frank_talk (2006-15)

Separate and Unequal

Mexicans do jobs Americans won’t because they have no choice

by Frank Cagle

What part of illegal don’t you understand?

That sentence serves some people as a summary of their position on illegal aliens and as the end of the argument. That argument would be disputed by the thousands of people that took to the streets of America this week, including downtown Knoxville.

Can anyone argue against the proposition that the United States has to get control of its borders? Is there a country in the world that allows free, unfettered and document-less access to its heartland? From illegal drugs to terrorism to economic consequences, there are a number of reasons why we can’t continue to allow literally millions of people to invade our country. We cannot make any other decisions about illegal aliens until we stop the flood and then survey the results.

But if we decide to build a 700-mile fence, who will we hire to build it if we don’t hire illegal aliens? While we are building it, how many crews will it take to repair the holes created by wire cutters every night? I don’t doubt that we can build such a fence, but it will take thousands of people and a billion dollars to keep it hole-free and effective. It will be a never-ending process and require constant vigilance.

In East Tennessee we used to have a system where farm workers would finish the harvest in the fall and then go back to Mexico for Christmas. They would visit family and take back currency from their job. In the spring they would drift back to again work in the fields. When the tightening of the border started a few years back making it harder for re-entry, many of the workers in East Tennessee stopped going home. They couldn’t risk not being able to get back. So the “guest workers” here for the harvest and temporary, have now become permanent residents.

Instead of building a fence we could start fining and jailing people who employ illegal aliens, dry up the jobs and encourage Mexican migrants to go home. But that upsets too many politicians and their well-heeled constituents.

Much has been made of the work ethic of illegal aliens and the fact that they will do jobs Americans won’t do. That is true. If someone has the gumption to leave a home in Mexico, wade the Rio Grande and find their way to Iowa or East Tennessee to work, it demonstrates ambition. However, I recall that both my grandfathers and their friends were known for their work ethic. They hit the fields at dawn and worked until dark. They did jobs no American today would want to do. Sharecropping cotton was as close to slavery as any system that has existed since the Civil War. Their good work ethic was reinforced by the fact that if they didn’t do it, their families would starve. They didn’t have food stamps, welfare and TennCare.

There are private social-service agencies in East Tennessee that provide some aid, but illegal aliens here are largely on their own. If they don’t work, they don’t eat. If the United States were to decide to abolish the social safety net, I suppose we would discover that many Americans would do the jobs we now leave to Mexicans. The reason we have an 11 million-member labor pool to do the jobs Americans won’t do is because Americans don’t have to do it and the Mexicans do.

The Mexican workers in this country are in the position of average American working people 50 years ago. We have 21st-century labor standards for Americans and 19th-century standards for illegals. In fact, the situation of illegal Mexican workers today is more like the condition of African Americans in the South before the Civil Rights era.

Grainger County farmers, construction companies and landscapers don’t pay bad wages. One of the reasons they employ Mexican labor (like meat packers in Iowa) is that those workers have few choices. They show up for work on time, and they work while they are there.

It is true that the American economy benefits from illegal alien labor. Employers have a pool of people who do not talk back, are afraid to be late to work and have no other options. It’s an employer’s dream. We can continue the morally reprehensible system that exploits brown people who have no other choice but to take what they can get. But if you make all the illegal aliens legal you may discover that they will no longer be willing to do the jobs that Americans don’t want to do. Do you think that Mexicans just naturally enjoy stoop agricultural labor? Then, first thing you know there will be a new crop of illegals to do the work Mexican American workers won’t do.

What part of illegal don’t you understand? Maybe less than we think.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at .