Yesterday a dear friend, Raul Avalos, and I spoke about Immigration to the ladies of the United Methodist Women. Not a topic one would normally associate with them, but they were game, and curious, and willing to try to understand. Like Marines in Afghanistan, however, if you’ve been there, you don’t need an explanation. If you haven’t, it’s hard to explain.
Both Raul and I are immigrants. He came across the border without papers many years ago to work profitably in the California mines. Not an easy job but a lucrative one. A job few Americans were willing to take. Like so many immigrants, he worked his way up, even being offered, at one point, the job of “Coyote” to bring illegals into the country. He didn’t accept that one but took whatever other jobs were available. Anything to make ends meet.
Eventually, he did get his citizenship, although it took years. Moving to Texas, he met and married a beautiful, dynamic Mexican-American named Eldaa with whom he has had three successful and creative children. They are all now productive citizens. One is a modern dancer, now performing in New York City. She has created an emotional and moving performance about immigration and the challenges of coming over “the wall.” Her father’s experiences fueled a determination in her, as well as in her brother (now a government official) and her sister (an NGO officer) to succeed at all costs. Not a bad legacy.
My mother brought us four children across on the train. I was 17 at the time, my youngest brother only eight. We did have papers but that made little difference in the attitudes of many Americans toward us. We three eldest, with my mother insisting on college educations, managed to make our way to successful jobs. My sister was an art teacher, my brother a pastor and lately famous for his Sand Art, myself into teaching.
When we arrived, we were denigrated and looked down on, an attitude which did great harm to my youngest brother. Wanting desperately to fit in, he adopted the racist prejudice of his American peers. He turned against his Mexican heritage, forgot the language and spent his teen age years joining other Anglo boys in beating up Mexican-Americans in the “barrios” of Miami. It also damaged my beautiful niece who never realized her tremendous potential or saw her own beauty. A terrible legacy.
My argument, a historical one since I did manage to acquire a Ph.D. in Latin American history, was that every subsequent wave of immigrants is forced to the bottom to take on the worst jobs. They have few alternatives since most come with little or no education. It is only through the benefits of public schooling that our immigrants create better lives for themselves and for their families. Obviously, we ignore our education system at our peril. Something our politicians have forgotten in their haste to profit from their political positions.
Starting with the settlers at Jamestown, or the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, or the Germans, or Irish, or Czechs, or Italians, or Chinese, or Japanese or Vietnamese, or Iranians, or whichever group were the latest arrivals, immigrants have always taken the worst jobs. Now it is Central Americans and Mexicans. Immigrants have always had to work twice as hard to make a success of their lives. To see immigrants as a threat will damage our country by removing a viable and useful workforce.
No, they are not all criminals nor are they all drug runners. How many of our own citizens are criminals? Admittedly, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country on earth since we have the money to build prisons and can pay to keep people there. Rather than invest in an education, we incarcerate. Smart.
Several years back, the Texas legislature passed laws to punish the businessmen who hired undocumented immigrants. It took almost no time at all for the politicians to come under pressure to amend the law. Businessmen could not operate or make a profit without the undocumented and were not about to accept the punishment themselves. Quietly, the law disappeared.
Now, however, with the current attack on our working immigrants, whether legal or illegal, farmers, ranchers, and factory owners are scrambling for workers. When the Hispanic undocumented are captured, incarcerated (at a considerable profit to the private prisons as Raul pointed out) and deported, who is to do the work?
The answer? Contractors have created a huge money-making business bringing in immigrants from Africa, the Middle East or Asia to fill the jobs. Syrians, Somalis, Sudanese, any country where there are political or social problems. Anywhere the contractors can claim the immigrants need asylum from the dangers of their country. Illegal immigration? You bet. Just not Hispanics.
Mexicans and Central Americans are anathema. At great personal cost in lives, money and psychological trauma, they have fled their homes, walked and bled and died to reach a country that used to welcome immigrants. In those countries there is real danger from political reprisals or gang violence. Because of those threats, they can ask for asylum. How many of them will get into our walled borders? Only a tiny trickle will ever be admitted and that only after years and years of paperwork. What will happen to the rest?
Meanwhile, crops in the fields go unpicked, fruit on the vine goes unharvested, meat packing plants are closed for lack of a labor force. Thousands of jobs go unfilled. The impact of turning our backs on immigrant labor is immense. Just study our history, from the earliest Irish miners to the Mexican Braceros of World War II. Our country cannot operate without them. We never have and we never will.
One of the ladies asked what was wrong with Americans in poverty who could be doing those jobs? The poor are in the cities. The jobs are in the countryside. The poor receive welfare checks and food stamps and government aid. The jobs on the farms, in the fields or in the packing plants often pay less than minimum wage and avoid social security or insurance. No red-blooded American is willing to work those jobs. But the jobs have to be done.
Only the immigrants will do it.