Undocumented, Indispensable

On May Day a persistent rumble came from Market Street in San Francisco, but it was not the oft-predicted earthquake, or at least not in the geologic sense. Thousands of people were marching down the thoroughfare, from the Embarcadero to city hall, holding signs. NO HUMAN BEING IS ILLEGAL. I AM A WORKER, NOT A CRIMINAL. TODAY I MARCH, TOMORROW I VOTE. I PAY TAXES.

The polyglot city by the bay is so familiar with the protest march that longtime citizens say it handles the inconveniences better than anyplace else. Some of them remember the Vietnam War marches, the feminist rallies. The May Day demonstration bore some resemblance to both, which was not surprising. Immigration is the leading edge of a deep and wide sea change in the United States today, just as those issues were in their own time.

Of course, this is not a new issue. The Founding Fathers started out with a glut of land and a deficit of warm bodies. But over its history America's more-established residents have always found ways to demonize the newcomers to the nation needed to fill it and till it. It was only human, the contempt for the different, the shock of the new.

Today, because so many immigrants have entered the country illegally or are living here on visas that expired long ago, the demagoguery has been amped up full throttle. Although the conventional wisdom is that immigrants are civic freeloaders, the woman with a sign that said i pay taxes was reflecting the truth. Millions of undocumented immigrants pay income taxes using a special identification number the IRS provides. They pay into the Social Security system, too, even though they're not eligible to collect benefits. In fact, they may be helping to keep the system afloat, with $7 billion currently in a designated suspense file, much of which is believed to have come from undocumented workers.

A man carrying a sign saying I AM A WORKER, NOT A CRIMINAL said he pays taxes, too, through his construction job. All three of his children were born in the United States. Although he said he had a hard time deciphering government forms --and don't we all?--he had applied for a green card and had been waiting for four years. In 2004 there was a backlog of more than 6 million unprocessed immigration petitions, a record high. So much for suggestions that immigrants are lax about regularizing their status. Clearly the laxity is at least partly federal.

It's true that immigrants use government services: schools, public hospitals. It's also true that many pay their way through income and sales taxes. Despite the rhetoric, no one really knows whether they wind up being a loss or a gain for the economy. Certainly lots of them work. A state like Arizona, for instance, could not keep pace with the demand for new homes at reasonable cost without immigrant workers, many of them undocumented.

The counterargument is that that drives down the wages of American citizens. It's galling to hear that argument from members of Congress, who have not raised the federal minimum wage for almost a decade. Most of those politicians blame the workers for their willingness to accept low wages. Don't hold your breath waiting for significant sanctions against those companies that shut their eyes to the immigration status of their employees--and that also make large political contributions.

Americans who are really incensed by millions of undocumented immigrants can take action, just as those marching in the streets did. They can refuse to eat fruits and vegetables picked by those immigrants. They can refuse to buy homes on which they worked. After all, if a migrant worker like Cesar Chavez could organize a national boycott of grapes, then opponents of immigration could surely organize something similar. But they won't. We like our cheap houses and our fresh fruit. And our government likes the bait-and-switch, taking taxes from workers whose existence it will not recognize. The borders are most porous in Washington, D.C.

Full disclosure: I'm the granddaughter of immigrants, and I know how much of the melting pot is a myth. My grandparents always referred to my father as "an American boy," which meant he was not from Italy. It was not a compliment. They didn't melt; their daughter did, although one of the only times I ever saw her bitter was when she explained what the word "dago" meant.

There are big decisions to be made about the vast wave of undocumented workers in this country, issues that go beyond slogans and placards. But there's no premium in discussing those issues in xenophobic half-truths, in talking about what undocumented immigrants cost the country without talking about what they contribute, in talking about them as illegals when they are nannies, waiters, roofers and the parents of American citizens. One fact is indisputable: the essence of America is free enterprise and human rights. It's why people come here in the first place. we are all immigrants, read signs on Market Street. Some of us just got here sooner.