The first time I heard someone speaking Spanish in public, I’d just started college in Davis and went to a shoe store in Woodland to get some cool but cheap platform sandals (it was the ’70s, man). I heard two women chatting in Spanish in the next aisle and this was so novel to me, I had to peek around the corner to see it with my own eyes. Hmmm. Just two ladies looking for shoes. Just like me.
I grew up in middle class white suburbia, only hearing English, and sure, there plenty of classmates with Hispanic surnames, but that seemed normal to me. Their last names were just fancier than “Smith” or “Johnson.” You had your fancy-name people and your non-fancy-name people, but other than that, we were all just classmates. No big whoop.
Following my First Español Encounter, I graduated and married into Winters, where I was suddenly immersed in Spanish speakers, including within my own new family. Winters is now a 50-50 Hispanic-Caucasian split. Are some of our Mexicans undocumented? Undoubtedly. Did some bring their children with them when they came here to eke out a living? Absolutely. And they go to school, play Little League and cross graduation stages, right along with everyone else’s. They’re part of our community. They don’t have “DACA” stamped on their foreheads in scarlet letter fashion — they’re just kids that live here.
Despite Winters’ racial and cultural split, we seem to pretty much get along. Our Mexican friends and neighbors (undocumented or not) are simply part of the fabric that makes our town what it is and, moreover, a better place. Our prized agricultural image is the result of generations of people coming here and working the fields and orchards for substandard wages. I remember the first time I saw a migrant camp, situated on the grounds of a wealthy farmer. What glaring disparity. Their cabins had dirt floors. And no bathrooms. I was stunned. People actually live like this? Yes, they do. Willingly. Because they’re more concerned about the welfare of their families than their own discomfort.
Sure, a good portion were/are undocumented, and broke the law when they entered the country illegally and remained here. But, unlike true criminals, their intent wasn’t to harm anyone, only to survive. Those of us who have never experienced that level of desperation don’t have the right to judge.
Besides the fact that most Americans don’t know anything about that level of desperation, they also don’t know what it means to work that hard. It’s a common thing to be driving home from the supermarket with my cheap lettuce and tomatoes, my air-conditioning blasting, and pass a tomato field where lines of migrant workers hoe or harvest away in triple digit heat. I feel a pang of shame every time. They are why we can have cheap food. Americans have benefitted hugely from undocumented workers, and farmers and businesses have benefitted even more. It’s much easier to turn a profit if you’re paying your workers pennies on the dollar.
Undocumented workers are essentially slaves, not like the ones who were kidnapped and brought here on boats against their will, but like Europeans recruited to work in eastern coal mines at the turn of the last century. Sure, they were technically paid, but not enough to ever get out if they wanted to. “I sold my soul to the company store” isn’t just a catchy line from a sad song.
The coal mining industry has changed since then, but the industries that routinely employ undocumented workers haven’t much, aside from basic rights won under the Caesar Chavez movement, where middle America was enlightened that the people picking their grapes and cotton deserved better treatment than livestock. You know, “luxuries” like water and bathrooms, and a break in the shade every so often.
Meanwhile, while those workers toiled away in our fields, hotels and carwashes, their children went to school and started dreaming bigger than hoeing a tomato field for 10 hours in the August sun. Hence the tag “Dreamers.” They never broke any laws, and treating them as criminals is inappropriate. But what do we do about it? Well, President Obama took the first step with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but before the next step is arrived upon, 45 threatens to revoke it. While politicians grapple with DACA based upon how it may or may not benefit their reelection campaigns, I have a solution.
First, a moratorium on all immigration for one year. All of it. During that year, we revamp our immigration laws so that they’re no longer so lengthy and severe that the temptation to break the law is built in. Desperate people don’t have seven years to wait to feed their families.
Also during that year, all undocumented residents and their children come forward, without fear of deportation, and the U.S. Citizenship process begins. Adults who came here illegally would be fined a nominal penalty because, bottom line, we are a country of laws, and breaking the law upon your first act as entering the country doesn’t set a positive precedent. Paying the penalty means acknowledging one’s own responsibility for the “crime” and in exchange, no longer hiding and living in fear. Those nominal fees would fund ESL classes, free of charge for anyone.
Is that amnesty? Yeah, probably. But so what. Why not grant citizenship to those who’ve worked and slaved their whole lives just for the privilege of being here? Isn’t that more deserving of citizenship than those of us who received it for doing nothing more significant than being born here? We natural citizens were simply lucky, so let’s temper our thinly-veiled ethnocentrism with that recognition.
As for the DACA demographic, get the citizenship ball rolling. Their families have made a massive contribution to our way of life, and in exchange, we should embrace the millions of innocent children whose only “crime” was to dare to dream.
They are Us too.