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.