Monday, May 01, 2006

On a day without immigrants

Okay, so today was officially a Day Without Immigrants, a day in which immigrants of all kinds, but particularly Hispanic/Latino immigrants, skipped work and, in many cases, marched to show the impact of immigrant labor on the US. Estimates put somewhere around 500,000 people rallying in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, plus smaller rallies in smaller towns all over the country.

Mike Collins, owner of 500 acres of Vidalia onions, found himself without 175 "seasonal laborers" today:
“We need to be going wide open this time of year to get these onions out of the field,” he said. “We’ve got orders to fill. Losing a day in this part of the season causes a tremendous amount of problems.”

The pinch was also felt at food processing plants, nurseries (for plants and for babies), construction sites, and just about anywhere else immigrant labor is used. That is, for the record, just about everywhere. A counter-protester in Pensacola had this solution:
“You should send all of the 13 million aliens home, then you take all of the welfare recipients who are taking a free check and make them do those jobs,” said Jack Culberson, a retired Army colonel who attended the Pensacola rally. “It’s as simple as that.”

Which sounds like a brilliant idea, particularly this part:

Culberson: "take all of the welfare recipients who are taking a free check and make them do those jobs."

I have plenty of sympathy for anyone who's looking for a job and can't find one. I've been slogging through a rather depressed job market for a couple of years now, but I've got a college degree; a friend who is still working on her associate's degree has been looking for work on that end of the job market, and her struggle is even more emblematic of what many people are going through right now.

This friend, and I hope she won't mind me sharing just a bit of her story, was working toward her nursing degree when she had to put the entire process on hold to follow her brand-new husband to the other side of the country for Navy flight training. When he decided he didn't want to be an NFO after all, she followed him back across the country, and when he decided he didn't want to be married to her anymore, she found herself without a job (which she had given up when they moved), without a degree (which she had planned to complete as soon as The Bastard got his wings), and without the money to pay for health insurance, tuition, or rent.

Right now, she's living with her family, taking one or two classes at a time as she can afford them and trying to find a job that will allow her to be independent. The problem? Such jobs don't exist. A job seeker without a college degree can be a line cook, a construction worker, a mechanic at an oil change, a maid at a hotel. If an individual has a good command of the English language (and often even if they don't), telemarketing and customer service may be available. Some restaurants will take on wait staff without experience.

If these are the jobs that are available, why don't people on welfare take them? For the same reason that my friend is looking for something more: because a person can't live off of them. A minimum-wage job, paying $5.15 an hour, comes out to only $10,712 a year; some jobs make slightly more, and many food service jobs pay less. Supporting a family takes two or three of those jobs. Two or three of those jobs leave little to no time - or money - for education. No time or money for education means that a person is pretty much stuck where he or she is.

I suspect that Mike Collins isn't paying his "seasonal laborers" any kind of wage that my friend, or a welfare recipient, would accept for a full day of work. But a laborer who was used to even less money, not to mention worse living conditions, education, and healthcare back in his country of origin, would be more likely to take what he could get. If Mike Collins is allowed to pay sub-minimum wages to get his onions harvested, who is at fault: the laborers who accept what is offered, or Mike himself for using workers who are most likely undocumented rather than paying a living wage for a day's worth of labor?

The Day Without Immigrants underlined more than just the importance of an immigrant workforce to American society; it demonstrated just how many employers are willing to break the law by hiring undocumented workers and paying them next to nothing. An American that wishes to be illegal-immigrant-free has to also be willing to pay out the nose for their Vidalia onions. Immigrants will continue to, as one day laborer put it, "cross the border and cross a desert" for work as long as that work continues to be available. The crackdown on illegal immigration starts not with border security or deportation but with Mike Collins and anyone else who hires undocumented laborers.

Another important point to remember is that not all of the immigrants protesting today are undocumented; many documented immigrants took the day off to show solidarity. The proposed "compromise legislation" that passed in the Senate would have aided in legalizing many of the illegal immigrants by making them pay fines and back taxes, then guiding them through the entire immigration process. Many who object to the legislation call it amnesty, implying that a crime would go unpunished, which ignores the fact that the illegal (hoping to become legal) immigrants would be forced to pay a fine before going through the process legally. Anyone who objects to a worker accepting punishment for his crime and paying restitution before seeking citizenship through legal channels has something more than law and order on his mind. One could wonder what Jack Culberson would think of thirteen million hard-working documented immigrants taking jobs from welfare recipients, and whether he would feel any differently if said immigrants were slightly less tan.

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