I wrote about immigration reform and the U.S. Senate’s vote on this in my last column. Last week, I witnessed something that encapsulated for me the difficulty surrounding this issue.
Early in the morning before going to work, I took a walk around my neighborhood to clear my head and get ready for the day. Five minutes into my walk I passed by a new housing development in which I saw a group of men hauling concrete roofing tile up to the roof of a house under construction. A Mexican radio station was blaring Spanish cumbia music from a beat-up, portable stereo on the ground while the men strained under their loads.
I walked up the street and turned around to observe the workers for a few minutes. They spoke in Spanish to each other and by their accents, I could tell that they were natives of Mexico. The temperature was already in the low 90s and sweat was covering their faces and soaking through the bandanas on their heads that were capped by baseball hats. I wondered to myself, how many of these workers were legally in the U.S.? I returned home, showered, and went to work.
At around 2 p.m. that afternoon, I needed to go to the bank, so I jumped in my vehicle and drove by the house that I passed by while walking that morning. The same workers were now laying down the tile on the roof and the radio was still playing.
I stopped my vehicle a little way up the block and observed the workers again. In a house adjacent to the one under construction, kids with American accents screamed and splashed in a backyard pool, just yards from the workers, oblivious to the hard labor occurring next door. I glanced at the temperature gauge in my vehicle and it read 105 degrees. The scene set me to thinking.
Coming from a lower-middle-class New Mexican family, I did manual labor all through my formative years to earn money, culminating in logging in various forests with my father by the time I was in my early twenties. The work was hard, the sun was hot, the winters were cold, danger was always present, and the pay was bad. However, in order to earn money to eat and have clothing we got up every morning and did what we had to do.
Today, I have the luxury of having my teenage son work this summer in a steel mill, owned by one of my friends, so that he can get a taste of manual labor in a hot, sweaty environment. He’s not doing this because I can’t support him: He’s doing it because I am making him. I want him to understand how much of the world lives this way and how an education can give him choices other than manual labor to make a living.
The Mexican laborers whom I witnessed highlight the immigration issue, which now requires the wisdom of Solomon to generate some type of viable compromise. Now that the U.S. Senate has passed its version of an immigration-reform bill, the ball is now in the court of the U.S. House of Representatives. This is where the solution becomes tricky.
On one hand, the U.S. is utilizing the labor and services provided by the estimated 11 to 12 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S., the majority of which are Mexicans. How many of us Americans are willing to do the back-breaking work jobs in construction, agriculture, and domestic service that this group provides? I certainly have no plans to revert to manual labor to make my living, and I don’t want my son to take that path in life. Even many Americans who are jobless for extended periods of time generally do not swallow their pride and start climbing on roofs to lay tile in the middle of the summer.
On the other hand, millions of naturalized Americans and legal residents have followed legal procedures to come to this country. This process is complicated, expensive, and can take several years. It is not fair to the people who have chosen to abide by the law to allow a wave of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. to automatically jump to the beginning of the line to receive their residency or citizenship. Otherwise, what is the point of having laws on the books which spell out how people can come to this country?
However, my sympathy lies with the people whom I saw roasting on a roof to make a living, probably for themselves and family back in Mexico. It is this hunger in the belly and work ethic that I think the U.S. needs to remain competitive in the future.
Kids born to these workers will probably see how hard their parents work, get a taste of hard labor themselves, and have their own burning desire to achieve an education or develop marketable skills to live the American dream – this is what will make our country great in the future.
I remember reading a speech that Warren Buffett, the billionaire investment genius, made recently in which he said that what America needs is to return to its immigrant roots in terms of our work ethic and creativity. I second this thought.
Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.