Once again immigration is making headlines in the American media as thousands of children - most of them from Guatemala - have been apprehended crossing into Texas from Mexico. To deal with the astonishing volume of these unaccompanied children, attempts have been made by the Federal government to transfer some of them to other states while their individual cases await processing. This has provoked protests from people - all descendants of immigrants (unless they're native Americans) - in some communities who fear that the children will simply be let loose on their streets, rather than processed for eventual deportation back to their home countries. They're afraid that the children will become tax burdens by attending their public schools and will - eventually - take away jobs from its legal citizens.
In 2001 I was living in Des Moines and that summer I read in the news about the discovery of a railway car that was filled with the bodies of undocumented alien immigrants, who had been suffocated in the overheated car. An investigation failed to find enough information about where the immigrants had come from, how they got all the way to Iowa, or where on earth they were going. In the nearly five years I lived in Des Moines (If you could call it living) I had three dead-end jobs, one of which was with a private security company. My duties included the patrolling of Des Moines' downtown skywalks - a public network of elevated passageways that passed over streets and through office buildings. Since they were heated during the winter months and air-conditioned during the summer, the skywalks attracted the city's many homeless people, looking for shelter from the elements. My uniform resembled a policeman's, with the subtle difference that the patches on my shoulders were shaped like shields rather than the circular patches worn by the Des Moines P.D. So I actually looked more like a cop than the cops. The skywalks were closed between midnight and six a.m., so I had to roust them out if they were sleeping in some hiding place, which were sometimes easy to find, sometimes not. With nothing but time on their hands, the homeless could be surprisingly creative when they had to be. But what surprised me the most about them was that they were relatively young, and almost all of them were white. I should add that, for various reasons, most of them suffered from some form of mental illness.
The only people who were permitted in the skywalks after midnight - besides my fellow "officers" and I - were the cleaning crews, who usually paid me no notice as they went about their work. Their jobs ranged from mopping floors to vacuuming carpets to emptying innumerable waste baskets floor by floor in the office buildings. One night on duty, a co-worker and I decided to visit the break room in one of the many buildings through which we were walking. It was on a floor below the skywalks, so we took an elevator down. The moment we entered the break room, a group of cleaning women - all Hispanic - who were sitting around a table, jumped up and fled from the room, despite my attempts to reassure them. They mistook us for cops, and, for mysterious but suspicious reasons, ran from us. Whether they were in the U.S. illegally or were simply wary of policemen, I will never know.(1)
A few years later, living in Anchorage, Alaska, I got a similar job and I came across other office cleaning people, all Hispanic, all presumably holding green cards (permanent resident visas). What always struck me was the obvious fact that these people from Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and Nicaragua had come all the way to America - all the way to Des Moines and Anchorage and every other American city,(2) and that they must've known there was work waiting for them when they arrived. Why, indeed, would they have come so far if they weren't convinced that work was waiting for them? And the work that was waiting for them is tailor-made for immigrants: an army of men and women to clean office buildings, no qualifications required, no education, with little or no knowledge of English, unafraid of hard physical work, probably earning a minimum wage and, obviously, no questions asked about their immigration status.
Feeble attempts are sometimes made to penalize the companies that hire illegals, but nothing changes. And what about the office building managements who contract the companies that hire illegals? Aren't they also culpable? The people on the right of the immigration issue always argue that these immigrants are taking away much-needed jobs from Americans, at a time when unemployment is high. I can't claim to know how these undocumented aliens live, but I know where and how they work. Most of the jobs that these immigrants get when they arrive at their destinations are the kind that few Americans are either capable or willing to perform for a minimum wage. Only people for whom a job that pays far more than they could possibly earn in their home countries would take these jobs. Yes, their employers are exploiting them by paying them the merest minimum the law requires them to pay. Americans would be more amenable to accepting such jobs if the wage were higher. Americans could probably be persuaded to pick fruit if the wage were commensurate with the labor. Americans may be lazy, but they're understanding of quid pro quo is, by now, quite sophisticated. But, for now, who else but these immigrants, documented or undocumented, will do the work?
(1) I also noticed, whenever I stopped at a convenience store on my way home from work, how everyone shopping in the store began to act suspicious the moment they saw me in uniform.
(2) I knew a man who got a job as a deputy sheriff in Dodge City, Kansas, who told me that more than half the population of the city, home to a huge meat-packing industry, was Hispanic.