Roughly 20 years ago, a friend was complaining about his work situation. His job was finish carpentry, but he found himself in the awkward position of supervising non-English speaking sheet rock workers in a custom home under construction. His boss was rarely on the job site and expected my buddy to explain things to the workers who were newly from Mexico. Whether they were legal or illegal immigrants, we didn't know.
My friend, however, was incensed not only by their lack of English skills, but because the work should have been done by local people. Because his attitude was "They're taking jobs," I asked him, "Who's really benefiting? Sure, these Mexicans are getting paid, but I bet they're getting a lot less than your boss would be paying American workers. He's the real culprit ... just after more profits."
The next story began with bird watching. My husband and I took a trip to the southwest, driving to Big Bend National Park and then down the Rio Grande toward a birding hot spot at Brownsville, Texas. One morning, we left Falcon Dam headed toward Laredo on a desolate stretch of highway. What looked like a cop car came from the other direction, hung a U turn, then followed us for a couple miles. Sorta strange. Then the lights went on, we pulled over, and an officer from the border patrol tried to open the back doors of our camper van, then came to the driver's side window and asked for our identification.
My husband still had his dark chestnut hair at the time and is an Italian with olive skin. I'm a lily-white Finn, blond turning white. The officer looked at our drivers' licenses, then let us go. I started thinking. The only reason they stopped us was my husband's dark hair and swarthy complexion. What if they'd asked to search our vehicle? What would we have said? "Where's your search warrant? What's your probable cause?" (In Arizona, probable cause at the time included having a headlight out.) I'd heard stories of enforcement officers tearing door panels off, strewing belongings over the roadside, ripping upholstery, finding nothing, and then just leaving the bewildered driver to deal with the mess and related expense for repairs.
When we reached Laredo, I went directly to the Chamber of Commerce. Not surprisingly, it was staffed by people of apparently Hispanic descent, well dressed middle-class looking people at that. I told them of our experience, how annoying and a bit frightening it was, and asked if this was a common occurrence. "All the time," was the answer. One man told me drug smuggling and gambling were even bigger problems on the border area around Laredo than people smuggling.
Third story: I served on a grand jury on the Oregon coast a couple years ago. One case involved identity theft, which I thought was someone misrepresenting herself so she could take money from someone else's credit card or bank account. The accused was an illegal immigrant without a "green card," using a fake Social Security number to open a bank account. What I really learned from this case was this: My fellow jurors were quite familiar with the major employer that had hired this individual and said the employer never bothers to have employees fill out the federal I-9 form that verifies that the person is in the U.S. legally and has the right to work. That employer is raided occasionally and workers without papers are hauled off, but the employer is never punished. The district attorney said the county has no jurisdiction over enforcement of labor laws. It's a federal responsibility.
So that's part of the frustration behind Arizona's recent legislation giving police officials authority to enforce immigration laws. The paradox, irony and shame in this is that once again it is the laborers, the poor people who come here seeking better economic conditions that are punished ... not the employers who enhance profits by ignoring U.S. regulations.
I have one more story. At an oil-change shop, my husband was teasing the young workers about, "Do you have your green cards?" One fellow was tall and blond, the other dark and stocky. With his dark eyes twinkling, the stocky fellow said, "I have the ultimate green card!" and showed us his ID certifying him as an enrolled member of the Koniag Native Corporation located in Kodiak. Then he chuckled and said, "We all came from someplace else, even my people. They came across the land bridge from Asia."
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who, whatever the issue, always suggests, "Follow the money." You can reach her at email@example.com