In praise of illegal immigrants
By Tom Cooke
In 1941, writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans produced the renowned volume, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. This work drew long-overdue attention to the then poorest workers of American society – rural share croppers. Poor share croppers, maligned by most of their privileged contemporaries, were thus thrust into public view. Recognition and respect slowly began to replace the stigma and unfair labor practices which had oppressed them for decades.
Today, American society has another group of workers beset by unfair and fundamentally un-American discrimination and enmity – “illegal immigrants,” also known by the more charitable moniker “undocumented workers.” Millions of these people now populate our country, most of whom toil daily at difficult, low paid labor, without representation and subject to labor practices which American workers eschewed decades ago.
Though these people arrived here without the benefit of money, position or circumstances at home which would have facilitated legal immigration, many have been here for decades, even generations, and have contributed mightily to American society. These workers, though attempting to remain in the shadows of American life for fear of harassment or deportation, struggle heroically to earn a better life for their families and themselves. They often must risk their very lives, subjecting themselves to all manner of risks, merely to make the long, dangerous journey from their homelands. Many perish in the effort.
Once here, they find employment in difficult, low-paid work. Our agricultural, construction, and hospitality industries, to name only obvious examples, depend on these productive people to staff their businesses. They do work that most American workers have rejected due to its difficulty, tedium and low wages. If there were a sufficient supply of American workers available to replace the “illegal immigrant” work force, the issue would disappear quickly. The presence of undocumented workers in our agricultural fields, construction sites, hotels, restaurants and other venues is persuasive evidence of our need for them.
At a minimum, these workers deserve our heartfelt thanks for their enterprise and hard work. Upon close inspection of their lives, they deserve even more: praise and admiration. Why? They do not toil here merely to improve their own lives, but the lives of their families at home. These workers, most of whom are young men, live here at the lowest possible cost (witness the congregations of men living in crowded apartments and homes) so that they can send their earnings home to the families they left behind. The sad fact is that abject poverty and the absence of remunerative employment characterizes the parts of the world from whence they came. The money they send home improves the lives of their families in ways they could not achieve had they remained at home, no matter how hard they worked.
There is a word for such selflessness. The word is nobility. Yes, it is noble, generous and courageous to leave the land of your ancestors to make a hazardous journey to a foreign land. Think of the cultural, legal and linguistic challenges in locating a residence, a job, and transportation, in going to work each day, demonstrating excellent work ethic without complaint, and in maintaining communication with those you love and work for, who are now far away. And they do it day after day, year after year.
Like the forebears who arrived on these shores generations ago, these hard-working “illegal immigrants” are helping to build and strengthen our society. And like our own ancestors, they do it with an eye to the future, to a time when their children and grandchildren will enjoy all of the fruits of our great, opportunity-rich country. Let’s do all we can to assist them – for them, for their progeny and for the benefit of us all.
Tom Cooke, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus, Sonoma State University. He lives in Oakmont.
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