About a year ago, when immigration surfaced as an important political issue and Wisconsin Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner’s hard-line anti-immigrant H.R. 4437 bill passed in the House, Fermin and I discussed our future as criminals. Not only would he have become a felon had it become law, but I would have been subject to laws that attempted to criminalize those who knowingly “aid” or “assist” an undocumented immigrant.
I foolishly believed that given some time and attention to this issue, the public would sympathize with the plight of undocumented immigrants, and, moreover, recognize their contributions to society and welcome those who desired a more permanent status. I did not predict the fixation on the word ‘illegal,” that it would become mainstream to deride and dehumanize people who are simply repeating the journey of our own ancestors, albeit in a changed world, where laws try to keep people out, rather than bringing the tired and weary in.
I also recall Fermin’s sardonic pessimism. He seemed to find the idea of deporting most undocumented workers hilarious, his attitude almost a dare, like go for it, then see how many businesses crumble, how many services break down when the strong backs under the burgeoning service and agriculture industries disintegrate into nothing.
I remember being very annoyed with Fermin’s attitude. I thought he was so wrong about Americans. I thought my views would end up being mainstream on the issue.
The thing is, just a few years before, I was as clueless as any American with regard to undocumented immigration. I didn’t notice that the people who cleaned the classrooms at UW-Madison were from Guatemala or that the brown men who landscaped the perfect lawns of Brookfield’s office parks were not legal residents, or think twice that on a visit to a Japanese steak house on Madison’s west side, the man skillfully wielding the knives was in fact Mexican, not Japanese.
I never noticed, until much later. Now I see the footprints of immigrants all around me. I recall employees who worked for me at Chin’s and Qdoba, some raised the bar for my understanding of hard work, others became dear friends. I notice how the consumer dollar of these immigrants has fortified the economy of the south side of Milwaukee, where yes, there is crime, but also a high concentration of locally owned restaurants and grocers, which draw dollars from all over the metro area. I see their presence in the bumper stickers on cars in Waukesha, West Allis, and West Milwaukee, advertising the city’s first Spanish-language radio station, La Gran-D, which began broadcasting a few years ago.
The sad truth is that Fermin’s attitude reflected on things I wouldn’t have believed, that my pro-immigrant views are not the mainstream, that most Americans want to see all illegal Mexican and other immigrants shown the door, or at the very least, converted into an acceptably assimilated “American.”
Frankly, I underestimated the influence of racist, nativist thinking. I underestimated the degree to which Americans care about the ethnic make-up of this country. I overestimated Americans’ understanding of migration and global economics, never expecting the naive, ridiculous solution of “sealing the border” would become an acceptable substitute for real immigration reform.
And now, despite our personal journey taking an apparently happier turn, it’s hard to feel optimistic about our life in this country. If our future means politics dominated by hawkish national security measures and strict controls that monitor every employee in this country in order to keep “the illegals” out, will we stay? If the deportations increase in frequency with no hope for meaningful reform, will we remain in a partially abandoned city neighborhood? Will my husband, who speaks English with an obvious accent, be frowned upon for the rest of his life? Will people always wonder about him, about us?
Is the U.S. turning into the equivalent of a crotchety old-timer, afraid of change and youth, xenophobic, clinging to a cold-war mentality in a post-modern world? Can we not be diplomats? Moderators? Humanitarians? Peacemakers?
For more interesting commentary on the proposed bill, check out this link, this link , this link and for a laugh, thanks to the Unapologetic Mexican for pointing out this hilarious Daily Show immigration clip. Trust me, if this whole mess is getting you down, you need to watch this and enjoy a few moments of laughter.