A few miles from my home in Oceanside, every summer, it is harvest time in the strawberry fields. From sunrise to sunset, you can see the brown people picking thousands of strawberries in the hot noonday sun, backbreaking work that no American-born person would do unless they owned the farm or loved to garden. While all the tourists enjoy the sandy beaches and Lego land, while the yuppies drive their Hummers to La Jolla Cove and the San Diego Zoo, these hardworking people are hunched over hour after hour, males and females alike, until every strawberry is picked. Not many people would be desperate enough to take a job like this but these illegal immigrants are grateful when they are given this brutally hard labor for wages my teenager would laugh at.
When they were very young, my sons would ask questions about the men who stood on the side of the road day in and day out, waiting for work while we were carpooling it to school. “Who are they, Mommy? Where do they get the ten-speed bikes? Do they steal them?” When the boys were old enough, I took them down to Mexico myself to show them the appalling conditions these people live in every day. From our air-conditioned car I explained how hundreds of people risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones to sneak across the borders in the trunks of cars and sometimes boats, crawling through underground tunnels, walking across deserts in 100 plus degree heat, swimming across rivers and hiding in barrels, boxes and modified truck beds like common cargo.
While we sleep in warm beds with running water and electricity, cable television and toasty central heating, these human beings live in inhumane conditions worse than most dog houses. I watched my kids grow wide-eyed as they witnessed first hand entire families living in homemade shacks thrown together with cardboard boxes, discarded tires and trash can lids; mothers and children combing the streets, barefoot and in rags selling tacky homemade trinkets and chewing gum for pennies, just to survive.
It is worse after the rains come, when entire neighborhoods haphazardly built on the hillside, come sliding down and litter the Tijuana streets below. What little shelter these poor souls had is washed away with the mud and debris as if their makeshift lives never existed at all.
I told my boys, “You can bet that if we lived in a cardboard box on a hillside, that I would do anything I could to try and get you kids a ticket to a better life.” They wisely shook their heads and never asked again about the men standing street side and waiting for some job, any job. I meant every word I said.
Now our government is proposing that we label these resilient people “felons.” That anyone who aided an illegal immigrant would be aiding and abetting a felon. These are hardworking people who are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. These are my eldest son’s grandparents. These are my best friend’s parents. Illegal immigrants are not aliens. They are human beings. They are not felons. They are people, who want a piece of the American dream. Felons are rapists, murderers and drug dealers. Felons are drunk drivers and robbers and thieves.
If illegal immigrants are felons, then every immigrant who came to this country should be labeled a felon. George Washington? A criminal! Betsy Ross? A common crook! Anyone who is not a Native American Indian would be described as a felon under the terms of this law. These felons are the people who wash our dishes in restaurants, baby-sit for our children, clean our bathroom floors and pull our weeds. They are the people who risk everything just for a little chance to make their lives better.
Yes, there are legal ways to enter the United States. But since 9/11, it has become even harder for people to migrate legally. These are people who aren’t able to wait for years to find out if they are one of the paltry few allowed legal entry into the USA. These are people who would die waiting. People of privilege get into our country first; people with light skin and an education. People like our governor, Austrian immigrant Arnold Schwarzenegger, who backs HR 4439 to solve the illegal immigration issue here in his adopted country.
This is the same country that Arnold dreamt of; the country that made it possible for him to marry a Kennedy and become a billionaire. This is the country my great grandparents escaped Ireland for and the country that lured the pilgrims to Plymouth Rock. In this country, we celebrate our diversity, brag about our freedom of religion, and our inclusivity.
We proudly show off the Statue of Liberty, calling out to the huddled masses, the tired and the weak. Today the Statue of Liberty cries real rusty tears of shame down her peeling, grey façade. While we criticize Israel for building a wall to keep suicide bombers out, we build our own walls to keep hard working families in – abject poverty. They aren’t coming over to blow themselves up on our busses and in our shopping malls. They are literally dying to come over just to take a shitty job. Anyone opposed to illegal immigration should have to pick strawberries in the sun for one day and then go sleep in a cardboard box.
What are we so afraid of?