This weekend, I finished reading a book called I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erika L. Sánchez. As I read the last few pages, I munched on some left-over pan de muerto (bread of the dead) that I had purchased for my students to eat on Friday, as they learned about the Día de los Muertos. As I flipped through the pages, I thought of all the people, immigrants, that I met through the years. Not only Mexicans. Not only Spanish speakers. But all the hard-working people who left their countries and their family in search of a better life. Me included.
Years ago, as a TA at Auburn University, I volunteered to teach ESL to adult learners. Classes were held at a local church once or twice a week, in the evenings. For a long time, I wondered why we didn’t hold classes at the university. After all, all volunteers were graduate students and we had real classrooms. One day, the coordinator explained to me that they had tried, but it didn’t work. Just like the protagonist’s family in Sánchez’s book, at least 90% of our ESL students were undocumented immigrants and they were afraid to go to a public institution on a regular basis. They were scared that someone would denounce them to la migra (the immigration) and, for this reason, they felt safer at a church. Also, many of them had only finished 4 or 5 years of school or didn’t go at all. Many didn’t know how to read and write Spanish, while others learned with a family member. For them, ‘going’ to a university was something unimaginable. They felt misplaced just by being there.
After a few weeks of classes, many of them would be willing to open up to us about their lives. They related to me quickly because I, too, am an immigrant and they felt that I could be trusted. The fact is that, although they are in the US illegally, they are not hiding. Millions of undocumented immigrants are part of our daily lives. They don’t just do odd jobs for cash. They work in construction, factories, chain restaurants, hotels, farms, etc.
Here’s how illegal immigrants go about work. They buy a fake social security number to present to their employer. The employer might or might not know that the document is fake, but that doesn’t become an issue until the employer have to issue a W-2. At that point, the IRS will send the employer a letter stating that the social security number is invalid. The employer, then, asks for a valid social security and the employee quits. A lot of times, instead of quitting, they only get a different fake social security card and continue to work at the same place. I’ve met people who worked illegally for the same company for a decade, each year under a different name and social security number.
What you might be missing here is that, unless they work for cash doing odd jobs, cutting someone’s grass, or cleaning houses, undocumented immigrants collect taxes just like anybody. The only difference is that they can’t claim it. The amount of unclaimed taxes paid by undocumented workers is almost $12 billion (yes, with a ‘b’). https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2016/10/06/how-much-tax-do-americas-undocumented-immigrants-actually-pay-infographic/#4d3230d61de0
So what happens to the money? Exactly. That’s probably why the government doesn’t pass immigration reforms. Many recent articles have noted that taxes paid by undocumented workers is what’s keeping social security for falling apart.
Besides that, the reality is that we need workers. Let’s face it. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably not raising your children to pick tomatoes for a living, or to work in construction, or to wash dishes, or to clean hotel rooms. Some argue that if undocumented workers didn’t take these jobs for such a low pay, employers would have to raise salaries and more Americans would be willing to do this type of work. Now, suppose that a farming job would pay $25/hr for someone to pick tomatoes. I still wouldn’t want do that job and I still would make my kids go to college. Nonetheless, I believe that the higher salary would, in fact, attract more candidates, but not enough to cover the demand for tomatoes. Further, the salary increase would be passed to consumers, which would make tomatoes so expensive that people would stop buying them. After a while, farms would close and tomatoes would be imported for a cheaper price. Wait a minute! That already happens. But, how about service jobs? Construction or cleaning, for example. Increase in salaries would be passed straight to consumers. We can’t import houses or roads or clean hotel rooms.
I always felt that part of my job was to advocate for the people whose language I teach. Although Mexicans are the main target of discrimination, the matter of the fact is that most people don’t know the difference between Mexican, Guatemalan, Argentinean, Spaniard, etc. The general idea is that they all speak Spanish; therefore, they must all be the same and deserve no respect or compassion. It’s hard to believe that an entire ethnical group, who contributed so much to the history of the world as we know it, became target to discrimination and hatred. Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Goya, queens and kings who ruled the world for centuries, and so many other Spanish speakers helped shape history. Still today, Spanish-speaking countries are culturally rich. Despite social problems that lead to poverty and lack of prospects, those provided with opportunities tend to excel. Just a quick internet browsing will give you a list of contemporary Nobel Prize Winners who happens to be Spanish speakers.
But, forget about the notorious. We need, for the sake of humanity, to value hard-working people. Those folks who get up in the morning every day and are willing to take on any job in order to feed their families. Someone with a 4th grade education who leaves their country, their family and friends, and risks their life in order to give their children a chance to go to school and have a better life, should be applauded, not discriminated.
That’s why the news about the White House trick-or-treating is still pounding in my head (see: https://www.gq.com/story/white-house-kids-build-the-wall). Telling little kids to write their names on construction paper to build that imaginary wall was a low blow. In a sick kind of way, I hope that their parents were aware of the activity ahead of time and went along with it. Unfortunately, I know plenty of people who would love for their kids to participate in that. I, on the other hand, would be furious if someone exposed my children to such bigotry. Then, there were the memes in response to the critique: “We don’t want a wall to keep you out. We want a wall so that you will learn to use the front door.” Really!? So why aren’t you fighting for someone to open the front door. Every undocumented immigrant dreams of coming through the front door. That’s what immigration reform is about: allowing people to live and work here legally. But if you do that, you will have to give them rights and the government won’t be able to keep their taxes.
I only hope that I live long enough to see that wall turn into a bridge. Some people can’t quite see it yet, but one day we will look at how society treated immigrants with shame.