Thursday, March 3, 2011

Would You Steal a Loaf of Bread?


About six weeks ago I went to Ghana, via van, for a tennis tournament (see last post for details).  It was a last minute trip and I had not gotten the proper visas to enter either Burkina Faso or Ghana.  It’s an empty, helpless feeling standing in front of a border official as they flip through your passport searching for a visa that you know isn’t there. 

Before they looked up to meet my eyes I knew the conversation that was coming.  They were going to firmly tell me that I’m not allowed in their country, followed by an intentionally drawn out pause, unless I pay some ridiculous last minute fee. 

To pay for last minute visas and other amazingly related fees added up to about a month and a half of my Peace Corps salary.  Something I simply couldn’t afford to pay.  Fortunately, I was traveling with the national team and they agreed to pick up the tab.

To experience such difficulties while traveling with an American passport forces me to think about what it’d be like if my passport was a different color.

I worked in the Maldives, a country composed of a tiny collection of islands south of India, for about a month a few years ago.  I was shocked at how many Maldivian employees kept asking me about the validity of these online visa lotteries they were hearing about.  All they had to do was send in some personal information and a credit card number (assuming they had one) and they could be a big winner of a British or American visa.  They might as well send some cash to a Nigerian Prince while they’re at it.  But this is how desperate they were to gain access to another part of the world.

This train of thought inevitably leads me back to home, the good ol US of A.

To share with you my motivation for this post I’m going to refer to an article from The Economist,  December 2010.  The article is about Mexican illegal immigration into the US and follows the path of a couple different families across the border and describes their lives working as undocumented workers on the farms of Southern California. 

For much of the time it just felt like another article trying to make me feel guilty for being born American, but then I came across an interesting study.

One of the biggest complaints in regards to illegal immigration is that they’re stealing American jobs.  In an attempt to acquire some empirical data for this claim the United Farm Workers (UFW) created a campaign called “Take Our Jobs”, which invited willing Americans to join the manual farming workforce of approximately 1 million comprised mainly of Mexicans.  In tough economic times 3 million people visited the site takeourjobs.com, but 40% of the responses were hate mail.  Out of these 3 millions visitors only 8,600 expressed any real interest in actually attempting this work but they made lofty demands for high pay, health benefits, relocation allowances and other benefits associated with American jobs. 

Personal side note: there’s no way our food would be as cheap as it is if we were paying every farm worker competitive pay and health benefits.

Interesting conclusion, in late September, after a summer of this campaign trying to give jobs back to Americans, seven, not seven hundred or seventy, seven American applicants were actually in the field picking crops. (or three according to http://www.voanews.com/english/news/usa/US-Farmers-Depend-on-Illegal-Immigrants-100541644.html)

Immigration policy is one of those topics that you try to avoid when making casual conversation.  It never fails in quickly igniting emotional responses, which believe it or not, I feel are totally justified.  Show me two American parents that wouldn’t mind if their jobs were taken by illegal immigrants making it difficult for them to put food on the table for their kids.  Or to have a medical system overrun by non-American citizens driving up the cost of their health care and dragging down its efficiency.  Most American parents will do what they have to do for the health and well being of their children, I know I would.

But the problem is, that’s not just an American quality, it’s a human quality.

As a mother or father, brother or sister, wouldn’t you do almost anything to help a family member who is starving or needs medical attention but has no way of getting it?  If you can say yes to that question then why are we surprised when we see citizens from other countries doing the same?

Like I said before, this is not a simple issue, and everyone wants the best for their families.  I’m not saying let’s throw open the gates and let everyone run into the land of plenty, but I am saying we should keep an open mind when new policies are introduced regarding immigration.  Ignoring the problem or building higher walls will not deter the parent of a child in need.

The author of that Economist article drew many parallels between today’s Mexican immigration and that of Oklahomans fleeing the dust bowl of the 1930s depicted famously in John Steinbecks historic novel “The Grapes of Wrath”.  

These American parents did whatever they had to do for their families and we can expect these Mexican parents to continue to do whatever they have to do, for as Steinbeck wrote: “How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children?  You can’t scare him-he has known a fear beyond every other.”


Migrant farm workers

Fields of tears

They came to America illegally, for the best of reasons


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