Sunday, June 20, 2010

Illegal is Illegal

That stupid tautology is what passes nowadays for thinking in today’s debate on illegal immigration.  It’s stupid, because instead of explaining or justifying anything, that tautology glosses over the complex context of undocumented workers in the United States, and how many of us benefit from their work.  With such glibness, we wash our hands of understanding their plight.

It’s good to be a hypocrite in this country on illegal immigration.  It’s rare anybody calls you on it; it’s rare self-satisfied hypocrites do any reflection.  Illegal is illegal.  That’s it.  Case closed.  I’ve even seen that slogan trumpeted on political placards in upstate New York.

I was in Missouri last week, staying at a nice hotel, paid by the school which brings me in to conduct writing workshops.  As I was editing and grading stories and essays from my students, there was a knock on the door.  Two women with cleaning carts smiled sheepishly as I opened the door, and said in heavily accented English they would come back later.

I beckoned them in, saying it was okay.  As I worked, I heard them chat in Spanish about Mexico defeating France in the World Cup.  I introduced myself in Spanish, told them my parents were from Chihuahua, and saw their jaws drop.  Yes, we were all Mexicanos, the guy in the oxford shirt with the Macbook in front of him, and the ladies who were cleaning the toilets and vacuuming.

I spoke to ‘Julia’ for a while, from Guerrero.  She told me she desperately wanted to learn English, but had no time.  “Trabajo dos trabajos.  Diez y seis horas seguidas, y no me da tiempo.”  That is: “I work two jobs.  Sixteen hours back to back, and I don’t have the time.”  She smiled a toothy smile while she said this, and my heart wanted to break.  I asked her how they treated her at this hotel, and she said the manager was extremely nice to them.  Julia told me she sends money back home every month, to her family in Guerrero.

What is remarkable to me is how often this scene has been repeated in about every hotel I have stayed in America.  A few months ago, I was in Denver at an annual conference of writers.  At one of the fanciest hotels in the Mile High City, again an undocumented worker was cleaning my room.  I chatted with ‘Maria Teresa.’  As we spoke on the second day, she was almost teary when I handed her a signed copy of my first book, The Last Tortilla and Other Stories.  I told her to have her children read her the stories.  I almost lost it myself when she responded, as we said goodbye at the door’s threshold, that she wanted her children to become like me.

These are the people who are the overwhelming majority of the undocumented workers vilified by the idiots in Arizona, and elsewhere, as illegal immigrants.  They are the salt of the earth.  Many of them are desperate to be Americanos.  But Americans already in power, many of Italian, German, Irish and Scandinavian descent, have forgotten how their grandfathers and great-grandmothers arrived in the New World.  We want our hotels clean, and cheaply, so we can profit from the labor of Latin American workers.

We want our strawberries and apples picked beautifully, without bruises, and cheaply.  But we turn the other way and somehow don’t hear when someone explains how this is possible at high-end markets like Fairway or Zabar’s in Manhattan, or across the country at Stop & Shops.  Who is in the fields picking our fruit, for hours under the merciless sun?  Who cares!  Illegal is illegal, they say happily, as they stuff another strawberry in their faces at the Marriott.

I instead talk to undocumented workers, especially if I see them working diligently to make our country better.  I ask them how they are.  I listen to their stories.  And I can only respect them in return.  That’s the decent thing to do.  That’s the right thing to do.  When did we become so callous?

Again, this week as I walked on Broadway, in front of giant photographs of voluptuous supermodels at a Victoria Secret mega-store, who was rebuilding the sidewalks?  With sweaty headbands, ripped-up jeans, and dust on their brown faces?  Their muscled hands quivered as they worked the jack-hammers, and lugged the concrete chunks into dump trucks.  Two men from Guanajuato.  Undocumented workers.  They both shook my hand vigorously, as if they were relieved I wasn’t an INS officer.

I imagined how much money Victoria Secret was making off these poor bastards.  I wondered why passersby didn’t see what was in front of their faces.  We use these workers.  We profit from them.  In the shadows, they work to the bone, for pennies.  And it’s so easy to blame them for everything and nothing simply because they are powerless, and dark-skinned, and speak with funny accents.  Illegal is illegal.  It is a phrase, shallow and cruel, that should prompt any decent American to burn with anger.