The Immigrant Problem

This is my rant version of what hopefully is a more coherent and even-toned article appearing in the December issue of Georgia Trend (www.georgiatrend.com):

Gabriela Ramos isn’t her real name.

She’s self-employed, cleans houses for a living, speaks English well enough to work as a cashier at the grocery store, but her grammar isn’t very good. That isn’t a crime. Her only crime is being here in the U.S., and that took two tries and it wasn’t really her choice to begin with.

She’s afraid of the police, of being taken from her children. She says it’s not as pretty in Northeast Georgia, not as pretty as it was 10 years ago. She doesn’t mean the scenery.

These days, when she goes to the McDonald’s in her small Georgia mountain town, she feels everyone’s eyes. They feel heavy on her, and hot. Any minute, she expects, the kid behind the counter is going to say, “would you like fries with that, and do you have your papers?”

“It feels very strange, the way people look at me now. It didn’t always feel like this,” she says through a translator. “I think it’s the economy.”

She’s right. It’s the economy. It’s also people’s pain and fear and politicians preying on those things and leveraging those things to win votes. It’s controversial new hard-ass laws, in Arizona and other states. And it’s broken federal laws, which can be as complex as the immigrant issue itself.

Maybe that complexity is the reason so many elected individuals are carrying crude tough-on-immigration torches, or just ignoring the issue altogether. Being rational takes work and knee-jerk reactions leave little time for thought. (Unless it is your crotch on the receiving end of the knee-jerk, in which case you have plenty of time to think as you roll around helplessly on the ground, clutching your throbbing midsection; sorry for the male-centric metaphor, ladies, but you get the idea).

Some people blame undocumented immigrants for overburdening tax-supported programs, like public education, health care, welfare and law enforcement, and for taking jobs – these messages play well in the sticks and especially in a time of high unemployment and recession.

Forget the fact that undocumented immigrant people saved some industries from going overseas, via the toilet. Immigrant labor saved the carpet industry in North Georgia – a region that still provides most of the world’s carpet. The agriculture industry depends on a workforce that is probably 50 percent undocumented. Before it went bust, construction was booming, and that workforce was flooded with immigrant labor, including undocumented immigrants who were invited here by federal immigration authorities.

Employers in Georgia, and elsewhere, have been brazen about going to the border and bringing workers to fill positions that spoiled, fast-food guzzling Americans wouldn’t take on a bet. We invited these people in, squeezed cheap labor out of them, asked them to bring their cousins. And it’s a good thing that when times got tough and unemployment soared, we had a bunch of ass-nosed ‘patriots’ in office who have been eager to duck responsibility and point the finger at some of the hardest-working families I have ever met, people like Gabriella.

She was 12 when she came across from Mexico. That was 20 years ago. Since then, she’s spent thousands of hard-earned dollars trying to do the legal thing, filled out all of the paperwork in the hope of getting some peace of mind and residency. The immigration service– ‘La Migra’ – lost her paperwork at one point, and she had to pay all over again.

Once her paperwork is in order, she’ll have to go back to Mexico and try to prove ‘extreme circumstances’ to the American consulate there in order to move quickly back to Northeast Georgia. If she can’t prove that four children and a husband qualify as ‘extreme circumstances,’ she’ll probably have to wait 10 years for the proper visa.

“People who are rich in Mexico, people who have lots of money, don’t come here,” Gabriela says. “The people who come here do it for a better life.”

She’s on the grid, but insists that I do not use her real name. There have been times in the decades she’s lived in the U.S. that she wanted to die and forget everything.

“It has never been easy for me. It was hard to live in the U.S.,” Gabriela says, using past tense, as if she’s already in Mexico at the back of the line.

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