Last week, President George W. Bush signed The Secure Fence Act, which adds 700 miles to the 83 miles of fence on our border with Mexico. Along with the fence, which will cost at least $6 billion, Congress approved billions of dollars for more border patrol officers, more prison space for illegal immigrants and more raids on employers.
Sen. Trent Lott was a vocal supporter of the fence. In a Sept. 22 editorial entitled "America's Soft Underbelly," Lott wrote of World War II and the Allied invasion of Italy. "America's southern border is our soft underbelly," Lott wrote. "Here an invasion by illegal aliens already is in progress, and one by terrorists could be soon, unless we act."
Lott does not mention that the fence would leave 1,200 miles of border unfenced. He does not mention that al-Qaeda has no presence in Mexico and has never tried to cross the border. Al-Qaeda did cross the Canadian border in 1999, but nobody speaks of building a fence in the north.
If we truly face a threat from the south, why are we content to leave most of the border unfenced? Is it because the idea that al-Qaeda would be stopped by a fence is patently idiotic?
Lott sees an "invasion" of "illegal aliens," as if 12 million hard-working immigrants are an invisible army that has infiltrated the homeland. Despite such talk, Congress did nothing to resolve the status of the "aliens" who have already "invaded" us. Instead, they put up 700 miles of fence, which is a showy way of doing nothing.
Not so long ago, I was a bartender at an upscale restaurant in Milwaukee, Wis. It was four-star chaos, overlooking the shore of Lake Michigan. On a Saturday night, I would stand in my black vest and tie and filet Dover Sole for a red-faced banker, smothering it in oyster sauce while dozens of northshore Nancies called out for fresh glasses of Côtes-du-Rhone.
The only way we made it through was with the help of our server assistants, all young men from Mexico. They could set up a $30,000 wedding for 500 in an hour.
"Amigo," I would shout in the midst of wedding chaos, "necessito yelo para estacion sud, por favor." A couple of minutes later, one of them would stagger over with a hundred pounds of ice hoisted on his shoulder.
These men were the hardest workers I have ever known. The restaurant employed Mexicans because they did their jobs better than spoiled American teenagers, who usually left after a month or two. The Mexicans stayed, year after year. They were strong and disciplined, and they worked well together as a team. They were an integral part of our restaurant's success, and they helped make the owner millions of dollars.
None of our SAs (or esses, if you prefer) made me laugh more than Omar, a young Mexican from Jalisco. Omar spent his teenage years in Milwaukee's growing barrio, and he had the gang tattoos to prove it. But by the time I knew Omar, he was the most reliable worker the restaurant had. "You can do it," he would call out, as if encouraging a contestant at the Special Olympics, to white servers as they struggled with chairs and tables, before firing off a string of Spanish to the SAs and moving twice as much.
Omar taught me far more Spanish than I learned in three years of high school. Then again, they didn't teach us profanity back then, which is the first thing everyone wants to know anyway. You may know some dime-store Spanish swears, but after years of working with Omar, I could make a Mexican sailor blush. He always cautioned, "Listen, don't ever say this to a Mexican. Because he might kill you."
I never asked the men if they were legal immigrants, but undocumented workers are everywhere in the restaurant industry. There is a reason why the business community has been so vocal about providing immigrants who are in this country illegally a path to citizenship. These immigrants take jobs Americans do not want, and they do those jobs better than dissatisfied Americans ever would. Already, California farmers are complaining that they can't find enough labor to pick their crops, and that's just from the possibility of tougher immigration law. If we began to deport these workers, inflation would devastate the economy.
These workers pay taxes and Social Security under false names, subsidizing tax revenue while receiving little in return but opportunity. That is enough for them. They are here to work and make a new life, just like generations of immigrants before them. Just like my ancestors did.
More than a century ago, my German forebears suffered some of the same slurs made against Mexicans today. My ancestors would never learn the language, the papers moaned. They were lazy, irresponsible parents, the politicians thundered. They drank beer. They were violent. They would never become real Americans.
This was nonsense—well, everything but the beer part. In every wave of immigration, parents speak their native tongue, but children are fluent in English. It was true of the Germans, and it is true of the Mexicans today. My forbearers became productive farmers and factory workers. They were law-abiding, patriotic Americans, as they proved when men like my grandfather fought his distant relations in western Germany during World War II. Today, tens of thousands of Latinos serve in the military, and close to 300 have given their lives in Iraq.
The last I heard, Omar had married a bombshell and was named employee of the year. I imagine that children are already on the way, children who will be American citizens. I have no doubt that Omar, who works all day and late into the evening nearly every day, will provide for his family. He will become a home owner. He might even become a business owner. His children will be our next teachers, scientists, soldiers and leaders.
This November, do not reward politicians who scare us with shadow armies crossing our border while scamming us that half a fence will protect us from al-Qaeda. Think instead of Omar, and the next generation of American patriots.
Being Rich doesn't teach essential work skills, I've noticed.
Very moving article, Brian!!
They just want a better life for themselves and their families. Your comparison of the lack of a fence along the Canadian border is especially telling - al-Qaeda is not in Mexico, but they've set up shop in Canada! Some may say "al-Qaeda may set up in Mexico some day, so why take the chance?" but the very fact that we aren't building a northern fence when a known enemy is ALREADY there proves your point - the cries for the fence are ultimately nativism.
Let's put it this way, this Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominated nation has already been partially Catholicized, Celticized, Germanized, Semitized, Italianized, Slavicized, Asianized, Africanized, and every other -ized we can think of. Yet, we haven't balkanized (no pun intended) into other nations because of it. Why not allow this nation to be Hispanicized in the same manner as above?
Speaking of Canada, it offers an example of what the US needs to become in regards to ethnic treatment. Canada, like the US is a nation of immigrants. Yet, they didn't really adopt this "melting pot" scheme like we did. Instead, the non-English tend to say "Yes, were Canadian, in our own way". The Ukrainian immigrants of the prairie may have adoped conventional manners of dressing and socializing, but they still celebrate the customs of their Old Country to a certain degree.
Thank you, Philip. I'm sorry it took me a while to respond but I was out of town. I absolutely agree with what you wrote about how the country has been Catholized, Celticized, etc. Whenever there has been a large influx of immigrants, some Americans have freaked out. Sadly, 50 years later, those assimilated immigrants often freak out about the next wave of immigration.
Obviously, we need immigration reform, and I'm not arguing that we should ignore the possibility that al Qaeda might use Mexico. The obvious way to combat that possibility is through intelligence, not a fence. If a bunch of middle-class Arabs start taking flight lessons in Mexico, a fence will neither stop them nor detect them. The fence is both mean and pathetically inept.
I have great sympathy for the concerns of labor regarding this issue, and I won't pretend to have easy answers. I know that keeping undocumented workers undocumented only hurts labor. Every single person who works in this country should make at least $10 an hour.
I have no patience for the view that Mexicans are failing to assimilate. We (older immigrants) have a long, shared history with Mexico. Americans love Mexican culture and food. Americans have long loved Latino stars. Mexicans are intensely Christian. There are already millions of Mexican citizens who are as assimilated as any of the rest of us. They keep a few national customs, but mostly they hang out at the mall, like other Americans. Sen. Lott should be ashamed for using the word "invasion."
- Brian C Johnson