The American Dream

Let’s talk illegal immigration.

Last Saturday, I took the back roads on my way to my destination. I passed through the lands belonging to a farm I worked at during a summer in college. What used to be acres of berries and filberts has seen many improvements. There are now acres of nursery stock, windmills in the blueberries, ponds and sprinkler systems. There were posted notices where the plants had recently been sprayed, and there were a few people working in the field across the road.

I was transported back to those same fields over twenty years ago and my job as row boss/checker. Back then, I spoke a little Spanish, and I relished the chance to practice my skills. In the process, I got to know people, hard working people, old people and young parents who had their preschoolers in the field with them. I saw how they interacted with each other, joking, laughing, caring for one another. There were large extended families and neighbors from the same small town. I felt how kind they were toward me, “la güera.” I was invited to after hours get togethers with the other summer workers and the crew bosses, pizza dinners in town or sitting around a fire with the crew bosses singing Norteño music to the tune of a guitar and accordion. I greeted people with a smile and got a smile in return.

There were occasions where I had to visit the camps that housed the workers. One was newer, cinder block housing, camp style, nothing fancy. People who had been bent over strawberries all day, dusty and sweaty, had cleaned up for a foray into town for supplies or a trip to the bar. Little girls in spotless dresses with hair pulled back tightly into braids that didn’t allow for any flyaways played together while young boys kicked a soccer ball around. There was another housing unit, a derelict old building that many people were crammed into. These were the housing options for these workers. If they started seeing a decrease in income as the season progressed and the harvest declined, some of them sought work elsewhere. When the strawberries were on their way out, blueberries and caneberries were ripening. These folks had to move. The farmer wouldn’t house them if they weren’t working on his farm.

On certain occasions I was asked to go along with people as a translator. On one occasion, I translated for a couple with small children who were looking for an apartment. I called and the owners said they had an open apartment. When we arrived, they very quickly said they couldn’t rent to the couple, that they only rented to students. This was my first encounter with discrimination. Another time I accompanied a young mother to the public clinic to get to the bottom of intense abdominal pain. She expressed hesitation at gowning up for the exam and the doctor turned to me and exasperatedly said something about how she didn’t have a problem spreading her legs for her husband. My decision to open my mind to another person’s experience was enlightening me to the nasty undercurrent that existed in my own world.

There were bad things that went on. I heard about the prostitutes that went to the camps, American girls from the fringe of society. True free market. Supply and demand. Once, I was accosted in the fields by one young man and managed to slip through the bushes before he managed to kiss me. Overall, though, I felt as though I was surrounded by basically good people.

Were the people here illegally? We didn’t know, though it was assumed they were. Were they acting criminally while here? Not in my experience. I saw people who worked hard, who bought American clothes and American products, people who sent money home to take care of families who stayed behind. During that time, their help was needed, so the government and the farmers turned a blind eye. This was common knowledge at the time. In reality, if you had wanted to stem the tide of illegal immigration, placing a hefty fine on the employers might have been the best option. If there were no work to be had, people wouldn’t make the grueling journey. The reward has to outweigh the risk.

I have kept in contact with some of these people. The young man who wanted an apartment just became a citizen last month. I have a smiling picture of him at his citizenship ceremony. He and his family routinely spend their free time at Disneyland. Another woman who worked for years in the fields was recently had a late stage cancerous growth removed, and she had to travel to Mexico to have her health concerns taken seriously. (Some things have not improved.) One gentleman started his own business. Another works for the Department of Agriculture. At least half of their children are seeking military service or post-secondary education. (Many of these parents never attended high school.) All have benefitted from the 1990 Immigration Act introduced by Ted Kennedy and signed into law by the first President Bush.

As I drove by that old farm, I couldn’t help but feel the unfairness of it all. The improvements I saw were due to the backbreaking labor of ordinary people who are being villified today.  One of our candidates would have you think that this subset of our population consists of murderers and rapist sent here by Mexico. What a simplistic world view.

As you consider my words, please enjoy this Republican blast from the past:


Photo credit: rebeccagulotta via / CC BY-NC-SA

Last night I shared great food and company with a group of people, many of whom might fall under the “undocumented” and “illegal” title or have in the past. I don’t know who, and I’d prefer not to know.

As I looked around, I recognized many people. Some work in the farming industry, some in construction, some as hotel maids and groundskeepers. Many started by laboring long hours in the hot sun to provide fresh produce for our tables and a living for both their parents and their children. They save money and pay taxes. They play soccer on the weekends and have family get-togethers where all are welcome, including their American friends and neighbors. They shop at Wal-Mart and The Apple Store and infuse the economy with loads of money. These people are now homeowners with children graduating high school, something many of them were unable to do. Many of these kids are going on to college. Their parents had a dream of a better life – the American dream.

Yet they are the latest scourge in a long line of immigrants.

I thought about Gary Johnson’s approach to immigration. He wants to round everyone up, not to deport them, not to separate families, but to get them work permits and legalize the very valuable contribution to our economy. I looked around and realized that this would make the unacceptable people among them suddenly acceptable to regular Americans. Nothing else would change about them except a legal document. They would continue to do the same jobs, pay the same taxes, eat family dinners, and enjoy their time off. Yet if Donald Trump had his way, some of them would live in fear of being yanked away from all they have known for years, families uprooted, resulting in family and societal instability as well as resentment among this younger generation of Americans.

I once spoke with an undocumented woman whose mother was ill. She had tears in her eyes as she told me how she longed to see her, but to do so risked losing everything she’d worked so hard for. I thought about people I know who have lost parents and have not been able to even return to attend their funeral because to do so would mean being unable to come back to their home, where their children attend school, where they have friends and family, where they are merging into this great melting-pot we call America.

Do these families fly Mexican flags? Sure. Do they do things Mexican style? Absolutely, just like Italian-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and any other hyphenated Americans who came before them. Cultural heritage flows through all of us. I have Swedish and Norwegian roots. They were very strong in my great-grandparents, who spoke the mother tongue. They were strong in my grandparents, but with each successive generation, they meld with the greater American experience. The second generation of these Mexican families speak English and watch a mixture of Spanish and English TV. They eat Lays and Sabritones. They have traded the pulga (Mexican swap meet) for traditional brick and mortar stores. They dance and smile and laugh and love just like anyone else.

Send them all back, you say? How about cultivating a little compassion and respect. Thank the person who cleans your hotel room. She’s putting food on her family’s table. Thank the guy who brought your refrigerator. His son just signed up for the military to fight for his country, our country. Smile at the lady speaking Spanish at Wal-Mart. She’s probably trying her hardest to learn English as she prepares her own children for a better future.

While we’re struggling to fix the broken system of immigration, let’s not feed into the propaganda. Immigration policies change over the years. We have a vibrant, creative, inquisitive and hopeful generation coming up as Americans, and they are making our country a better place.