Civil Rights & Terrorism

I get a lot of e-mails from people with political opinions. Some of these are very thoughtful and considered, some are foam-at-the-mouth rants, some are logically constructed and others make me fear for the state of education in this country.

One thing that many of these polemics share in common is that they're heavy on broad concepts and theory, and light on hard, practical local consequences. They tend to consider people one or two million at a time, characterizing entire sub-populations with sweeping generalizations and stereotypes they often have no personal experience of whatsoever but picked up from whatever they read or listen to, which are usually sources reinforcing whatever they already believe.

One thing they rarely do is give any thought to the impact on the lives of real people. And the injustice of that can be very troubling.

An example:

Here in California there is growing backlash against the Hispanic population. Hardly a day passes that I don't hear someone on the radio or television go ballistic over the fact that Mexicans who are here illegally aren't treated like the criminals they are and deported en masse. What really seems to get people furious is the utter irrationality of providing things like drivers licenses and health services to aliens who, after all, are here in direct violation of federal laws.

To be truthful, I have some sympathy with this position. That's because it's perfectly logical, and I'm the world's worst sucker for logic. There is simply no way around the fact that granting the privileges of U.S. citizenship to people who not only aren't citizens but who are on our shores illegally is bizarre and unjustifiable. Those who hold this position can't even believe that someone would argue against it, because it simply makes no sense, and until that point is acknowledged they don't want to listen to anything else, because how can you hold a decent conversation with anyone who doesn't get it?

Okay. I get it. I really do. So now can we talk?

Because, no kidding, it's not the conversation stopper some people think it is. There really is a legitimate alternative point of view. And I have a way to solve the immigration problem if you'll just give me a minute. You may not like it, but it's as logical as the anti-illegal immigrant position.

Before I get to it…

My wife and I have a place in a gated community in the Coachella Valley of Southern California. During the summer months the high for the day is usually in the range of 108-112 degrees, with some days that hit as high as 118. It's brutal, searing heat that takes your breath away when you step outside, which is why the whole place generally clears out between May and October.

But there is a lot of hard, outdoor work that gets done during the summer months. Care of gardens and lawns must be kept up, and a lot of big repairs take place so as not to interfere with the "snowbirds" who are only here during the cooler seasons.

Virtually all of the blue collar labor that takes place here is done by Hispanics. In fact, in twenty years of coming out to the desert I've quite literally never seen a white guy doing gardening except to supervise Mexican laborers. Skilled white air conditioning mechanics always have Mexican helpers doing all the lifting and dirty work, as do roofers and store owners.

Many of these workers are here illegally. They have no rights or recourse, and work for minimum wage because if they don't want to, another Mexican will, and the employers know it. They also know that there's no place for an illegal worker with a grievance to go because they'll get found out and deported.

I've gotten to know some of these illegals. They work like dogs under brutal conditions. They don't complain, and they don't shirk when the boss isn't watching. They don't get benefits and they're not on welfare and they're not sucking precious resources from those of us who are inside the air conditioned condos looking out. These people are not freeloaders. (Yet you don't hear a lot of gratitude from those people inside the condos who pay only 49 cents for a head of lettuce and whose homeowners dues are kept low because the people doing their landscaping earn less than a high schooler slinging hash at the local Choke 'n' Puke.)

They're not terrorists, either. They didn't come to America to do us harm or to overturn our way of life or to infiltrate us in order to subvert our religions. (As it happens, all of them are Christians.)

They came here to try to make a better life for their families. Which is the same reason everybody came to America, including my forebears and yours, unless you're of Native American descent.

But their lives are not like my parents' were when they came here. Mexicans live in daily, mortal fear of being found out by INS authorities. Their kids are taught from the cradle how not to give themselves away. It's a constant in their lives, because there's virtually no way they can even entertain an ambition to become official citizens. So they live their entire lives with the sword of deportation hanging over their heads and over the heads of their families.

Okay, hold it a second. I'm doing just what I accused others of doing: Making broad generalizations about faceless multitudes.

Let me bring it back to earth and get to my point.

My wife Cherie is a triathlete. Several years ago, she started a program to try to re-direct the lives of some inner city kids in San Bernardino using the sport of triathlon as the springboard. Since then she has gotten quite close to a lot of those kids, most of whom are Hispanic, a few of whom are illegal.

One of the legals is Anna-Maria Rodriguez, a beautiful thirteen-year old who has been in the program since it began. A sister and two brothers have also participated since the beginning. I know all of these kids, and their parents. Dad is a dishwasher with a steady job and Mom cleans houses when she can find the work. It's a warm, close family.

They live in a two-room shack with one bathroom. Doesn't sound too bad, except that there are three other kids living with them. These are cousins whose parents aren't in the U.S. and they didn't have a place to stay. (That’s something I should have mentioned about the Hispanic community in Southern California: If a family member, however distant, needs a place to live, there's no discussion about it. No "Where will he sleep?" or "Is there enough room?" or "Can we afford to feed him?" Nothing like that. They take him in, then they figure it out. Like breathing.)

Last year when Anna-Maria turned thirteen, she got a job in a Mexican restaurant. She told them she was eighteen and nobody asked for papers.

A month or two ago Cherie found out that Anna-Maria's grades were declining. This was surprising because this is a bright, disciplined kid who did pretty well in school, and had been doing even better since she joined the Exceeding Expectations program. So Cherie sat her down to find out what was gong on.

What was going on was that Anna-Maria, who was only in the seventh grade, was working 35 hours a week at the restaurant. She was simply too exhausted to study, often coming home after midnight on school nights following a tough shift. According to Anna-Maria her parents felt that, if she couldn't handle the school work along with the job, she should drop out of school.

Cherie was pretty upset, because Anna-Maria was on track to become the first kid in her family to graduate from high school and go on to college. Sure, the family needed more income, but didn't her parents understand the longer-term benefit of getting their daughter into college?

Of course they did. Except…it turns out Anna-Maria is not in the United States legally. Saying you're legal is part of the autonomic reflex of all the children of illegal immigrants, just another part of the defense mechanism they start working on practically from birth. It doesn't even make sense to ask them the question.

Still, what about her parents? Why would they let such a bright, disciplined and ambitious kid give up school just to keep a dumb restaurant job? What did being illegal have to do with that?

Just this: Without documentation, Anna-Maria has no reason to stay in school. No matter how well she does in high school, there's virtually no way for her to go to college because there are only two ways a poor family could afford it. The first is if the child gets a scholarship, but Anna-Maria can't even apply because she's not legal. The second is to go to a California state school, and while a recent law made it possible for Mexican kids who are here legally to qualify for in-state tuition, illegals can't.

So what's going to happen to her is that she'll drop out of high school, work in the restaurant 70 hours a week for minimum wage, get pregnant and married when she's about sixteen and then spend the next twenty years raising that kid to be as terrified and hopeless as Anna-Maria herself is right now, because that's the only option that was open to her parents and it's the only option that's available to her and that's just the way it is.

And right now there are people reading this who are thinking, "Well, to hell with her. Had no right to be in this country in the first place." Which, let 's face it, is true. No legal right, anyway. So Anna-Maria and her brothers and sisters and her cousins and her parents should all be rounded up and thrown the hell back over the border. They're here illegally and that's all there is to it. So why are we even talking about it?


I'm not going to try to convince you that the reason to talk about it is that America is the last hope and refuge for the downtrodden of the world, that it's the land of opportunity with a history of open arms, that we call ourselves a Christian nation and yet behave with astonishing un-charity because if we let more of "them" in we might not be able to afford another big-screen TV.

I happen to believe that this is the land of opportunity and open arms, etc., etc., but I’m not going to try to persuade you because, if there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that trying to do that is a lost cause.

Furthermore — and this may surprise you — I'm not one of those flaming liberals who thinks it's awful whenever people act in their own self-interest. To the contrary, the only time I trust people is when they're acting in their own self-interest.

So let me appeal directly to your self-interest, and tell you this: The reason we shouldn't throw Anna-Maria and her brothers and sisters and her cousins and her parents out of the country is because they are exactly the kind of people we want to have in this country.

They work hard, they study hard, they live modestly, they take care of each other, they don't drain resources, they'd pay taxes if we let them, they do jobs we don't want to do ourselves, they desperately want to be here and the thought of becoming citizens is breathtaking but they don't even permit themselves or their kids to think of it because it's unthinkable.

So for Christ's sake — and I mean that literally — why don't we just let them stay?

Even if you're mad at the adults for sneaking over the border and breaking U.S. laws and think that can't go unpunished, what about the kids? What about Anna-Maria Rodriguez? She didn't do anything wrong. She never hurt anybody and she didn't break any laws except for some labor rules so she could help feed the family. As a matter of fact, she's so afraid of being caught she's never going to break any laws. It's just too risky.

Okay, that last bit wasn't about your self-interest. I sneaked some morality in there. Sorry. It's just that there is no justification anywhere in God's universe for harming a kid or not giving him the same chance you want for your own kids. They may be illegal but they're children, and doing right by children — all children — is its own moral imperative and needs no justification.

I started off by telling you I had a solution to the immigration problem, so here it is:

Make them all legal. All of them. Right now.

You want to exclude people with criminal records? Fine, I'm good with that.

Want to exclude them from receiving welfare? No problem.

Want them to take drug tests? Okay. (But not for alcohol. Not unless you quit yourself.)

I guarantee to you that, ten years from now, California will not have turned into the South Bronx. I can prove it: They're all already here, and we're doing okay.

Too radical for your taste? Okay. How about just getting behind pending federal educational initiatives so at least the kids can have a shot at some kind of a life?

If I haven't convinced you, that's okay. I knew it was a long shot.

Just one thing: The next time you find yourself railing against all of these Mexicans who are ruining California?

Do me a favor and stop.

Because you have no idea what the hell you're really talking about.


Reply from Diana Anhalt, an ex-pat American who has been living in Mexico since her parents fled the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965, a wonderful book about her childhood encounters with other Americans in similar circumstances.

By the way, one thing you didn't mention is that the desperate
conditions in Mexico could foment a government unfriendly to the U.S.
(You'd be amazed at how much anti-Americanism already exists in Mexico
today. And I don't have to tell you what is happening throughout Latin
America.) It is to our advantage to expedite the kind of conditions in
Mexico that will benefit the U.S. That was, to a great extent, the
philosophy behind the Free Trade Agreement signed a few years back.
(Although it hasn't always worked that way.)

Making it possible for Mexicans to become legal residents of the U.S.
takes pressure of the Mexican government and allows them to ameliorate
conditions here. I believe that the money sent by Mexicans working in the
States to help support their families in Mexico is the 2nd greatest source
of national income--after oil. Despite that, Mexicans living in the States
legally also have considerable purchasing power pay taxes and contribute to
the economy.

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