For the past twenty years, I’ve had the privilege of working in a school with a large immigrant population. Average per capita income is low, but the culture is rich and diverse. About 30% of our students come from Spanish-speaking backgrounds, but at any given time, we may have smaller populations whose first language is Bosnian, Russian, Vietnamese, Farsi, or (most recently) Somali. As you might expect, I have a few thoughts on the subject of immigration. These thoughts are informed by stories I’ve heard and people I’ve met.
For ten years, I had a classroom in a building lovingly cared for by a custodian named Pedro. He spoke such broken English that when we first met, it took me awhile to understand everything he said. I got plenty of practice, though, because Pedro was a talker. He talked while he worked, and he worked very hard. Our building was always immaculate, and if any little thing needed repair, all it took was a word to Pedro, and Presto! Everything would be quickly and expertly made right.
Although his shift usually started in the afternoon, Pedro happened to be in my classroom one day during 3rd hour, when announcements are read over the intercom. As the students stood up to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Pedro clamped his hand over his heart and recited it more loudly than anyone else. I thought I heard his voice crack near the end, and glancing over at him, I saw that tears were running down his cheeks. When the pledge ended, he wiped his eyes, made the sign of the cross (the universal gesture of Catholics profoundly moved with emotion), and resumed his work. He loved to pick the brains of history and social studies teachers and was extremely knowledgeable about American history and government. He tended to cry easily when those subjects came up. Pedro was absolutely the proudest, most patriotic American I’ve ever known.
As the years went on, I learned a lot about Pedro and his family. (As I say, he was a talker.) Virtually every weekend, he completed jobs that would take most men a week or more—roofing a house, rebuilding a motor, plowing and planting. Gradually I learned that some of the properties on which he worked belonged to him, some to family, and some just to people he knew who needed a little help. The man was a demon for work. He had raised six children every one of whom completed at least a four-year college degree. More than once, I saw him in deep conversation with young men who needed a little advice about respect and responsibility—and believe me, they listened. I’ve never known anyone more deserving of respect.
Pedro was not an illegal immigrant. In fact, he was not an immigrant at all. He was born in a small Texas border town where his ancestors settled before the United States became a country. Unless you happen to be Native American, Pedro’s pedigree as an American is a good deal longer than yours or mine.
If the despicable new law just passed in Arizona goes into effect, can you imagine what the impact would be on a proud, honorable man like Pedro—a working man with a rugged face and heavy accent? Either he’d be stopped and asked for papers every time he set foot in public, or else every cop he encountered would be in violation of a law that requires them to check the documents of anyone they might reasonably suspect of being illegal.
That’s not all that’s wrong with the Arizona law, but it’s enough.