Cinco de Mayo

     As a countermeasure to all the hysteria coming out of Mexico-the drug wars threatening to spill across the border, the swine flu that has already arrived, shutting down schools and prompting nations to restrict travel to and from Mexico-Cinco de Mayo seems like a perfect time to pay tribute to Mexican and Latino laborers, who have emerged as the backbone of the American economy.
     Nowhere is this phenomenon as evident as in Houston, Texas where according to a 2006 estimate from the Greater Houston Partnership, the labor force includes 250,000 undocumented workers.
     The evidence streams in through the window of your apartment twice a week, an unmerciful early-morning reminder that it’s never too soon to get up and get going, the gas-powered buzz of blowers and lawnmowers, ceasing intermittently to be replaced by the scrape of rakes on dirt, only to start right up again.
     The short, young Latino men in their long sleeve shirts, ball caps with bandannas hanging around their shoulders to keep the sun off, move like Tasmanian devils across the property. They are anonymous, eyes hidden by sunglasses, and move with the discipline of a landscaping army.
     Houston’s recovery from Hurricane Ike was led by these omnipresent outfits of immigrants. While Gringos stood by disgusted with the vegetation strewn across the roadways, and wondered when the city was ever going to start cleaning up the mess, Latinos appeared with chainsaws and soon sawdust was flying and people’s yards were cleared.
     An elderly friend pays a Hispanic yard man–who goes around neighborhoods towing a trailer full of rakes, lawnmowers, shovels and weedeaters–$25 to cut her grass and spruce up her yard. If he splits that with his two employees they’re making less than $9 an hour per yard-no wonder they move from door to door so quickly. Leaving yards looking like advertisements from the pages of Better Homes and Gardens.
     Some would argue that these immigrants, many of whom are undoubtedly illegal, are taking jobs away from Americans. But in reality Americans aren’t doing this kind of work because we won’t accept the low pay for the physically demanding labor, and there just aren’t enough of us to keep pace with the booming growth of Latino immigrants in the United States.
     Almost half of the record-setting 1 million new US citizens sworn in last year were Latino immigrants, according to a recent story in the Houston Chronicle.
     As Nicolas Kanellos, director of the University of Houston’s Arte Publico Press, writes, “The face of America is changing. And the majority of that change comes from Latinos.”
     Granted this projection will stir xenophobic fears of a border-hopping brownout in some but Kanellos raises some good points: “Given the falling birth rate and rising population of retired workers in the US, continued immigration is actually what fuels the country’s economic engine, and allows it to grow and expand. And let’s not forget that it’s young Latinos entering the workforce who will pay the social security benefits of our aging population as they head into retirement.”     
     As further proof that Hispanic immigration fears are misguided the tight US economy combined with stricter border enforcement led to the first decline in the number of illegal immigrants in the country since the US Department of Homeland Security began tracking the numbers, falling from 11.8 million in 2007 to 11.6 million in 2008. This highlights a trend of Mexican immigrants returning home as work dries up in America.
     President Obama’s choice to lead the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, career federal prosecutor John Morton, has vowed to take a common sense approach to the issue, exacting heavy civil fines on employers who hire illegal immigrants, rather than punishing their undocumented workers. “We cannot make sustained reductions in illegal immigration without deterring employment of unauthorized labor,” Morton told a Senate committee. “We need to place renewed focus on employers to ensure that they are playing by the rules.”
     If our leaders can bolster this humane treatment of illegal workers with a practical way for them to obtain citizenship, our country will be better off for it. Everywhere you go evidence of the value of the Latino worker is no further away than the roads you drive on.
     Next time you’re stuck in traffic waiting on a pilot car to lead you through a highway construction project, take a moment to see what kind of people are out there in the dust and heat of the day digging ditches, laying foundations and pouring asphalt. In the southern United States chances are they are all Hispanic. And given our nation’s shifting demographics, those up North will see them soon.
     Please take a moment to appreciate the backbone of our economy, without it we couldn’t move.

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