Six days a week, his day ends at 1 am, when he closes up for his boss at the takeout pizza store after making deliveries starting at 5 pm the afternoon before. On all but one of those days, he gets up at 7 am and goes to work for a seven hour shift bagging groceries at a supermarket. He’s been doing this without any time off for twenty one years. He doesn’t complain because this is a better situation than he had in his home country in Latin America.
He was an attorney whose professional life was very difficult due to his reluctance to practice law in the accepted way–bribing judges on behalf of his clients. Ultimately, his middle class income disappeared when the country went through one of its periodic depressions. Si me quedo en mi pais, me muero de hambre, he said (If I stay in my country, I starve).
So he came to America on a tourist visa, looked up a friend who helped him cobble together enough work to feed his family. I once asked him why he never got his marginal English up to speed to study for the bar exams. He said, “When I do this?” The eighty hour weeks he works at minimum wage to feed and clothe his family exhausts him. He says he’s too old to try now, but he hopes for better things for his children. (It is coming true: His oldest daughter is brilliant academically. She was given a partial scholarship at private school and is now studying international business on scholarship at George Washington University. She is bilingual, of course, and her counselors tell her she will be in high demand by multinational corporations when she graduates).
What the man yearns for is the passage of a good enough immigration law to free him from the fear of deportation and allow him to maybe start a business. Opponents of the law say he is taking jobs from Americans. It is true. He competes for work and, if he keeps his jobs, as he has done for all these years, it is because he is conscientious and trustworthy and his bosses recognize that he helps them be profitable. They also say he uses public services excessively. This is not true–he has no time to be sick. Anyway, he pays taxes, including social security, which he may never be able to collect.
He is one of ten million or so undocumented workers in America who left their homes out of desperation and wish only to work hard and make things better for themselves and their families. And, when I think of his situation, I recall that my great, great, grandfather left Germany in 1862, driven from his home by repeated crop failures and the lack of jobs.
He landed in Savannah and, for a soldier’s pay and grub, joined the Confederate Army. He fought the Battle of Shiloh in April of that year. He survived, saw other action over the next three years and, when it was over, made his way to Cincinnati to live in a community of Germans. We have no idea what he did about citizenship, the history books say those were laissez faire days for that sort of thing. We do know that Germans did not assimilate very well, so life must have been difficult. He worked and he raised a family. His son, my great grandfather, established a tack and harness shop. His son, my grandfather, established a bond brokerage business. His son, my father, became an international banker.
I’m not sure what I’ve added to the gene pool, but Cindy and I have six great kids and a dozen terrific grandkids between us. I’m so thankful to be the great, great, grandson of an immigrant. America is the best place in the world to live, work and raise a family. There are many reasons for this. The greatest is that there have been periodic waves of immigrants to bring energy, creativity, and innovation to the nation. I hope this is always so.
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses,
yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.