Undocumented Quandary

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Eric HermanI was recently on a jobsite where a lovely swimming pool and surrounding landscape were being installed for an upper middle class home; and was it ever the energetic scene, to say the least. There were plumbing and steel subcontractors preparing the pool for shotcrete, masons working on a retaining wall, electricians laying conduit for lighting and a host of laborers performing a variety of other tasks. 

My first impression was that it was great to see so many people gainfully employed creating what will probably be a terrific backyard oasis. After all, our industry needs all the quality projects we can get. I also noticed, as I have on many such occasions, the language most of the men were speaking was predominately Spanish. 

At some point in our discussion, the foremen let it slip in an unsolicited comment that a large number of laborers on site were undocumented – far from the first time I’ve heard such an admission, one that sometimes comes with a wink and a nudge. 

It’s no surprise to anyone because whether we like it or not, much of our manual labor in this country is performed by those who entered the country illegally. On my way home, I kept thinking about the countless number of so-called “illegal aliens” I’ve encountered over the years, including a group of brothers that once worked on my family’s avocado grove back in the 1980s, men who became close friends of ours. Despite my parents’ misgivings about illegal immigration as a social issue, they appreciated the work ethic displayed by Juan, Julio and Ignacio and were happy to pay them a fair wage for a hard day’s work. 

For many decades, undocumented workers have been part of the American landscape; it’s ironic that, over these years, many of those who have hired them have also been people who ideologically strongly opposed illegal immigration. 

In fact, the vast majority of people I know will say something to the effect that in a society based on the rule of law, people should be required to enter the country legally; and I happen to completely agree with that. Yet, the practice in our world does not follow the rhetoric. On one hand we’ve come to accept a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy when it comes to the workaday world but on the other the calls for bold action to stem the tide of illegal immigration at times becomes passionate, if not incendiary. 

When I listen to our politicians, such as President Obama and those vying for the Republican presidential nomination, we hear what sounds like some fairly obvious solutions – secure the border, punish employers who hire undocumented workers, and expedite expulsion of illegal immigrants who are convicted of crimes. Those ideas all seem to make sense, but for some reason have remained beyond our reach. 

I personally prefer the concept of a worker furlough program where workers can enter the country, legally and temporarily, to work and presumably pay taxes. Former President George W. Bush proposed such a program but was excoriated by members of his own party for being “soft” on illegal immigration. I wasn’t a huge fan of the former president, but his idea did make sense to me at the time, and still does. 

Closer to home, I’m left to wonder how, as an industry that relies on the backbreaking labor of undocumented workers, we can square the current state of affairs with the belief that immigrants should be here legally? 

Should we round up all 13 million of them, or whatever the actual number is, and give them a ride back home? Should we embrace a work furlough program? Is an amnesty program similar to the one Ronald Reagan supported in the 80s a viable solution? Is this a problem for the Federal government or one that should be left to the border states? Should we require all people in this country to carry proof of citizenship? Or should that proof only be required of people we might suspect of being here illegally?

And what about the families of illegal immigrants? Should their children be allowed to attend school and receive other public benefits? And, perhaps most vexing of all, should we repeal the 14th Amendment to U.S. Constitution, which ratified in July 1868 plainly states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” 

So far, we’ve pretty much just stuck with the status quo, continuing to speak out against illegal immigration while at the same time employing those who come here under the cloak of darkness. That being the case, I ask myself do we have the backbone to admit that in practice those of us who tolerate illegal immigration and even profit from it, while still opposing it, are hypocrites? 

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