The subject of illegal immigration is suddenly in the news and as usual during an election season, all our candidates are equivocating about it and our elected politicians are scared to make a decision about it. But I live in two places that are totally dependent on illegal immigrants, so I know what a vital role they play in our economy.

in Texas and California, ranchers and farmers are utterly dependent on illegal workers from Mexico–in fact, they cannot survive without them. It’s not just that they work for low wages, although this is part of it?but this would change if we were willing to pay more for food (and we’re an obese nation, so maybe we should. Fast food is cheap food and that’s one of the main things that’s making us fat).

Poor US citizens who need jobs are mostly minority youth and single (often minority) mothers, who do not have a decent education. The idea that illegals take jobs away from these folks does not make sense–inner city black men have no desire to start picking crops.

When you drive down a dusty road to visit a working ranch in Texas, you’ll often notice pairs of jeans arranged on the fence posts. These are a signal to Mexicans who have succeeded in making the dangerous border crossing that workers are wanted there. Everybody knows this, including the sheriff, and probably the local immigration officers as well. But they also know that if they enforce the law, their neighbors will starve.

San Antonio has a notorious slum known as the West Side, which is where poor Mexican immigrants, many of them illegal, live. But it’s not a ghetto, because there’s a constant flow of people moving into it and then out again.

The first generation crosses the border–legally or illegally– and speaks only Spanish. They eventually achieve a basic working knowledge of English and labor as gardeners and maids. Their children are bilingual. Their parents’ goal for them is to graduate from high school and learn to speak fluent English, so that THEY don’t have to work as maids and gardeners. When these kids grow up, they are the clerks at the stores you shop in. They sell you your car, deliver your UPS package or install your cable TV.

The third generation speaks only English–Spanish has become a “lost” language for them. Sometimes they take it in college for their language requirement, and many of them go to college. This is the next generation of politicians, lawyers and professionals. There’s a joke in San Antonio that the town is always electing mayors with Mexican last names who do not actually speak the language. A recent mayor was even caught sneaking out of a night school Spanish class held in a local high school!

A friend of ours once taught dance in a college that attracted many of these kids. Going to one of her recitals was an incredibly emotional experience, because the audience was filled with large groups of Mexican-looking grandparents and parents, many of whom began weeping as soon as the young people began dancing onstage. I wept at my son’s graduation, but it was nothing like this. These people had come to see the first person in their family to attend college, who was the culmination of three generations of tireless effort and striving.

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