Anyone interested in understanding the current immigration debate raging in our culture, in the U. S. Congress, and closer to home here in Dallas, ought to read Robert Draper's informative and extremely personal essay published recently in Texas Monthly ("Made in America," May 2007, pages 146ff or on the web at: http://www.texasmonthly.com/preview/2007-05-01/feature3).
Draper's essay is especially helpful in providing some historical perspective on immigration and our southern border.
Draper tells the story of Vicente Martinez, an undocumented Mexican laborer who crossed the border and ended up as one of the key hands and horse trainers who worked on the family ranch owned by his grandfather, none other than Houston attorney and former Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski.
Martinez came to the Jaworski's ranch at Wimberley, Texas in 1969, "long before 'illegal' was a dirty, demagogued word." Three years later Jaworski saw to it that Martinez's pregnant wife and three small sons were reunited with the hard-working husband and father on the ranch.
Draper's tale is moving, amusing, down-to-earth and personal. Thirty-five years after the family was reunited on the ranch, all are productive, legal residents of the U. S. The Martinez children, all three boys and their younger sister, are well-educated and successful, thanks to the determined sacrifice of their father and mother who came here for one reason and only one reason: to give their children a better life.
Draper's point is clear: the outcomes for millions of immigrants like the Martinez family are good for everyone--the immigrants and the nation. What was true thirty years ago, we should expect to be true today.
To his credit, Draper doesn't gloss over the injustice or the exploitation bound up in the American immigrant experience, especially for Mexican workers. One of the reasons why I find the current "conversation" about comprehensive immigration reform so ugly and disingenuous is its blatant hypocrisy. While there are a few voices in the current debate arguing on behalf of American labor, the fact is, with or without immigrant laborers, the weakened labor movement in the U. S. is of little concern to most people. Consumers want low prices. Period. Concerns for what labor may suffer to deliver the goods at the lowest price possible are minimal at best among most of us.
Undocumented immigrants have always worked for less than other American workers. It has been their sacrifice that has kept prices down for all the rest of us in industries we depend on and take advantage of thoughtlessly: housing, dining, service, landscaping, housekeeping, etc. I can understand the outcry of organized labor against the current system.
But, as I say, most opponents of reform are not labor activists! There is undoubtedly a racist undercurrent at work in much of the anti-immigrant sentiment we are hearing these days.
Draper makes it very clear that we are all implicated in the "illegalities" of the current situation, just as was the case with his grandfather. Turning all of the fury, the rhetoric and the animosity against the undocumented worker demonstrates the worst sort of our nation's hypocritical denial.
Draper's words need to be heard and remembered today:
"I have seen men who have done better, and so has Vicente. They were my grandfather's friends: lawyers, judges, newspaper publishers, oilmen. During hunting season, they would roll up to Circle J Ranch in their Cadillacs and Lincolns, driving on smoothly paved private country roads, past rows of immaculately carved heart-cedar-post fences--all the handiwork of Mexican migrant workers. A member of the Texas Rangers often showed up to my grandfather's ranch and casually observed the laborers at work. It's fair to say that the Ranger did nothing to discourage the activity, just as friendly immigration authorities had done Royce [the man who transported the family out of Mexico] the favor of turning the other way when he drove Vicente's family into America in 1972. The civic titans of Texas who visited my grandfather's ranch were aware of what was going on. Men like these saw to it that the border, and the laws governing it, would remain a joke.
"These men would shoot their hunting rifles all day long and then sit under the stars and drink while Vicente plucked the turkeys or skinned the deer. The men admired Vicente's old-world comportment. The keenness in his stare, the sureness of his grip. They comforted themselves with the belief that the Mexican seemed to find even lowly work ennobling, and they would tip him well. And the next morning they would go home to their mansions, whose lawns were tended by other uncomplaining Hispanic gentlemen, each of whom would probably be doing this type of work forever so that his children would not have to.
"That was the catch in Vicente's voice I was picking up on at his dinner table. He was not an idiot. A horse trainer, attuned to the elemental, he knew condescension when he saw it. And he knew that, though the opportunity here was far superior to the choices he faced in Mexico, he was not getting paid what a white man might. Both sides understood that this inequality--made possible by the transaction's unlawfulness--was key to the deal. Because of the cheap labor offered by migrants of modest yet unsinkable ambition like Vicente Martinez, men of means but not of obscene wealth could afford fine lawns, fine ranches, loyal domestic help. And a man like my grandfather could buy thirty broodmares and a stud, churn out foals, and then rely on a Mexican trainer horse whisperer to transform each unruly baby into a poised nine-month-old commodity. Hay, tack, barn equipment--the horse operation would ripple through the economy in a variety of ways, and no one would be hurt by it.
"Men like Vicente were the straws stirring the drink. Yet men are what they were--bored and lonely, with families down south. They had but one chip to play: I accept my lot if you will help me give my children a better one" (page 290).
The story is partly disgusting. The story is extremely sad. Mr. Martinez endured exploitive injustice and blatant racism at his work. At the same time, he exhibited the very qualities we champion as ideal in every corner of this nation: heroic, sacrificial, courageous, parental devotion.
I find it very difficult suddenly to regard Mexican immigrants, coming to this country seeking only a better life for their children, as the culprits in our current immigration chaos.
Hard-working folks willing to make sacrifices for their families--sorry, but that sounds an awful lot like the stuff of classic American mythology to me.
And, why focus such hostility and punishment on them now?
They come seeking what the generation before sought and the one before that.
Dismissing their contributions out of hand--current and historic--as insignificant and inconsequential, we now must appear to be arbitrarily changing the rules of a game we've all been playing for a long, long time.
We need to get real. We need to face the facts.
We need to get beyond the racism.
Most of all, we need to work together for a fair and just solution that will include the 12 million-plus undocumented workers and their families who are here today and, if we are wise, will be tomorrow.
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