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Immigration Versus the Immigrants

ON CALIFORNIA

February 09, 1994|PETER H. KING

This is America, and the only foreigners here are those who forget it is America.

--William Saroyan, from "The Human Comedy."

As the nativists screech about immigration, I wonder about the Trejo brothers. There were three of them, Lionel, Manual and Salvador. I knew them as a high school kid, working summers in a feedlot outside Kerman, in the San Joaquin Valley.

They had come north long on dreams and, it was presumed, short on documentation. They were hard workers, particularly Salvador, a tall man with a stoic, almost mystical presence. Salvador and I were floaters in the feed mill: One day we might drive feed trucks or sweep out grain bins; the next we might be handed shovels and directed to the pens, where our task was to scoop cow pies from the troughs.

"It all pays the same," was our consoling joke, spoken in two tongues.

The brothers Trejo lived together in lowly conditions. It was said in the lunchroom that they sent their money home. It was said that deep in the Mexican interior their minimal wages were building, slowly, quite a cattle ranch. It's been 20 years since my feedlot days, and I have no easy way of knowing what became of Salvador and his brothers and their dream of a cattle barony. But I can hope.

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I offer this experience, not as something extraordinary but rather because it is common. Most Californians cannot help but view immigration as something more personal than a policy debate. Sweat beside somebody under the hot August sun--or entrust your children or at least your lawn to them--and, before you know it, you know them. And the whole question of immigration becomes one of immigrants, and the difference is huge.

There are many Californians who regard illegal immigration--and what's illegal one decade might well be legal the next--not as a crime, but as a deal, a transaction. It's not perfect. It's not clean. But almost everyone benefits. For the people from down south, it's an opportunity to pull themselves up, to dream. For us, it's a source of cheap labor, of workers who will take on jobs that from all appearances no one else wants.

Standard political terminology becomes inadequate. Advocates of undocumented workers should hardly be described as bleeding heart liberals, because the case can be made that the whole setup creates an underclass of powerless peons. Conversely, bedrock conservatives, it seems, should regard this labor pool as a commodity, a perfect exhibit of free market forces, of supply meeting demand. Certainly the farmers understand this. Let the border be truly sealed, and the screams of immigrant-bashers would be drowned out by the clamor from well-connected growers in need of seasonal pickers.

Of course the demagogues prefer to ignore these realities. They prefer to depict illegal immigration as a social drain, and they come to the task equipped with shovelfuls of studies and statistics. For instance, they fling about tremendous estimates of money spent at public hospitals caring for the illegal sick. Where they obtain these numbers is a mystery, because citizenship status is one of the few questions not asked by admitting nurses. Perhaps the hospital workers simply assume anyone of brown skin is an "alien." In this assumption, they would not be alone.

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And now with the earthquakes we have a few politicians all excited about ensuring no illegal immigrants receive long-term federal relief. Not that any legislator would explicitly advocate the opposite. The game is more subtle than that, a competition of posture and symbol. Post a Border Patrol, but withhold the money needed to fulfill its mission. Talk tough about cutting off earthquake aid, but make it clear emergency care will be provided, no questions asked.

I suspect some of the bashers simply misread the polls. Yes, the short answer might be that a majority of Californians is concerned about illegal immigration, especially amid an economic slump. But probe deeper--and at least one conservative pollster I know has done just that--and this fast reaction clashes against a deeper, more stable value. And that is basic fairness. And it comes from knowing immigrants as people, and not just fodder for cheap politicians.

On the day after the earthquake, I watched tenants attempt to retrieve what they could from a wrecked apartment house in Northridge. This was nervous work, with more than a few residents afraid to step inside the building. A U-Haul pulled up. Out leaped three young men who looked like the day laborers who stand on certain street corners every morning. The truck renter pointed and the young men went to work, carrying out load after load. They worked hard and fast and they asked no questions. They kept up their end of the deal.

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