April 20, 2006
This Week - The Silent Minority
We'll march for Israel, we'll march for Darfur and we'll even march for the whales, but for the people who harvest our food and clean our toilets and watch our children -- for them we can't be bothered.
I didn't join in any of the rallies held to protest the punitive immigration measures Congress has been considering. Chances are very good you weren't there, either. The participants in those rallies were largely poor and working-class Latinos and their children.
I saw the pictures on TV and read the articles, and I didn't see any Century City lawyers walking in solidarity with the guy who dumps his office trash for cheap each evening, or the Brentwood housewife standing side by side with the woman who enables her to leave Precious and slip off to Pilates twice each week, or the Woodland Hills diner holding a placard for the fruit picker or chicken plucker or dishwasher whose labors make his brunches that much more enjoyable.
You get the point: There is a direct correlation between our standard of living and these illegal immigrants. According to a Pew Center study, unauthorized workers make up 24 percent of all those in farming occupations, 17 percent in cleaning, 14 percent in construction and 12 percent in food preparation industries. Nearly one of every 20 people working in the United States is an unauthorized migrant.
"If all illegal immigrants were sent home," concluded the study, "the shockwaves would rattle the national economy."
Not to mention our Pilates workouts.
Students and supporters approach L.A. City Hall as they march to call for amnesty for illegal immigrants on April 15. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images/AFP
I don't mean to be flip here about something that suddenly political opportunists of all stripes have decided to take seriously. But how dare we remain silent while the people who've been loyal and hard-working helpmates to us and our children for years are delivered up to panderers and pundits? I don't check the papers of the men the gardener brings by to trim our trees each year, but I know this: Any one of those guys is worth more to me in a single Sunday afternoon than Pat Buchanan is in a lifetime.
Anti-immigration pundits like Buchanan see these men and women solely as a cost, but to actual experts, undocumented workers are also capital. Illegal immigrants do impose real financial burdens on our schools, hospitals, transportation, law enforcement and social services. But they also pay taxes, create business and buy goods and services. Stroll through downtown on Broadway one sunny day, and you'll find that many of the legal immigrants from Asia, Latin America and the Middle East make their living providing goods to these illegal immigrants.
According to the Pew study, illegal immigrants add 700,000 new consumers to the economy every year, while legal immigrants account for 600,000. As these illegal immigrants move up economically -- 84 percent of them are ages 18 to 44, as compared to 60 percent of legal residents -- their spending on credit cards, loans and mortgages will help boost the economy.
"More undocumented immigrants paying income and property taxes would help ease the taxpayer strain for the schools, health care, roads and other services illegals use," wrote Business Week.
The largest Southern California department store aimed entirely at Latino immigrants is owned by Jerry and Ron Azarkman, brothers who came to the United States from Israel in the early 1970s. "We are basically financing people who often don't have a Social Security number or legal residence," Mauricio Fux, La Curacao vice president for corporate development, told the Associated Press. "With billions of dollars going home to Mexico, we always ask ourselves, 'What can we do that is different?' to capture some of it."
Indeed, the Milken Institute's Los Angeles Economy Project, a sober-minded numbers crunching of the city's overall economic health, said that the key to dealing with illegal immigration is to bring these members of the informal economy into the mainstream. In other words, educate and reward this human capital, don't round it up and ship it off, as the congressional Republican bill would have it. And don't create a separate class of permanently immobilized "guest workers," as some compromise bills proffer.
The Milken study also said we need better border controls. Of course we do. A flood of illegal immigrants might spill over into states whose declining populations have left behind fallow fields and shuttered Main Streets. Millions of hard-working Latinos might actually make Kansas competitive with California.
OK, there I go being flip again. So let me quite seriously utter the word that politicians from Teddy Kennedy to George Bush are finding anathema: amnesty.
That's right. Amnesty. Illegal immigrants who have worked and committed no crimes other than crossing the border deserve an expedited path to citizenship. If they were wrong to sneak over, we were wrong to benefit from their labor -- and we have all benefited. The strongest nation on earth could have prevented some unarmed, impoverished campesinos from crawling through the desert and running across I-5 if we wanted to. No, what we wanted was a steady supply of field hands, nannies and roofers. And we are shocked, shocked that they and their 3.1 million children -- two-thirds of whom are U.S. citizens by birth -- are protesting for their right to live among their neighbors.
By legislating them apart as felons, freeloaders or permanent servants, we humiliate them and their children, and we shame ourselves.
A resolution put forth by the Southern California regional branch of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) calls for border "security precautions," as well as the humane treatment of illegal immigrants. As we reported two weeks ago, 16 local civil rights organizations and the Catholic church have signed onto it. It's a start.
But even the ADL doesn't dare utter the "A" word. A fast track to amnesty is what they deserve. If we can't be bothered to pay them a living wage, and we can't be moved to get out and march with them, at least we can tell the folks in Washington, D.C.: These people are our neighbors.