Saturday, May 27, 2006


Beneath the Spin * Eric L. Wattree


The Hispanic community may have done itself a gross disservice last week. The huge demonstrations that turned out against proposed immigration reform in the U.S. Congress might well have done more to bolster alarmist arguments against Hispanic immigration than any words the alarmists could have possibly come up with on their own.    

That old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words never rang more true than during this past week. Prior to last week’s demonstrations alarmist constantly bombarded the American people with facts and figures in a desperate attempt to portray just how serious the problem of undocumented workers coming into this country each year had become. But they had a problem—the facts and figures were abstract. While the American people heard the facts and figures, they simply could not visualize what those facts and figures represented. But the mass display of humanity that flooded the streets and cities across this country last week brought the message home loud and clear--We have a serious problem.

I can only imagine how the alarmists and racists in this country are going to use those images to instill fear in the average American. When I turned on the television and saw the half million people protesting in the street on such short notice it even scared me, a progressive who tends to be sympathetic to the cause of the underdog.  Those images brought an important message home to me—we’ve had our heads in the sand for far too long.  This is an issue that must be addressed immediately, and in a firm and aggressive manner.

Last week’s images have shocked America into drawing lines in the sand—but lines that are convoluted and with the strangest of bedfellows on both sides. Unfortunately, I don’t think that bodes well for the undocumented worker. In spite of the seriousness of this matter, this entire controversy is rapidly degenerating into an exercise in what America does best—catering to self-interest.

On the one hand you have the advocates of undocumented workers who argue that these are people who only take jobs that other Americans don’t want.  They contend that they’re a people who have been exploited by American business for years, and have contributed greatly to the United States economy for very little or no reward.  They also argue that to criminalize illegal status would turn hard working and productive people into felons, and to require that they return to their country of origin would disrupt families and be unjust to their children, who, in many cases, are American citizens. The proponents of this position are Hispanic politicians who are both, responding to their constituency, and, the potential political advantage of gaining 9 million new Hispanic voters. Their partner in this position are conservative business interests who want to exploit the opportunity for cheap labor.

On the other side you have those who contend that during this time when America is under the threat of terrorism we must have control over our borders. They also take the position that the large number of undocumented workers are taking jobs from American citizens, and that they’re also placing a tremendous strain on our education, healthcare, and welfare systems. Lined up on this side are progressives who are concerned with the impact that the large number of undocumented workers are having on unions and the earning power of the average American, but standing along side them are the racists and xenophobes who are just hostile to Hispanic immigration period—and therein lies the problem for many progressives.

Nevertheless, and while I sincerely regret finding myself in the same camp with racists and xenophobes, I have to recognize that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Thus, when I weigh the relative merit of the two arguments it seems that the latter holds more weight. Every country must protect its borders—if it doesn’t, the word “country” is meaningless. And while it is true that the undocumented worker has been exploited, they placed themselves in that position when they decided to immigrate here illegally.  If they’d turn out in their own countries in the numbers that they did here in the United States they just might have been able to gain concessions in their countries of origin. 

And the argument that they only take jobs that Americans don’t want is completely
fallacious.  Undocumented workers do much more than just pick grapes—they work as truck drivers, upholsterers, meat packers, chefs, bakers, printers, and many other relatively high paying jobs that Americans would love to have. And finally, all one has to do is go to any county agency, public school, or emergency room in Los Angeles to see the negative impact and strain that undocumented workers are placing on those systems—many teachers are being threatened with the loss of their jobs if they fail to become bilingual in a given period of time, and the phone systems of many government agencies will tell a caller to, “Press 1 if you want to speak in English.” Come on, now—this is the United States!  Why should I have to press 1 to speak the native language?

So how should we handle this problem?  First, we should find out who is here and where they work by issuing work permits, and the worker should have to return to his country of origin to obtain one.  This permit would also serve as an identification card that would allow him to register his children in school and obtain other public services.  In addition, any person involved in forging, or found to be in possession of a forged card would be charged with a felony. And finally, any business that hires a worker without a card should be fined $20,000 per violation.  I think that would be a pretty good start.

Finally, I want to point out that I was born in Los Angeles and grew up with Hispanic people, so I not only have a great love, but a tremendous respect for them--In fact, I’d like to see many of their cultural attributes reflected in my own people.  Because of that fact, it was important to me that I ask myself a simple question before I wrote this article: Would I take the same position if we were talking about African or Haitian immigrants?  The answer-- absolutely.  The reason for that is, I’ve come to the conclusion that while compassion for others is one of man’s highest virtues, cutting one’s own throat in pursuit of that virtue is simply foolish.

Eric L. Wattree, Sr.

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