Alibi V.15 No.10 • March 9-15, 2006 

Punch Line

Show Me Your Papers

This country was built on the backs of immigrants—most of whom would have been considered illegal by today's standards

In times of growing mainstream xenophobic, anti-immigrant hyperbole, it takes leaders of courage to stand up for the American dream. Sadly, in our community and our country, they are as hard to find as American citizens willing to pick tomatoes.

In my own neighborhood of Barelas, we are struggling with growing numbers of Mexican immigrants. Our parish priest, himself a son of Mexican immigrants, challenges his congregation to reach out and defend recently arrived Mexican neighbors. For some, it is a hard sermon to swallow, even with the sacramental wine.

Still, older Hispanic neighborhoods like mine are where Mexican immigrants often feel most welcome and where many can afford to live. What I see around my streets are proud people who work hard and want to be part of the American dream they have heard so much about. I also see a lot of new pickup trucks with Old English lettering.

The children of these new arrivals fill our schools. They fill our hospitals. Their work fills our bellies. Most notably, they fill the low-wage, low-appreciation jobs that even the average American high school dropout will not take. Janitors. Day laborers. Maids. Now that most Americans, including many local teenagers, won't even work at fast-food restaurants, Mexican and other Latin American immigrants are filling those jobs, too.

There were no immigration lawyers, federal trials or green card applications 200 years ago. Europeans came in droves for a chance at a better life. And because most of them worked hard at manual and often menial jobs, or built their own home or farm, they were accepted. They helped create an America where generations later, anyone could succeed if they were willing to work hard.

Until now. For the first time in American history, we have decided that undocumented Mexican immigrants are serious criminals. As dangerous as drug traffickers. Even if they are here to pick the fresh veggies we all enjoy at Scalo at a Friday night dinner with friends. Even if they came to help frame the affordable houses that line the Albuquerque horizon. Even if they are the only ones who are willing to take the hardest work, for the least pay, with the least rights.

Why are we locking so many up? The so-called War on Terrorism. Never mind that not one of the 9/11 bombers came in through the U.S.-Mexican border. The point is they could have.

Last year, the House of Representatives passed the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act to crack down on this “crisis” caused by undocumented immigrants. Thankfully, all three of our representatives voted against it.

Like much of the current immigration debate, the bill ignores the contributions that immigrant workers have historically made and continue to make to the U.S. economy. The legislation makes felons of all undocumented immigrants, not to mention anyone who helps them, including subversives like nuns, priests and librarians.

As the pro-immigrant American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF) points out, the U.S. economy faces a demographic challenge to its future economic growth. Among the native-born population, fertility rates are falling, workers are growing older and becoming better educated, and labor force participation rates are flattening. However, the economy continues to create a large number of less-skilled jobs that favor younger and less-educated workers.

AILF points out that “a sensible immigration policy would acknowledge this reality by maintaining and regulating the flow of immigrant workers, rather than attempting to impose outdated immigration limits that actually would undermine U.S. economic growth, if they were enforced successfully.” I agree.

Then again, maybe it's time we took a harder line on all immigrants. Maybe we've been too lenient on them. Unless they can trace their roots back to, say, the 15th century, maybe we should politely ask them to leave.

And unless you can trace your DNA to Sitting Bull, you're a mojado. Probably undocumented. And I'm not talking about those who say they are 1/64 Cherokee on their mother's side.

The fact is, this country was built on the backs of immigrants—most of whom would have been considered illegal by today's standards. From the Chinese “undocumenteds” who helped build the great American railroad, to the Irish and Italian “illegal aliens” who built our ports and cities, to the Scandanavian “mojados” who settled the American Midwest.

The words on the Statue of Liberty do not say “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free—but only if you're a desirable documented worker with a high-priced immigration lawyer.”

It takes a special person to immigrate. To leave their home and oftentimes their family behind to try to make a better life. Because of this fearless nature, immigrants tend to succeed. They are adventurers. Entrepreneurs. Maybe that's why America is so entrepreneurial. So fearless.

As we ponder the economic and social costs of immigrants in our own community, I hope we all will have the courage to remember who we are as Americans. We are a nation of immigrants. Mojados. Undocumenteds. Illegals. Entrepreneurs. Adventurers. Americans.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail