate