Thoughts on immigration – “Legality”

March 30, 2006

I didn’t expect to see the day, at least not so soon, that immigration would fall dead center in the national spotlight. I suppose hundreds of thousands of people marching in what police across the country are simultaneously calling “the largest demonstration I have seen in this town in my whole career” will have that effect.I guess it was inevitable, but when I became aware of the depth and pervasiveness of the issue through my job a few years ago, I was shocked.
The Congress is taking on immigration reform, and the last few days I felt a bit of hope for my Mexican brothers and sisters. As you read in my last post, I am very close to this issue on several levels. My job basically requires, in an unspoken way, that I hire immigrants. But less people know that I married an “illegal alien,” who is currently somewhat less illegal because he is in the process of becoming legal by nature of marriage, to me.

Sunday I watched a few minutes of a weekly local talk show showcasing a neutral host flanked by an array of arguing commentators from the left and right. As I flipped, I caught their brief immigration conversation, where the speakers tossed about their catchphrases and cliches on “aliens” and “legality.” The comment that sticks in my head went something like this, in response to the Milwaukee march last Thursday and others around the country this weekend: “Illegal aliens have no right to go marching in the streets telling our government what to do about their status.” This comment really stuck with me because on one hand, people that aren’t citizens of the United States may not have that right, and if someone were to frame the question around a different issue, I might agree. However, the comment still irritated me. The discussion of whether racism or the end of the American middle class were at the heart of this issue went on, but I was thinking about this concept of legality.

A lot of the politicians, commentators and, I would guess, regular people on the street cannot get over the fact that an illegal act marked the start of the great majority of these immigrants’ life here. They paid someone, then crossed the river in Texas or the desert in Arizona, undocumented, hiding, running, fearing the turn of the cameras on the border and the eyes of border patrol. It is, indeed, a crime, although it is almost never prosecuted, punished or even considered. And when crimes aren’t prosecuted, people don’t obey the corresponding laws. I mean, there are plenty of people who don’t wear seat belts, although that’s technically illegal, but the chances of getting a ticket for that are slim to none. Speeders, myself included, know that the likelihood of getting a ticket as long as you are careful and stay less than 10-15 miles over the speed limit is unlikely at best. So if the government is letting people over the border, businesses are allowed to hire undocumented workers as they please, and there is almost no chance of being picked up for the fact of being undocumented, what kind of message are we sending? I am not on the enforcement side of this debate, namely because we are at fault here, and if many of us could place ourselves in the shoes of a Mexican, we would probably take the opportunity and do the same thing – we would do what we know will benefit our families and communities.

So I started to think about the likelihood of myself, being who I am, deciding to illegally sneak into another country, without a visa, because I had something really life-changing and necessary to do there. The thing is, I would never do that. Why would I never do that? Is it because I am a law-abiding person? Perhaps to some degree. Like most people, I speed, and if Sensenbrenner’s bill passes, I will become a criminal by means of aiding undocumented immigrants in various ways. But more importantly, I wouldn’t cross a border illegally because I am an American. Americans don’t need to sneak anywhere. Not only are we are already in one of the best places in the world on many levels – economically, socially, culturally, but we are incredibly rich and powerful. Most Americans are able to get a visa to almost every country in the world with little effort, welcomed by many people because our tourist dollars feed economies. If I wanted, I could take my Hyundai Elantra and drive all the way to the border of Mexico and go across. I might need a passport, but not even a visa.

If a Mexican wants to come to the U.S., even just for a two-week vacation, they have to prove that they have a bank account, $1,000 US in that bank account for a year (a lot more in Mexico than it sounds like here) as well as proof of property ownership in Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students apply to come to the U.S. every year to take places at universities that are offereing them full scholarships. Only a fraction get to come, the ones that we let in, because there are quotas and restrictions that other countries simply do not apply. My South-African blog friend Allan just informed that it cost him $4000 to get a visa to come here. The cost is too great, yet we are demanding more and more low-wage workers every day. If there weren’t jobs, let me tell you, these people would not be here.

So with all that in mind, I sometimes feel sick about being an American. I was thinking about why I am not patriotic, why I am happy to live in this country, but sometimes feel that our values are all out of whack. Why have I frequently felt ashamed about being in American when traveling in other countries? I think I have part of my answer. The pride that so many of us have as Americans is blinding us. We can’t fathom how a person can make an illegal choice that will give them an opportunity they will never have in their own country. We can’t imagine it because we would never have to make that choice, because we are Americans, because we are privileged, lucky perhaps, special. Although there are inequalities in our society based on race, class and wealth, I believe almost anyone here has opportunities to be successful on some level. If you work hard, study hard, make good choices, there is potential for great success.

Mexico, to use the obvious example, is a different story. Brilliant students with no economic means are unable to go to college. An average person with a high school diploma will be lucky to find a job that pays more than $100 per week, and that’s working 70-80 hours per week doing hard manual labor. As Americans, we complain about situations and conditions that seem luxurious to other people. My mom recently told me a 28-year-old woman in her office made a comment that she “wouldn’t get out of bed for more than $50,000 per year”– a fortune to more than half the world. We are blinded by our own wealth, success, pride and way of life. Many countries around the world see our media, they have our television shows dubbed into their own languages, they watch our movies, drink our Coke and increasingly consume our junk food. We, on the other hand, see very little of anything that isn’t American, or designed for Americans. Few Americans watch foreign movies, even less see foreign television, and most of what we eat is either ours or a hybrid made to American tastes.

So I guess I wish we could all have a little more perspective. It seems these marches and discussions are affecting the way people view this issue, for the better. I hope that more people will research this issue, take time to understand it, not just write a whole population of people off because they broke a law.


Thoughts on immigration – “La Marcha”

March 24, 2006

When I walked into work today I was greeted by my cook, a hard-working, 18-year old Mexican immigrant, who joked that he was leaving (right before lunchtime) to go to “la Marcha.” I laughed, although wishing I could also head back east, where somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people were marching out one end of my neighborhood two miles to a park in downtown Milwaukee. The event was part of “A Day Without a Latino,” a protest against recent immigration legislation that will potentially felonize those in the U.S. illegally as well as restrict emergency health care and other services to those who cannot prove to be legal U.S. residents. There are many reasons I wanted to be at la Marcha today. Several are related to a solidarity I feel as someone married into a Mexican family. But there are others, and right or wrong, I feel disgraced at where the government seems to be moving with regard to immigration.

When I was 15, my dad basically told me I was to get a job. I wasn’t unwilling, mostly because I wanted spending money and it was clear I was going to have to earn it on my own. It was a good lesson, and I plan to teach my children the same one when they get to working age also. I applied at McDonalds and was hired on the spot. I worked there the rest of my high school career and one summer during college. I credit my strong work ethic to that experience. I learned to be clean and neat (prelude to good organization), to work quickly (future efficiency and multi-tasking skills), how to provide good customer service (important in almost any industry) and most of all, I learned to work with people I had never been exposed to before. In addition to some misfit teenagers from other high schools, I interacted with alcoholics who couldn’t get their lives together, a clique of elderly retirees who laid claim to the early morning shift, single parents who needed the extra money to get by, as well as a racially diverse mix of people I had scarcely been exposed to in extra-white Brookfield. One person I remember quite well was Miguel, who the manager told me only spent half the year in Wisconsin, the other half being spent at home in Mexico. This was 1994, and as a teen I don’t remember interacting with any other Hispanic people; in fact, I barely even saw any.

Based on what I know now, Miguel was probably a trailblazer for others in his family. He probably has retired from making trips to the U.S., but I would bet everything I own that he has relatives in Milwaukee today. They probably work at McDonalds, running the grill, or at Noodles & Company or P.F. Chang’s or the Omega Greek restaurant chain. They could also be day laborers, doing janitorial, assembly or foundry work on a permanent or day-to-day basis. All I know is that the days of a McDonalds employing perhaps one hard-working Miguel, the Hispanic population, particularly those from Mexico, has exploded in Milwaukee.

Today I manage one location of a “fresh-Mex” restaurant chain that has about 200 stores in the U.S. Between us and the direct competitors I would guess there are around 1000 similar restaurants in the country. My franchise owns the rights to Wisconsin and operates about 20 stores. Every one of those stores has at least one cook from Mexico. I would estimate that the average number of Mexican immigrants working in one of our franchise stores is four.

Some stores are lucky to employ a few Mexicans who speak enough English to work in the front. Those managers are lucky. I know I am being stereotypical, disloyal to my countrymen and perhaps unfair, but in my experience, Mexicans are much harder workers than the average American applying for a similar job. Truth be told, what American wants a full-time job in a restaurant that will never be able to pay them more than $8 per hour? If you know me, you know I am not an exploitative person. I pay my cooks as much as I am able, and they work hard for me. Because I am constantly experimenting with my funny Spanish, they find me amusing, and because I always help them out when they need it, they show up every day, and do a damn good job. I truly wish I could pay them more, but I’m really just a tool for a corporation, and I am not able to do so.

Their job is difficult, I know I would be exhausted if I did it every day, but I also know, deep down, that it would take a very rare American worker for me to train into this position. I will hire almost any Mexican that one of my current cooks refers to me, but I am extremely skeptical of most of the Americans that come in to apply for similar positions. The first thing I see is that they were making $10 per hour at their last job as a dishwasher, or something like that. I know from four years of interviewing, experience and conversations that if I ask an American to produce the kind of speed, accuracy and quality that I know I can train in almost any moderately intelligent, well-meaning Mexican, the American will most likely whine, complain, ask for a raise, and perhaps just quit.

I realize how politically correct I am not as a write this, but this is the real truth for myself and hundreds and thousands of other fast-food, fast-casual and even full-service restaurant managers today. We rarely actually talk about this, but there simply is nothing better than finding someone who is in this country for no other reason than to work hard. I realize how that sounds–how sad for poor Juan or Jose who are separated from their family, working the cold, harsh Wisconsin winter, toiling for a mere $8 per hour. But the thing is, in Mexico, Juan, Jose, their wives Josefina and Guadalupe, as well as their oldest children Rafael and Rodrigo would all be working simultaneously just to achieve that $8 per hour. In Mexico, the jobs available to the vast majority of people without wealth and privilege are menial, back-breaking, 12 hours per day, 6-7 days per week, and pay dirt. So while many Mexicans here are living in poverty to our standards, they are able to live a much better lifestyle here and send money back to their families.

So here’s the question, is there a right and wrong here? I don’t know. Is it okay that millions of people are illegally crossing the border to take the millions of jobs that employers like and unlike myself are eager to hire them for? Am I a horrible, unpatriotic person because I’m not willing to take a chance on Bill the 40-year-old burglar currently living in the nearby Huber facility over Carlos, who recently showed up at my door with a smile, a referral, and a suspect Social Security Card? Should I shun illegal immigrants who are trying to support their families for Americans who are equally trying to support their families? My head spins when I think about all this, but here’s another scary thought…
Imagine the nearest commercial center in the nearest mid-sized to large town. In Milwaukee, for many of you, that might be something like Bluemound Road. Imagine if all the Mexicans had actually gone to the March today. No Qdoba, no McDonalds, no Chin’s Asia Fresh, no Chili’s, no Noodles & Company, no Chipotle.. and those are just the restaurants, and those are just the ones that I know hire undocumented immigrants to run part of their restaurants. If you want to think on a bigger scale, what about the farming industry? Who do you think first handles your oranges? Who cleans your office building? Who makes the bed in your hotels?

If the bill in Congress currently passes making undocumented people felons, what will happen to industry demands for workers? Are businesses going to start paying Americans more to do these jobs, if they can even find Americans who are willing to do them? With our increasingly educated workforce, and the estimated millions of undocumented workers currently in the U.S., do we really believe that these jobs will be easily filled by Americans? Should they be? I don’t have answers, but I am surrounded by these issues and questions every day. And I believe, at the very least, we owe it to ourselves, our Mexican neighbors, our economy, and our history as a refuge for the tired and weary to open up a real discussion of the tough questions. Treating immigration purely as a security issue is a sham. We all want national security, but punishing people for coming here to meet a labor demand that is clearly an enormous one on all levels is abusive and despicable on our part. An real debate where people ask questions and learn is what is necessary. Too bad it looks like criminalization and marginalization is all we will get from our current lawmakers.


March 23, 2006

Greetings from the same-old me at WordPress. I hope you will enjoy the new look of my new site – its much easier to use and updates immediately, which is a huge bonus for me when actually posting and making updates. There are also categories, although only a few of my old blogger posts are currently categorized, but over time I will update that too. WordPress also allows theme (design) changes without having to overhaul your whole template, which is nice. Anyway, thanks for visiting.. please update me in your links list if applicable.

a joe moment

March 21, 2006

A freak thing happened in my restaurant starting about two months ago. This man came in on my assistant manager Joe’s shift. He ordered food, and Joe, being who he is, provided exceptional customer service, above and beyond what this particular individual expected of his fast-casual experience. The man sits down to eat, but before he leaves, he slips Joe a piece of paper, with his name, title and phone number. He tells Joe something about the company where he is a VP and states that they are looking for good people to train for management positions.

Joe and I are friends, we worked together at the store we were both at previously, and he had recently been transferred to be my assistant manager. He was not looking for another job, but was disappointed with his current pay. So after the customer talks to Joe briefly about his company, Joe is pretty skeptical. I mean really, who does that? Nevertheless, there is no harm in calling, talking to the guy, seeing what this is all about. So he calls, sets up a time to talk to this customer/company VP, and discovers that the guy is legit. He is really a vice president for a high-end equipment support and maintenance company that is currently led by a select group of near-retirees. The customer/VP is looking for energetic, young leaders with great people skills. Joe has a degree in education and a few years experience in day care and restaurant management. No business experience in sight. Nevertheless, they love him, and after several weeks of interviews and meetings, they hire him to do sales and marketing with the intent to train him into a future VP.

This is a true story, and when Joe gave his two weeks notice last month and told me this story, I was disappointed, but so happy for him. Joe is a great guy, something great happened to him, and he deserved it. He got lucky because he happened to make this guy’s burrito. I hope in ten years he will tell his kids this crazy story about how he got started a company he’s then helping run. I have to say though, that I was also uite a bit jealous. I had been the one wanting to leave my job, and had been starting to look around a bit, and then found out Joe was leaving. I wondered why some people got so lucky in life and why it wasn’t me. I felt a bit sorry for myself here and there, wondering why no one ever offered me a job after I rolled their burritos. I’m pretty much over it now, but I talked to Joe the other day and he said that he’s excited to go to work in the morning, and when he leaves, he thinks, “wow, that was a great day.” No late-night phone calls, no wierd hours, no food prep, no cleaning. Sounds amazing.

I have spent my last few years as a restaurant manager, and though there are many things I love about it, I don’t feel like it’s possible to sustain the energy level needed with the amount of stress that it puts on all areas of one’s life. I’m starting to understand why some of the people I see in the restaurant industry seem bitter and burned out and hating their jobs. Maybe they started out really intent on doing something good and meaningful for their employees and customer. I don’t want to be 30 and feeling stuck in my career and totally burned out. And that’s really where I am heading. So U-turn, interviews coming my way, I hope something works out soon. I wanted to tell the Joe story because I think it’s pretty amazing, and speaks to the idea that there still are people taking chances on people for reasons other than their resumes. And for a neat little conclusion….

Friday a late-20s prefessional woman came into the restaurant. It was not busy and I noticed she went straight to pick up a catering menu. I went to see if she had questions and explained our options, showed her the correct store phone number and chatted with her for a minute. She introduced herself, asked for my name, and thanked me for the information. A little while later, there was a phone call for me, and it was Crystal on the phone, explaining that she was the person who had just been in to inquire about catering. I said of course I remembered her and she thanked me again for being so friendly and helpful when she had stopped in. She said I had gone out of my way to help her and the reason she had thought about it was that her company was going through an aggressive expansion and seeking “sharp” people to join them. I actually almost laughed, but instead responded that was was defintely “keeping my options” open and interested in speaking with her about a job. I actually don’t think it’s going to be something I am seriously interested in, but how could I pass up reacting to my own Joe moment?

one step closer… to a new job?

March 16, 2006

Some of you have expressed some interest in my job search – probably in order to avoid more ranting posts about the restaurant industry. Believe me, I understand; I’m way tired of talking about it. Anyway, my interview the other day went great. I got to meet with the customer service supervisor, as well as the other women who have the same position I am applying for, as well as some other people at the company. They were all great. I still don’t want to go into lots of details in case I don’t get it and then feel dumb and more disappointed that I blogged in detail about it… but, I did get a call back today, and next Wednesday I am going to meet with one of the owners who deals with their international business side (where I would be working). Very exciting. For now, I’m sitting down with some lava cake (first time, so delicious!!!) from my husband’s restaurant, a glass of riesling (not my first time) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (the movie, first time). Thanks for all your good thoughts this week.

nuggets of confusion

March 14, 2006

I want to first direct you all to Matt’s most recent post. Done reading? A few years ago, Matt, his wife Sara, as well as fellow blog-friends Mary, Jon, Cory and others were all students in Madison. At some point in all of our college careers, we were part of a large evangelical campus Christian group. This group’s main goal was to evangelize (convert) people on campus, and then disciple (train) them to become good Christians. I credit this group with a lot of stuff in my life. It helped me grow. It tore me down. It built me up. It produced severe doubts about my faith.

Here’s what I am really trying to express in this post — contradiction, confusion, a sense of no longer knowing what is right and wrong. A few years ago I was a person who fiercely defended what I believed to be right. I hope I was never a mean person, but I used to debate my newspaper friends about their lifestyles, beliefs, approaches to faith, etc. I would say things like, “God loves you infinitely and perfectly, but He doesn’t love that you underage drink.” And today, in March of 2006, I believe little of what I did back then to be important. I still believe in God, but probably not in the Bible the way many Christians do, as an inerrant document from which you can pick and choose phrases as they suit your arguments.

My relationship to faith and religion in the past few years is love-hate, black and white, completely gray and confusing as hell. I grew up in a world where discussing issues of the soul, faith, politics, inner issues wasn’t exactly the norm. I went to college and things changed a lot. Perhaps the world changed, people changed, but I can’t view things as black and white as before. I used to be so sure, perhaps because I was taught in church that it was very important to be sure about things of faith. Occasionally someone would speak in a positive light about “doubting” Thomas, but usually it seemed we were supposed to be take the Bible at what it said, love God, and do what was right. Perhaps I thought that if I had doubts that I would be that wierd person who didn’t fit in in church and therefore didn’t make friends with the cool church people.

What I have noticed lately is that a lot of people seem to be having a struggle related to Matt’s. So many people take issues with bits and pieces or big chunks of what they were taught as a child, yet still want an experience like church in their life. We want community, we want discussion, we want companionship, perhaps worship. But if the church is not a place where like-minded people with similar if not nearly identical beliefs gather, then what is it? Is it possible for the church to gather in all these stragglers, who can’t say they believe that the Bible is word-for-word true, or that all Hindus and Muslims are going to hell, but still want to be in that place? I understand completely that I could go to church. I am never going to be a “seeker” as we call people checking out the faith, and always somewhat of a cynic, but then I think, why go? If all I am going to do is judge everything that seems fundamentalist, why should I show up just to be disappointed? Then I think, maybe if I were to find a church with a lot of people like me, but that doesn’t exist, so I need to stop looking.

I grew up in a mega-church where there are a lot of amazing people and a lot of good things happening. I believe their priorities are generally in the right spot. There are many well-meaning, intelligent people there. However, I don’t really believe the same doctrine as their statement of faith. I crave authenticity and am not sure I want to involve myself in a place where I cannot express my real doubts about our society, the world, the church, the Bible without having people ridicule and disregard me. The ironic reason that I believe this will happen is because I know back a few years when I was quite zealous and caught up in “being a Christian,” that’s what I would have done with myself. I would have met me, figured out I had some issues with Christianity, and probably considered me someone not to be involved with. I know how judgemental I was (am?). I know that it’s hypocritical to say what I am saying, but I don’t know how the church works filled with people who believe their way is God’s way (the right way) and mix in a few people like me. If a church has a statement of faith and doctrines and things that they hold to that hold it together, how do you dissent from that and remain part of it?

a light?

March 12, 2006

I keep using my blog to complain about work, and even I am getting really tired of hearing myself complain about it. I am sick of sending resumes, re-writing objective statements and customizing my cover letter for the umpteenth time. I’ve almost given up. I think I am a qualified person with many good skills, but I think most employers just want to find someone with the same exact experience they are looking to plug said employee in, and therefore aren’t looking for career-changers like myself. I do have a fairly promising interview Wednesday that I am pretty excited about, but no details lest I jinx it. Okay, I don’t believe in “jinxing” at all, but I still think it’s not helpful for me to think about the ramifications of actually getting a different job right now.

I have thought extensively about the general situation of leaving my current job, and that’s unfortunate for a few reasons but great for others. I would really be leaving my immediate supervisor in a jam, and I respect her and like her immensely. We have a lot in common and would be very good friends if we met in other circumstances. I would also be sad to leave a lot of my staff in my store, but there’s lots of turnover in restaurants, and few of my employees likely feel as loyal to me as I feel to them, so that can’t be a concern. All I know is, I am burned out, and days off and the odd three-day weekend are not helping, so its time to go. I really want out of the food industry, because I think I would be good at many other things, but I’ve got to convince someone of that. Think positive thoughts for me on Wednesday morning.