A fortnight ago, as I was contemplating my limited options for a weeknight dinner, one of my neighbors called me and asked for a favor: his minivan was stalled in the torrential rain a few blocks from our apartment, and there was a police car nearby. They wondered if I could come out, ready to show my valid driver's license, just in case the police officer stopped and tried to help them.
My neighbors are immigrants from Morelos, Mexico. They entered the country unlawfully. First the husband, Pedro, arrived with an adult son, about three years ago. Another son followed a year later, then the wife a few months after that, and, most recently, two adolescent children. Having arrived illegally, they are not eligible for valid Social Security cards, a prerequisite for a driver's license in the State of Illinois. As such, whenever they spot a police officer, they nervously check their speedometer and hope their headlights are functioning adequately. The oldest son was pulled over shortly after his arrival because the rosary beads hanging from his rearview mirror violated a local ordinance by obstructing his vision; apprehended on that minor charge, he was also fined a week's income for driving without a license.
Although they lack valid Social Security cards, the family's relatives acquired false cards for them as soon as they arrived. Their large family is represented in several local dining establishments—working in the kitchen and as busboys—as well as at a hotel and a dry cleaner. In this and in most cases, their employers must know that their documents are false—the Social Security Administration kindly sends them a letter notifying them that the reported number does not match their name, but the employers appreciate their assiduousness and are not about to let such details inhibit their employment. The Social Security Administration gladly receives the income deducted from each of their paychecks, distributing it to retired US citizens who paid into the system during their working years, but Pedro and his family will never receive any Social Security benefits, at least not without a substantial change in federal law. Nor are they eligible for any of the public benefits that their deducted federal taxes fund, even though their combined household income hovers around the poverty level.
A few days after the incident with the minivan in the rain, Pedro told me that his employer, facing an economic crisis like everyone else these days, had reduced his hours, lowered his hourly wage for his work as a busboy to less than $3 an hour plus irregular tips, and started to pay him in cash rather than by check. By paying Pedro in cash, his employer is able to avoid paying the employer’s contribution towards social security. Pedro complained to me about these changes, but, given his unauthorized work status, he is not about to complain to anyone else.
With all that they have gone through in their adopted homeland, I wondered if it was worth it for them to come here. Pedro insists unequivocally that the decision to come to the United States was really the only choice he had: in Morelos, there was almost no work, and feeding a large family had become almost impossible. The family had gone deep into debt, with money originally borrowed to pay school fees compounding madly in the office of a credit shark. They had to take out one more such loan to pay the coyote to bring each family member illegally to the U.S., but here, even earning low wages, the family could repay their debts. And, despite all their problems, Pedro's wife tells me that they are in glory here in the United States. They eat well, they have work, and their family is, after several years of separation, united.
Pedro's family had no option to come legally. They have family members in the US, even a few with green cards, but none of the requisite relatives who could submit a family-based petition. Work visas were not an option, given that none of the family members classify as "highly skilled" or "holding advanced degrees," the categories favored under the Immigration & Nationality Act for employer-sponsored immigrants. The visa lottery, which some of our other neighbors, from Liberia, happily won, is not an option for Mexican nationals; the lottery is meant to diversify the population of the United States and, apparently, we have enough Mexicans here already. Others of our neighbors are refugees from Sudan, Burma, or Bhutan, but Pedro was fleeing poverty, not persecution on account of race, political opinion, religion, or any of the other grounds enumerated in the law. For Pedro, there were no options.
When my ancestors came from Holland a century and a half ago, it was different. They took a boat, and the journey was grueling, but they arrived the legal way—not necessarily because they were morally superior, but because back then there was no illegal way for them to come. Towards the end of the 19th century the U.S. government began to exclude people (first the Chinese, then imbeciles, the contagiously ill, and those "likely to become a public charge," among others), and by 1924 we nearly swung the golden door entirely shut. But in the mid-1800s when my relatives arrived there were no federal restrictions on immigration. Ironically, the tightening of immigration laws came as a somewhat delayed response to a backlash amongst US citizens a few generations removed from the immigrant experience who were convinced that the newcomers pouring through Ellis Island—23.4 million between 1881 and 1920 of mostly non-Protestant Italians, Jews, and Poles—were stealing jobs, polluting the culture, committing crimes, and refusing to learn English.
In the midst of the Civil Rights era, President Kennedy found the blatant discrimination by ethnic origin written into the 1924 law to be embarrassing, and he pressed for reform. His successor signed a bill into law in 1965 that abolished the previous system, laying the groundwork for our current system based primarily upon family and employer sponsorship. It was definitely not, however, a return to the unlimited immigration of an earlier era, and the numerical limits on immigration in each category were very soon woefully out of touch both with both the U.S. economy's appetite for immigrant laborers and with the supply of eager would-be emigrants.
So we arrived at the current status quo: as a society, we quietly turn away while Pedro and several million of his compatriots sneak across the southern border and while millions of others overstay temporary visitors’ visas. They work hard and we enjoy inexpensive produce, fast food, manicured lawns, and building projects, often oblivious to our own entanglement with the issue. Our government receives their tax returns—filed not with an invented Social Security number, which would of course be inadequate for this purpose, but rather with a specially designed Individual Taxpayer Identification Number—and promises not to report their unauthorized work to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement or to any other arm of the federal government.
Every so often, politicians come up with ideas to solve this problem. An odd alliance of bottom-line-oriented corporate interests, human rights organizations, and religious groups have been lobbying for “legalization,” which differs from amnesty—which they have learned is politically untenable— and is essentially an "earned legalization" that would require immigrants to pay a fine and wait a long time before they would ever become citizens (lest we reward illegal behavior). Certain segments of organized labor find themselves chanting alongside xenophobic populists and Malthusian environmentalists for enforcement of existing laws, the undertaking of which would mean mass removal of immigrants who, from various perspectives, steal American jobs, pollute our culture, and threaten longtime environmental sustainability. Whenever a proposal on either side makes it to the halls of Congress, though, the rhetoric becomes heated, the congressional switchboard is shutdown by angry callers, and Senators and Congresspersons alike back down, bowing to the status quo.
Pedro asked me the other night what the chances for a change this year were. I told him that President Obama says he wants immigration reform—the sort, roughly, from which Pedro and his family would likely benefit—in his first year, but I also had to tell him that President Bush supported essentially the same policy for eight years, which clearly was not sufficient. I told him that Hispanics had swung heavily toward the Democratic Party last November, and that Democrats would be foolish to arrive at another election cycle without having at least tried to address the immigration crisis. Given the rhetoric coming from some Republicans, though, I silently supposed that Democrats could sit on their hands and use the promise of reform as an election issue to retain Hispanics in two years. Even the most socially conservative Hispanic U.S. citizens have a hard time voting for a party with candidates who openly support random document checks for those who "look illegal."
For Pedro and his family, who are more naturally optimistic than I am, the best that they can do is to work hard and hope and pray for change. In the meantime, I suppose it is the least I can do to show up in the thunderstorm with my driver's license.