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Friday, February 12, 2010

Some Compassionate Thoughts on the Tough Life of an Illegal Immigrant

On our recent cruise I was struck once again by the privilege it is to move easily between countries. As an American citizen, I have many opportunities to travel, with ease, to most any other country. The irony in my popping into 3 Mexican cities is rooted in the reality of how many Mexicans living illegally in America could not do what I just did in their homeland...pop in for a visit and safely return.
Now, I know that perhaps many of you have raised a red flag with the word illegal but I would contend that legally moving between countries is a privilege and most of us who enjoy that privilege forget about what a gift it is.
My parents have befriended some illegal Mexican families living in Palm Springs. My father in particular has reached out to these young men and has tried to help them survive under very difficult circumstances. These are people who have lived here for more than 20 years, have built small, reasonably successful businesses (cleaning landscape, home repair), have children who are U.S. citizens and are seeking to enjoy a decent life. Why are they doing it here in America? Because in spite of all the risks and hardships, an illegal life in the States offers them a better opportunity than a legal life in Mexico.
Perhaps some of you reading who are against granting illegal immigrants amnesty are shouting in your head right now, "So what if life is better here than there. They have no right to be here." OK, but have you ever stopped to consider that your right to be here is based only on luck of birth country and that in the end, you don't deserve it any more than anyone else? I'm not necessarily saying that it is right for people to enter the U.S. illegally and seek to do life here (or in Sweden as we have illegal immigrants who are a part of our church in Stockholm, living in Sweden for the same reasons Mexicans want to live in America...the possibility of a brighter, more productive future) but what I am saying is that at least on some level, I understand why they are motivated to give it a try.
What breaks my heart on this issue are the folks who want to exploit the illegal workers without helping them. This happens on a corporate level as well as a personal level. People will hire my dad's friends to do a job. They give an estimate for the work. Then they do the work. Then the people who hired the workers will give the workers a hard time when it comes to paying them or they will not pay at all or they will insist that they pay them with a check. Cashing a check for an illegal worker costs a lot of money. They have to go to a check cashing place where the folks who will cash such a check will take 20% of the check's value. Why in the world would someone with means...and that's all of us who move freely in life, have a place to live, health insurance, bank accounts, etc., why would they not pay with cash? Because it's an inconvenience to go to the bank and get cash? If you are going to hire an illegal worker to get the financial benefit, why not go one step further and make life a tad bit easier for him by paying cash? I'm astounded by the number of folks who stubbornly refuse to help an illegal worker even while happily employing them for the good deal they will end up. If you don't want them to be here, don't hire them. If you do hire them then consider what else you could do to make their life a bit easier because generally speaking, life is already really hard for them.
What really concerns me about the conversation regarding illegal workers is the lack of compassion that is shown for other human beings. If the U.S. were serious about cutting back on illegal workers they would go after the corporations who employ them instead of going after the illegal immigrants. If the U.S. were serious about really wanting to get rid of the cheap, available labor that comes from illegal immigrants, they could do it by shutting them out of jobs. But the rich and privileged tend to like the good deal, the ability to pay under the table and thus avoid taxation. So we cry when illegal workers and their families use our goods and services yet turn a blind eye when a U.S. citizen finds a way to cheat on their taxes through the use of illegal labor. By the way...these workers who my dad knows...they pay tax. They can't get a social security number, they can't get a bank account, but yes, they can get a tax i.d. number. One more thing that we could do to help the conversation regarding illegal immigration is to understand the facts about what the drain on our society really is versus the gain.
The bottom line for me is this. Understanding illegal immigration requires that we understand the reasons for the immigration in the first place. For those of us who will never face the reality of being an illegal immigrant, we need to at least acknowledge what a privileged life we lead and allow compassion and mercy to at least have a role in the conversation. Jesus was about compassion my friends. He took lives that were rife with sin and deception and he redeemed them. Can we at least not treat the illegal worker as human beings with concerns, pressures, worries and cares understanding that their lives are complicated and complex? Can we at least offer a modicum of respect and care as we interact with them and especially when we choose to build relationships with them as friends or business associates?
I've seen first hand through these friends of my father how tough life is for them. They cannot go home to Mexico and visit their parents and siblings. And if they do, they pay huge money to coyotes to get back and risk imprisonment and deportation. I am home in Palm Springs now visiting my folks. I feel sick in my stomach thinking about how tough it would be if I wouldn't be able to come back for years at a time. It is a privilege for me to live legally in another country and thus have the means and opportunity to return to my homeland. Because of that privilege I am trying to do my best to understand why someone would want to live with the hardships and risks that living illegally brings. It is a myth to think that illegal working families in this country are living the good life. These guys (and their wives) work harder then I will ever have to work in my life. I am on an 8 week paid vacation right now...the privilege of that opportunity is not lost on me as I consider that the illegal workers in Palm Springs work every day that they can in order to create a brighter future for themselves and their kids.
Illegal immigration is a tough topic and I don't have the long term solutions but I do know that especially as Christians we could do better with leading with compassion and mercy, being fair to the worker when we employ them, doing things like paying on time, paying cash, appreciating their work and not exploiting their position as an illegal worker, and most of all simply seeking to understand why they are choosing the hard life that comes with living illegally.
Appreciating one's status in life is an important step in understanding why people without the same status choose to live in the manner in which they do. I deeply appreciate the good life that I am privileged to lead. I am also trying to enter the world of those who live with so much less than I do and seek to meet them with compassion and mercy even as I seek to understand what it means to live in a fair and just society.