Friday, April 14, 2006

illegals, part II

I'm posting this email I got from my brother, Rob, on his experiences working at a restaurant primarily staffed by illegal immigrants:

My time working at the restaurant taught me a few things about illegal workers, and speaking spanish and portuguese I was able to get more of an inside view of things . . . They truly are treated as second class citizens. They pay taxes but never receive a return. They have a hard time getting medical attention, one of my co-workers was saving all his money (and working another job on top of the restaurant, plus buying, fixing up, and selling cars) for an operation to remove gall stones, with no access to any sort of health insurance . . . they work harder than any americans I've ever worked with, and are expected to learn fast, retain a lot of information, and perform consistantly at a high volume.

Since leaving the restaurant I've been working at an office job where our employers give us a lot of training, ample breaks, and generally don't expect us to work that hard. I make much more money than at the restaurant. Many of my co-workers at the restaurant worked 2 full-time jobs, most of them got up around 5 am to begin their first job, then had lunch in the afternoon to come to their next job which they worked until past midnight on the weekends. Usually they'd get one day off per week, rarely this was a Sunday.

Many of the people on my team had come in legally on tourist visas, but had overstayed their time. They were educated professionals back home, and intended to return to their country of origin once they'd saved enough to buy a decent house, which usually was around $20,000 USD. One such did save up enough money after about five years and has since returned home to Brazil. They were argentines, brazilians, colombians, venezuelans, and mexicans. Only few of them actually intended to stay here in the US. They were required to have a substantial amount of money in the bank in order to get their tourist visas in the first place.

Another type of employee at the restaurant were the cooks and table bussers, who were made up primarily of those who'd crossed the border illegally, be it on foot or hidden in the back of a truck. These didn't make as much money as us servers, and many of them had little to no education back home in mexico. They were made fun of by other workers because of their lack of education and poor spanish grammar. for them this was going to be their life, they had no intention of returning home to Mexico.

All of the illegals, regardless of how they'd gotten here, worked extremely hard, as they were expected to . . .

The only other "gringo" on our team was fired by our team leader (an illegal himself on a tourist visa for the past five years), the reason we were given was that he was lazy and didn't push himself enough. This american was a hard worker, but didn't keep up with the pace the team had set. I struggled to work as hard as they did to keep the job long enough to find other employment.

Many of the illegals were treated badly by other illegals. They were ripped off upon first arriving, there are many scams put together by illegals with more time here to rip off those "mojados" (wetbacks) who have just arrived. As my wife and I left a medicaid office a few months ago in a predominantly latino area, we noticed some hispanic men [with] hospital scrubs standing outside the door with clipboards and forms speaking with latinos as they arrived or left the office. They were obviously not affiliated with medicaid, and I can only imagine they were another scam set up to rip off new arrivals . . .

I'm inclined to think that some sort of worker program is the solution.


An employer weighs in at NRO's the Corner about illegal immigrants in Texas:

"I've worked with illegals in the 70' to the 80's and I have a few first hand observations.

"Many are young men here for the money, they do not wish to become American citizens. When there are 10-15 young men living in a 1 bedroom apartment they are here for the work, their families are in Mexico. A big roll of cash buys a lot of freedom in Mexico.

"They are not just illiterate in English, they are in Spanish too.

"When you see groups of these guys waiting for work outside Home Depot here is how it works:

"You're a sub-contractor who wants to hire a 5 man framing crew. You talk to your guy (jefe) who is the go between and he knows who the good framers are. Now, you'll get 1-2 guys who know what to do. The others will consist of his worthless cousin and some one's son to whom he owes a favor. You strike a deal for 10 hours at 5 bucks an hour/man.

"The jefe takes a cut from each of the workers for a dollar an hour so they make four. That's how the 'bite' works in Mexico and it's the basis for the
deep corruption, no reason the think it stops here. Maybe you think construction is unskilled labor and you just take a board off the top of the pile and hammer it up. That's what'll happen if you don't supervise. If you have a house built in this part of the country, you need to go by daily and inspect it you'll see cracked, knotty 2x4s and 4x6s used as main supports for example. These guys don't care and besides they're not here next week anyway. If the building inspector doesn't catch it (another story), oh well. Not to mention the other ways thing can go wrong with a bunch of untrained labor doing plumbing, electrical, etc.

"By the way, if you don't get picked you go do what idle young men always do a long way from home: fight, drink, gamble, whore, thieve and generally get into trouble.

"The way to start a voluntary exodus is have the ICE start going around raiding the day labor sites. You only need to start scattering these guys from the sites disrupting their money flow for a short time and they'll go somewhere else, maybe home."

So corruption is present in an underground market for labor--now there's a shocker. Workers who can't be intimidated and threatened with imprisonment and deportation for trying to do their job generally don't feel the need to pay a cut to their boss. Or, alternatively, how different is this from temping, where you pay half your earnings to a temp agency which basically does nothing?

On the post more generally, I fear that many Americans share the views of the employer--that illegal immigrants are lazy (that must be why they sacrificed everything to come work here for peanuts), dishonest, ignorant, and unruly. Never mind the evidence to the contrary that should be plain to anyone who has their lawn mowed, eats at a restaurant, or buys produce at the grocery store. How many 16 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week for $3 an hour has this employer from Texas worked lately? Probably not too many.

Forget about pointing out that we all [correction: most of us] descended from immigrants at some point, the Cornerite who posted the email above was an illegal immigrant himself at one point. His response to charges of hypocrisy: things are different now that I'm a citizen, and besides, I would never have been so presumptuous as to publicly demonstrate for the right to citizenship. Hard to know how to respond to something like that.

On balance, though, I think enough people in this country agree with the employer above to make this a winning issue for the Republicans in the short-term. The more attention the issue gets leading up to November, the more that gains the Democrats would have otherwise reaped will be wiped out. Democrats are newly hopeful that the unexpectedly fervent immigration rallies show the tide is finally turning in their favor on this issue, not realizing that the rallies are only setting the stage for a massive backlash. The only hope, if one can call it that, is that (1) voters will be confused enough about the actual positions of politicians on the issue to not vote overwhelmingly for either party (i.e. Bush supports a guest worker program and higher visa levels, many Democrats are taking the populist line on this--Kaus has a lot on this but he annoyingly doesn't provide links to individual posts) and (2) voters will think Democrats, as the more competent, non-corrupt party at the moment, will better address their concerns on immigration. The problem with (1) is that, under pressure, positions are likely to solidify and become publicized before November. The problem with (2) is that people will realize as we get closer to November that Democratic leaders are unlikely to address concerns about illegal immigration that they do not share with most of the country. My gut tells me Republicans are against illegal immigration more than Democrats, and I suspect lots of voters will feel the same way.

In the long term, of course, the Republicans run a serious risk of alienating Latinos permanently (see on this the Southern strategy, which won Republicans the South but decimated black support for the party, and Proposition 187, which did much the same thing in California with regard to Latinos) and ensuring for themselves minority party status for the next 30 years.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Kirn/Sullivan convergence

I was pleased to find out today that Walter Kirn is guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan (although I'm kind of sad that I'll be deprived for awhile of some of my daily dose of righteous indignation).

Kirn is attempting some sort of serial internet writing experiment on Slate called The Unbinding. I'll add it to the list of things I mean to read but never do.

To digress, I inescapably find myself wondering what Kirn's political inclinations are. It's been pointed out to me that my fixation with where people fall on the political spectrum is annoying and obsessive. But I can't seem to help it. I find that political orientation serves as a useful shorthand for discerning whether I can trust someone on a certain level. That I succumb to this tendency worries me--it goes against everything I believe about not pre-judging people or ideas. But it is nearly impossible to avoid. Just as I was brought up to divide people into two categories: Member (of the LDS Church) and Non-Member, now the important categories are Reasonable and Conservative. My definitions of those groups are highly personal and probably make sense to few others (e.g., to me, Sullivan is Reasonable 60% of the time and Conservative the other 40%).

I think almost everyone makes these pre-judgments on some level. Sorting out "people I can trust" from "people who have to earn my trust" is a universally human aspect of group dynamics. Politics is the relevant calculus for me, having replaced my previous Faith. Or maybe for me, like for so many, politics and Faith are one and the same, and I've now just moved over a bit towards the "Godless commie" end of the spectrum.

I've found that the spectrum is highly contextual and breaks down and reforms itself in unfamiliar ways when you leave your homeland. I find myself accused of exactly what I accused my mother of back in college when I became an adherent of Clinton's mystical Third Way. I couldn't understand why she tied herself down to the outdated duality of Left and Right, which had so clearly (to me then) failed to produce solutions to the intractible problems of poverty, war, and injustice. Now I feel less certain than ever that I've found a politics/Faith which will provide the solutions, and even more trapped in the old combative, counterproductive duality. I still feel that if we were somehow able to redirect our energies away from endless bickering, which seems sharper with each passing month, we'd be much better positioned to solve the eternal problems. But, discouragingly, I feel most passionately about, and I'm least willing to compromise on, the issues on which there is the least agreement: gay marriage and the war in Iraq.

I wonder sometimes whether simply triangulating and navigating the rocky middle is the right answer, but the Clintons and Blairs, the Sullivans and Brooks of the world often invite the most scorn of all, since they are perceived as enemies by one side and as traitors by their own. And being conciliatory does little good if you are objectively wrong. But I guess in searching for a principle to provide some comfort in uncertain times, the best one I've found is that of not judging people to have Stars Upon Thars. Much easier said than done, and I'll probably recant next week as I thunderingly condemn Bush's latest transgression.