Opinion Columns & Blogs

Fresno Bee series was an eye opener

If you read The Fresno Bee’s superb series about immigration, reprinted last week in The Tribune, you would be far more knowledgeable than when you began. And you could well have a different view of the situation.

To me, three things stood out.

First, everyone benefits from the labor of undocumented workers, including thee and me. Remove them, and we’d be paying $47 for a head of lettuce, give or take. There goes the roughage.

Second, the people who hire undocumented workers — hotels, agribusiness, restaurants — benefit more than the rest of us, but nobody seems to want to crack down on them.

Finally, the workers themselves come off to me as not the terrible lawbreakers they are being portrayed as in the national media. They come across as people who are trying to make a buck and feed their families, like your great-grandmother and my great-great-grandfather.

It is the starkly different way these two groups — employers and employees — are treated in the national dialogue that really fascinates and angers me.

Excluding The Bee series, the debate usually centers on the immigrants — how much they are costing taxpayers, how they are taking jobs from Americans and the like. There is a “somebody do something about these bad people” undercurrent.

And yet, if the nation really wanted to stop illegal immigration, it could do so easily, it seems to me, by going after the employers.

I ran these thoughts past my son, the American history teacher with the degree in Latin American studies, and he chuckled at my notion that I had discovered something new.

People who study illegal immigration have known for years, he says, that you could end it practically overnight by cracking down on the people who hire them.

The government has sought to help out with this by making it easier for employers to track whether a job applicant is in the country legally. But fewer than one-fifth of employers use the system, called E-Verify.

So why are politicians and the chattering classes ranting about illegal immigrants and not the business people who hire them?

My colleague to the north, Phil Dirkx, posited some reasons in his Tribune column Friday. I agree with his thoughtful conclusions, but I believe there are a couple of other factors at work as well.

First, there is the matter of power. Illegal immigrants have none. As Dirkx points out, the employers have plenty.

It’s one thing to go after a guy who is picking strawberries or a woman who is changing the sheets at the motel. It’s quite another to crack down on a titan of agribusiness who operates a zillion-acre farm or a tycoon who owns an international chain of hotels.

The latter — do I really need to say this? — have money that can influence whether a pol is elected.

Second, there is racism. I know, there are people who reject that notion out of hand and bristle at the suggestion. But this state has a long, dark history of animus toward people who speak a different language, who have different customs in their subculture, who look different.

These two issues drive the national debate with those in power exploiting the racism that exists.

Thus we have people in the punditocracy expostulating things like “These immigrants came here illegally. What part of breaking the law don’t you understand?”

Here is the part I don’t understand: If breaking the law is the issue, where is the self-righteous ire aimed at the employers?

As the Bee series makes clear, illegal immigration is a hugely complex problem. But we are not going to solve it until we expand the national discussion to include all of that complexity rather than focusing solely or mostly on the immigrants.

The Bee has helped broaden the debate. I am not sanguine about the Anderson Coopers, Wolf Blitzers and other group-think lightweights in the national electronic media taking up the baton. But they should, and soon.