With apologies to Christine O’Donnell, I am not you. I didn’t grow up in places where Mexicans were a distant if ominous threat. I can’t say that I came of age only speaking English, that I feel totally grounded in this country (even though I was born here), or that I never helped anyone who wasn’t supposed to be here. I can’t take a cold, hard look at the facts concerning illegal immigration and see only numbers. I am not you. I am the result of your worst-case scenario.
That may sound melodramatic, but it would be true for at least some readers. My mother was an “anchor baby” back before the border meant what it means today. She came to this country from Mexico at the age of nine with birth certificate in hand, showing that she had been born in a border town in Texas where her parents were picking in the fields. My father’s mother, meanwhile, was born in Corpus Christi but spoke little to no English to the end of her days. His family had been riding the border for generations without anyone mentioning that they were illegal. On my father’s side, I am a fourth-generation American, but back then (in the early 20th century), that still didn’t mean anything. I had uncles who sneaked across the border and lived under the same roof as I did. My grandmother had a few little houses out back that she rented to undocumented immigrants. I would hang out with them as a kid, and they would show me all sorts of interesting things, like how to eat clams from a can or play the guitar.
In short, I don’t think occasionally about the complexity of immigration and the border; it literally flows through my veins. It is a reality I have had to live with. And I know how negative that reality can be: My first car was totaled by an undocumented Mexican immigrant, as was one of my mother’s. Of course, neither of those drivers had licenses or insurance, and one of these accidents was a hit and run where my baby sister could have been very badly injured. So when people speak of the undocumented harming our society, I can honestly say that I have experienced that harm first-hand.
I have had to deal with the sometimes arrogant and myopic views of my relatives who would drag me back to my mother’s village every year as a child and try to convince me that it was paradise on earth. (Really, if that two-bit village with no running water and electricity for only part of the day was so nice, why did they leave?) I went to college with militant La Raza types, and I can attest that they are a bunch of charlatans who never saw a European custom or Catholic belief they didn’t like. There are definitely “radical” elements in the Mexican-American community who need to stop protesting and be grateful that this country took them in. My father fought in Vietnam and is proud of it, and he would be the first to agree with me. So if you want to bring up dirty laundry, I can show you dirty laundry.
In spite of all of that, when I think of the immigration issue, I think of people before I think of numbers, laws, or ideas. I think of those guys who peddle popsicles in the street and have to sleep in the freezers where they are kept at night. Or the fellows who would come to the door unable to find work, asking only for a little something to eat. Or my former co-workers who came here as children, just like my mother, and learned English by watching cartoons. Or the guys who stand outside the corner supermarket in my hometown, dressed in their best on a Sunday afternoon, staring at each other and thinking of home. Call me soft, sentimental, or naïve, but when you have seen all of that, it is very hard to regard these people as “a problem.”
It helps to think of this as something cyclical. During the Great Depression when jobs were scarce, thousands of Mexicans were sent packing back to Mexico. It made sense at the time, and I don’t see that as some sort of nefarious ethnic cleansing. When labor was needed again to work in the fields and packing houses during World War II, they were invited back (that is how my mother became an anchor baby). And this time, like the last time, many of them stayed, started families, became citizens, and married others like themselves. Now we seem to be going through the same process all over again. All statistics show that the number of people crossing the border illegally has been in steady decline in the past few years. Where there is no work, people don’t come.
That being said, the border is a reality that will not go away. With the free flow of goods and capital comes the flow of labor and people. There are those just like me who are the end product of this complex relationship between two countries that share a common border but have spent much of their existence trying to ignore each other. We are here to stay, and we are just as much a part of the “American reality” as any other American whose ancestors came from another shore seeking a better life.
I am not an advocate of open borders. I haven’t really thought about amnesty all that much, either. I am not a big believer in political solutions in general. I am more an advocate of not treating people like they are simply numbers, villains, parasites, or an invading horde. Most undocumented immigrants aren’t saints, but neither are they agents of Mexican reconquest or evil schemers who want to take our gardening, janitorial, or agricultural jobs and leave Americans with nothing. They are just people who want to feed their families and find a better life. If nothing else, it is at least our obligation in Christian charity to respect that.