Thoughts on immigration – “La Marcha”

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.

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6 Responses to Thoughts on immigration – “La Marcha”

  1. laurafern says:

    There are going to be more parts to this… I had to stop last night, even though I was on a roll. Please comment – challenge me, agree, more questions about the situation – I would love it.

  2. jon says:

    I appriciate your thoughts on this. It is helpful to know the complexity of the issue and remember that there are names, faces and families tied to the choices we make as a country.

  3. Jack says:

    You make a lot of good points here Laura, and I agree with a lot of them.
    I especially agree that we shouldn’t penalize illegals already here,
    because we’ve basically invited them in with lax immigrations policies and
    lax employer checks on the status of workers they hire. We’ve closed our
    eyes and turned our backs as millions have walked across our borders to
    work for us, so why should we make them felons? The problem has been
    caused by us, not them. They are doing what a lot of us would do if the
    situation were reversed. In any event, I don’t think the current bill to
    make illegals felons will pass, because it will be political suicide for
    the side that supports it.

    Nevertheless, something must be done about the illegal problem and about
    our porous borders. Here’s what I think should be done:

    1. Seal our borders. Whether we construct a wall or add border patrols or
    whatever, we must get serious about closing our borders and preventing more
    illegals from entering without registering.

    2. Streamline our immigration policy so that people who want to come here
    and work to become citizens can do so without undue delay. ( I assume our
    current policy is a cumbersome, beaurocratic mess now, as most Govt policy
    is)

    3. Streamline a worker permit program so that people who want to come here
    to work, but don’t want to become US citizens, can do so as long as there
    are jobs available for them, and as long as they obey laws, pay taxes, etc.

    4. Then once those things are in place we should encourage/force illegals
    who are already here and working to sign up to either a.) work to become a
    US citizen or b.) procure a worker permit without delay or c.) leave the US
    and return to their homes.

  4. Laura says:

    Hey Dad, we agree on something!

    I totally agree with your comments. I am not sure about the wall, because I think it’s a bad symbol and reminds me of the Great Wall, which is a nice tourist attraction, but as a defense strategy, a colossal failure.

    I do think were there a relatively painless way for people to come here and work, without a mountain of paper and hoops, as well as the possibility for people to become legal residents if they want, that the wall would eventually become unnecessary, but that would take time.

    I feel like the response from so many of the politicians who are viewing this purely as a security issue and grouping all immigration into one BAD, ILLEGAL category are being so narrow-minded about the issue, so black and white, and they are so far removed from poverty, lack of economic opportunity, lack of education, etc, that they cannot even imagine these people who make this illegal move as anything more than criminals.. well, I speed on my way to work every day.. so I guess in that narrow sense, I am a criminal too.. okay.. this is fodder for my next post.. coming right up…

  5. Allan says:

    Good thoughts Laura.
    So many thoughts…The whole issue of the boarder and national security is such a crock of you know what. Seriously, how many Mexicans are members of the Taliban or are know terrorists. Did you know that over the entire 28 year history of the Berlin Wall, 287 people died trying to cross it. In the 10 years since the current U.S. border strategy with Mexico was implemented, more than 2,500 people have died trying to cross it.

    Economically, the whole issue reeks of hypocrisy. Everyone knows that capitalism as a system depends on cheap labor. Every American citizen’s life thrives because of this whether they are aware of it or not. And the fact that America is built on immigrants horrifies me at the lack of sympathy so many Americans have towards this issue.
    I’m here on a work visa that cost me $4000 and believe me it was not easy and there is no way our average brother and sister south of the boarder could afford to be here legally. To be here legally you either need to have a lot of money or a lot of higher education which goes hand in hand. So forget the system, it doesn’t work.

    I’ve already said too much but good for you Laura for brining this up. I’m currently working with a guy in my small group who is undocumented and it’s revealing to me how unjust this whole system is.

  6. Laura says:

    Allan,

    I love hearing your perspective, especially your sympathy for those who have come here as foreigners, like yourself, but not legally. I have this feeling that God doesn’t really care about the borders of nations, of course many laws have good reasons and morals behind them, but does God really care about people’s sins of crossing man-made lines in the sand, literally… I don’t know.. I guess that’s not so relevant to my comments here or the whole debate in general, other than I think there are plenty of Christians in America and I suppose anywhere that put the rule of law of whatever country they are from above what Jesus would do. I don’t think Jesus would put up a wall in order to protect our “cultural identity” and other such ridiculous reasons.. anyway, I’m glad to be part of the conversation..

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