Undocumented Workers Aren’t Your Enemy

(This is from a Vision 2020 post in response to a Pat Buchanan comment that we’re “losing America” to Hispanic immigrants).

My opinions come from something other than softhearted liberalism or even sentimental Christianity, and I’m a writer and a preacher, not an economist. My views are passionate, and they’re honed by more than a decade in the undocumented immigrant trenches, as it were, or as close to it as a white citizen of the U.S. can be, which is to say, not real close — I was born to a mother on this side of the border, with light skin, an Anglo name, and automatic access to every benefit that middle-class Americans have. I’ll never know, empirically, the suffering that drives the desire to immigrate without papers. Neither will you.

However, I would venture that I’ve had more experience, one-on-one and in community, with undocumented immigrants than just about anyone you know, and very likely more than Pat Buchanan, whose hysteria would, I imagine, not be nearly as pronounced if these were Swedish immigrants with blond hair and lots of kids named David and Allison instead of Fulgencio and Maria de Jesus. I don’t accuse you or other opponents of undocumented immigration of racism, but I’m not willing to cut Buchanan the same slack. It’s clear in his writings that much of his concern is the “browning” of America, with accented English and quincenearas and entire downtown areas taken over by Mexican tienditas and restaurants. That the quinceneara industry in the U.S., fueled largely by immigrants, pumps millions into the economy is, maybe, beside the point, but it’s hard to argue that the revitalization of downtown areas, such as Monroe, Washington, by Mexican immigrant-owned businesspeople is anything other than a boost to those towns’ economies. Empty storefronts are a blight and a drain; their regeneration as successful businesses is no less positive because the business owner’s last name is Benavides.

I don’t doubt that the U.S. spends billions on healthcare for undocumented workers and their children, and a way of recouping that money would be, under a widespread amnesty that would grant legal-worker status to millions, the collection of tax monies currently not paid. By the way, taxes are very often deducted from worker paychecks and pocketed by employers; the employee doesn’t benefit from any workers’ comp coverage and gives up a chunk of her paycheck to bosses who doctor the books. Recognition of the contributions of undocumented workers by legalizing them makes it virtually impossible for crooked employers to cheat the State or the employee. I’m not an economist or a lawyer; I am someone who has made countless trips to small dairies and farms to stand knee-deep in cow manure to plead for a worker’s paycheck. I’ve held the hand of a man whose arm nearly got ripped off in a farming accident that left him partially disabled and without worker’s comp coverage — his boss had deducted but pocketed the money from Ray’s checks and, perhaps in a fit of remorese, told him to go on Medicaid and come back to the farm for a less-strenuous job when he got better. I’ve gone face-to-face with dairy owners who told men that the first month of their employment was “training” — unpaid — and then cut their already-low wages in half because “housing” was provided on-site. I would not keep my dog in what passed for housing for men and their families on such dairies — 24-foot, 20-year-old house trailers with inadequate facilities plopped down in a level space as close to the cows as possible to make split-shifts and midnight milkings easier. I don’t doubt, obviously, that undocumented workers are treated badly, but given their contributions to the economy and their willingness to do work that others won’t, their maltreatment is a clear cry for legalization and protection, not condemnation and marginalization.

Finally, I dispute the contention that Mexican immigrants don’t want to learn English. For more than a decade, I taught weekly English classes, in Spanish, to subliterate immigrants with three or four years of schooling and college-educated immigrants who had been lawyers and police officers in Mexico. I developed my own curriculum, distributed bilingual Bibles, and spent up to 20 hours a week, sometimes more, translating and advocating for hundreds of people. This doesn’t make me a hero, and it doesn’t make me the point of the argument. It does give me grounds to vigorously refute the idea that “they” come here to soak up benefits and then scurry back to their enclaves to “stay Mexican” and consciously reject assimilation. I couldn’t keep up with the demand for English-language instruction; at the time, in the 1990s, I was pretty much the only resource in town for people to learn English, receive translation help and advocacy, and hear the Gospel in their native tongue (I also co-pastored with another woman a small Mexican congregation in Duvall, Washington). I never counseled people I knew to be here without papers to benefit from taxpayer-supported services; it was the social worker at DSHS who said her agency preferred to step in with simple, non-catastrophic services before they became catastrophic, and who said that if it would make me feel better, I could drive folks to Safeway and let them walk across the parking lot to keep their appointments with her staff. But very few people I knew then, out of a friend-network comprised almost exclusively of undocumented immigrants, made use themselves of the services offered to them; they simply wanted Medicaid for their children, most of whom were born in the same hospital as my son. I’d like to hear the voices of those on the front lines of service to undocumented Mexican workers, rather than those whose ability to see and feel is energized not by interaction with individuals, but fear.

A young woman I consider to be the daughter I never had, someone I love like my own child and whose husband and children are as much my family as my own brother is, illustrates wonderfully the loyalty to the United States and the hard work and responsibility I’ve seen in the overwhelming majority of “illegals” I’ve worked with. I’ll call her Juana. Her three kids are in elementary school. One is a perennial “top student” award-winner, the other is a mischievous kid who’s very smart and aced reading and math alongside his other third-grade pals, and the youngest has some learning disabilities that make school hard for him. Juana and Guillermo attend every scheduled parent conference and often schedule some in between. The kids are all involved in soccer, their parents work hard, they keep their apartment clean and, to the consternation of their neighbors, act as a sort of neighborhood watch-guild. Juana and Guillermo insist on English in the house, but insist, also, that the kids retain their Spanish so they can help non-English-speaking schoolmates. They consider themselves Americans, pray for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, pay taxes, have driver’s licenses, spend too much on their kids’ Easter and First Communion clothes, and pick up the ticket more often than not when we eat out. Guillermo earns regular promotions and bonuses at work, and Juana cleans houses and manages the budget and issues decrees that Albertson’s has better prices than Safeway and chides Guillermo if he picks up milk at Safeway. They hope someday to buy a house, like scores of others I’ve known who now occupy tidy suburban cul-de-sacs dotted with depressingly identical split-level houses. They held off, though, because what we now call “subprime mortgages” seemed suspiciously easy to them — too good to be true, and too unclear to be trusted. Instead, they saved their money and stayed in their apartment and marveled that so many Americans are losing their homes.

In short, they’re the kind of people you’d want next door to you. Their children will become your grandchild’s teacher, or the police officer who tickets you for speeding, or the independent contractor whose business steadily grows as his reputation becomes known. That is, if they’re not deported. Their story is not unusual in my experience; I’ve seen loyalty and responsibility confirmed over and over and over again in the people I love and worked with. Like it or not, they will become part of the vibrant fabric of America, and the tapestry they help weave will be a more beautiful, more rich, more durable one than the shoddy rag of fear and suspicion woven by Pat Buchanan.

I’ll close with an acknowledgement that much of what I’ve said is anecdotal; my experiences and relationships inform and establish my expertise. But policy decisions can only be based on fear when they’re not made from contact, personal contact, with individuals who represent a threat not because they truly do, but simply because we’re told they do. I also acknowledge that some of the things I’ve done, while wrong to some, may strike others as heroically generous and kind. They weren’t. I’m not a heroically generous and kind person. Hundreds of Moscow residents who know me will testify, eagerly, I imagine, that I’m often stubborn, prideful, and woefully impatient with people. I did what I did by God’s grace and his condescension to use someone like me where the need was evident, and I’m grateful that I got to work among my friends the way I did. So I offer these examples and my perspective to support my views that the United States has much less to fear from Hispanic immigration than Pat Buchanan claims, and to ask that we engage openly and generously with people before supporting policy decisions that not only harm them, but us.

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