Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Plight of the Illegal Alien

T. C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain" touched off a spirited debate at our couples book club. It painted ugly pictures of the plight of illegal Mexicans and the privileged whites who lived in a gated community in the LA suburbs.

From the opening scene where Candido gets hit by a white guy in a Lexus while crossing the road and paid $20 in damages, the impoverished Mexican and his wife America suffer one awful setback after another, including rape, robbery, and fire. They had struggled to get into this country illegally, she is 17 and pregnant, and they are living outside in a canyon for want of a better roof over their heads. The agony of getting occasional work through the labor exchange and the depth of their poverty are beyond belief. At the end of the book Candido is resorting to catching and stewing up domesticated cats to survive and feed his family. Ugh!

Their counterparts are Delaney, a self-proclaimed naturalist, and his successful-in-real-estate wife Kyra. They have a whole different set of worries from the Mexicans. Delaney actually initially opposes the wall and gate that are erected around their Arroyo Blanco community to keep out the despicable Mexicans and the coyotes, but by the end he is every bit as disgusting as his neighbors. They worry about their house and their cars and their clothes and their things.

These families are subjected to the same natural disasters in the end, which in a sense puts them on equal footing, but along the way their differences are quite pronounced.

The book causes you to stop and evaluate where you come out on immigration laws. We all know that if we just opened up the border between Mexico and the U.S., there would be a constant stream of immigrants hoping to enjoy the good life in this country. But instead they must sneak in and then hide from authorities, while providing cheap labor to anyone willing to pay with no recourse if they get screwed. This often means hazardous conditions in the workplace, disregard for the minimum wage, no access to health care, and on and on and on. On the other hand, for most of them staying in Mexico or El Salvador or any other Central American country would only present a dead end. So they take a chance on their dream, often at great personal and financial sacrifice.

I have a hard time with deporting someone who has risked everything to come here. I also have a hard time not recognizing their right to services and the privileges of anyone else living here.

But there is still this issue of whether an illegal alien has the right to take a job that might otherwise be done by an American citizen or at least someone who is here legally.

And what about their innocent children? I understand that they are not eligible for admission to most U.S. colleges and universities, where they would inevitably need financial aid. When can the American dream kick in for them?

The story of Candido and America hit me in the gut with the depiction of their plight, which is probably all too real. I found myself hating the rich Americans and wanting them to be consumed by the forest fire and the mudslide in return for their totally unacceptable behavior toward the Mexicans.

Immigration policy is a tricky wicket. I'm really undecided on the issue of who should be able to come in legally. But I am of a mind to recognize and support those who are here by whatever means. They are humanity too.

So have you branded me as a bleeding liberal? Where do you come out on this issue?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's nothing so grey as those issues we want to make black and white. I can't speak on behalf of the masses for in the end, we all come to our own conclusions about what's right and wrong, even if those conclusions are based merely on what someone else tells us it is right to believe. If I were confronted with a family that was desperate, I'd like to think I would help them. But isolated incidents never stay isolated. Pretty soon they involve whole cultures. We have become pretty adept as a nation at pricing "the American Dream." The cost continues to escalate.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

I think I'd let them come in and take jobs as long as nobody in our country was willing to do them. Our friends who own the Christmas tree business employ quite a few Mexicans. They come on visitor's visas for about 6 months and a few stay longer, they work hard and get paid well by their standard. Sad to say, but for most of these jobs, our people here aren't willing to work as well as they do. The Mexicans are given housing and a company transportation van to bring them into town to buy groceries. It works out pretty well for everyone. My friend is a really nice boss and has a lot of respect for them, so they work hard.

8:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People used to come through Ellis Island, set something like that up at the Mexican/American border.

8:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People came through Ellis Island, set something like that up at the border.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- When I think of individuals I know this problem becomes clear to me, but it's the masses of faceless, nameless immigrants that make it difficult to make rules that apply to all. I'll bet you could write a PhD dissertation on the inflating cost of "the American dream."

MOI -- I'm sure those Mexicans working in the tree business are constantly sending money home to hungry families. I feel sorry that they have to be separated like this, but I'm sure the income is welcome. They probably wouldn't make that kind of money in years in Mexico.

Anonymous -- The problem today is one of needing a visa of some sort to get in, not allowing just anyone to pass through a checkpoint. I'm sure they would be only too happy to line up and officially enter the U.S. if that were possible. Imagine Tijuana as the next Ellis Island...

9:40 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

From my idealist perspective, I see no point in borders. I think people whould be allowed free mobility without the artificial constraints of abritrary borders, governments, laws, regulations and bureaucracies.

From a practical perspective that would result in anarchy of the worst kind, since people have a tendency to generally behave in a less than ideal way.

I don't know what the immigration laws are like in the U.S. In Canada, they are very tough. Basically, you have to be well educated and have a fair amount of money (I think it is $10,000 per person). Unfortunately, your education is not likely to be recognized or accreditted here, so they end up being highly educated labourers - not necessarily a step up.

On the other hand, there are lots of immigrants who do make a substantial contribution and do work hard. You can read a swipe I took at immigrants here.

12:07 AM  
Blogger Kristin said...

Both Tortilla Curtain and Tortilla Flats have made me think about the plight of the immigrant. And honestly, I don't know where I stand on the issues. I've been doing a lot of soul searching - I know that my grandparents, my great grandparents were born in Norway. We're not exactly indigenous and I appreciate all the opportunities afforded me by right of my birth.

But granting citizenship to everyone who wants it taxes our (laughable) healthcare, education, social security, welfare systems. If it's granted it to those who already reside in the US, what do we do in another five, ten years when we're in the same place? I don't think we should build a wall but we seriously need to do something, to address the differential between the people who want to be citizens and those who are given the opportunity.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Richard -- I found your link most interesting. You probably have reason to understand this situation a lot better because of your own immigrant status. But the difference between your situation and that of the poor Mexicans in this book was one of economics -- I'm sure your family were never impoverished and I am equally sure you always had a roof over your head.

Kristin -- You seem to be searching for the right answer just as I am. This is a collision of practicality and sensitivity.

9:47 PM  

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