During the past few weeks, and surely for weeks to come, there has been a national focus in the United States on the problems and benefits of illegal immigration. While the many sides debate over amnesty, guest worker programs, routes to citizenship, strengthening the borders, and whether illegal immigrants should be considered felons, the reality of the situation remains unchanged. There are between 10 and 20 million (no one knows for sure) illegal aliens working within the United States. Many have regular full time jobs while others survive as day laborers or temporary workers. Politicians defend the needs of business to find workers to fill the jobs that "Americans are unwilling to do."
Despite the improving unemployment rate, there are still over 5 million of us out of work, some for a very significant period of time. For those unfortunates, unemployment payments have long been exhausted. With no regular source of income nor any decent prospects on the horizon, why would anyone turn up their noses at the chance of regular work, no matter what was involved?
We talk a lot about the "inherent dignity of work" as if being productive, in any way, is always better than laying around on the dole, collecting something for nothing. Such was the thinking behind the welfare-to-work push of a decade ago. But when was the last time you saw a politician or career bureaucrat actually have to take one of those "can't be filled" jobs?
What are those positions that Americans refuse to take such that they must be filled by illegal immigrants?
They may require a migrant lifestyle such as farm labor where workers criss-cross the country following the picking seasons of different crops. Apart from the back-breaking physical demands of the work, how many of us are willing to live in ramshackle temporary huts without modern conveniences, all for an income well below a living wage? In California, the old bracero program recognized the reality and imported cheap labor from Mexico to bring produce to our tables.
They may require extraordinarily long hours. I have worked at restaurants where the illegal kitchen help worked 14 to 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. They only left to sleep at their dorm-type safe houses. They never complained because they could earn enough in a year to return home and live for 2 or 3 years without working at all.
The wages may be so poor that it is counter-productive to take the job. Certainly some income, even the smallest, should be better than no income at all – but not when other costs are factored in such as commuting fees, child care expenses, work clothes, etc.
Then there are the jobs that are simply too demeaning for many of us: day laborer, dishwasher, motel maid, bus cleaner, baggage ramp handler, stable worker. Quite apart from the often deplorable working conditions, we avoid such jobs because they don't fit in with our subconscious contract with society. Work is our primary medium of exchange with the world: we give our time and energy in order to receive money, recognition, and respect. The more of these we receive, the greater is our perceived value.
To give significant time and effort and receive little recompense degrades our sense of our own value. When we see ourselves without value as a worker, it is only a short jump to see ourselves without value as a human being. We all want to be needed, cherished, prized: it reassures us that we have importance, that we count, that our lives matter if only in a small way. Without that sense of self-value, we might as well cease to exist, a train of thought that can lead to suicide or other less lethal forms of self-destruction such as drugs, alcohol and similar compulsions.
For limited periods of time, we can handle it, knowing that it's only temporary and things will change for the better soon. As an unpaid resident in neuropsychology, I went to work as a waitress at night, something I hadn't done in 25 years. What an eye-opener! I had forgotten the absolute lack of power involved in semi-skilled work where your position and your future depend upon the whims of a demanding and often unreasonable manager or owner. I was warned by other waitresses not to disagree with orders (I was eventually fired) and realized that, for them, the position was worth whatever they had to do to keep it. With no union to protect them, no knowledge of work laws and industry regulations, they accepted everything given and then spent hours bitching about it in the sanctuary of the kitchen.
To take such a position on a permanent basis, knowing that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, that this really is all that there is, means giving up so much of ourselves. We change from happy, confident, caring people into perennial complainers and grousers, growing ever smaller and meaner in our outlook, our demeanor, and our attitude toward the world.
Anyone who can save us from such a fate deserves, in my book, a vote of thanks. I really don't think it matters what they do in Washington because they'll never vote for the money to enforce whatever plan they devise, so nothing will really change.
It would be really nice though, to see them put as much focus on corporate off-shoring of those jobs we'd all like to perform. But the lobbyists will make sure that it stays on the back burner and when was the last time unemployed workers took to the streets – 1933?