Undocumented Workers Are Essential. Let’s Treat Them Like It.

As an American who has benefited immensely under our system of capitalism, I so want to believe the purpose of capitalism is to increase happiness for all. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is prompting me to ask questions that challenge that belief. Questions like: who do we take for granted in our society, when the reality is that our society depends on them?

The Coronavirus has not stopped American capitalism from wanting or needing “essential” workers whose livelihoods have long been undervalued: hospital maids, truck drivers, restaurant cooks, farmworkers, and dairy and meat plant workers. Over 50% of workers in these industries are undocumented, and the number is likely higher. 

After years of being degraded and taken for granted, all of a sudden, these folks are critical. One week, a deportation letter; the next, an essential worker letter forcing them back to work in a pandemic. And despite that “essential” status and the long, hard hours they put in to keep the country going, millions have been left without a valid work visa or any path to citizenship. 

Last week, I read an article about this exact topic in the New York Times. I sent it to our nanny, close family friend, and proud immigrant herself, Josefina. She’s been with us since our son was 4 days old, but we haven’t seen her in over 9 weeks due to COVID. When he turned fifteen last week, she left muffins she made for him, on our porch. Josefina has helped raise our kids, taught them to speak Spanish, cooked, cleaned and cared for them while my wife and I were at work, making our money in a completely different kind of industry. Both forms of work contribute to the country and have dignity – I believe we are all in this together. 

Josefina and I talk politics, religion, travel and more. Together, we’ve registered voters, knocked doors for social causes and attended fundraisers. We’ve met with former Governor Hickenlooper together, who took multiple questions from Josefina and thanked her for her political involvement. She’s been to D.C. to speak on behalf of the Dreamers (DACA). I attended her American citizenship ceremony, on February 23, 2006. If you’ve never seen this ceremony, I highly recommend the moving experience. 

I sent the article to Josefina because I knew it would speak to her in a different way that it spoke to me. I want to share her response to the article, as her story is something I’ll never be able to tell – but is important to share now, more than ever:

“This article made me cry because it was talking about myself, the history of my father’s family – how they worked very hard in this country. The stories my father told us were very sad. Some bars in his time had an inscription that said, ‘Mexicans are not allowed.’ During training and in the war itself, he and his Latino friends were put on the front lines in Normandy, on D-Day, to protect white soldiers. My father lost his hearing because he was never given protection while firing the cannons. He finally had a terrible post-traumatic stress disorder that was never treated and marked his life forever. 

Here in Colorado, decades later, my cleaning friends are handed a similar fate as ‘essential workers’ now. Those who work in nursing homes are discriminated against by the majority of the elderly, who flee from them as from the coronavirus itself. While these elderly people cheer at a certain time for health workers, they’re completely ignoring that my friends risk their life on a daily basis to keep your homes germ-free. I am sad for them, and I’m sad for the dreamers who are always under threat of deportation.”

Josefina’s words made me cry, both reminding me of how fortunate I am and of the horrible injustice to which others are subjected even while they rescue our country. Too many who love the contributions of undocumented folks yell about disliking their presence or ignore them altogether. Except for those who are completely off the grid, we all eat the fruits of undocumented workers’ efforts. 

As a former republican and now, a progressive, I’ve taken the links in our food supply chain, my restaurant meals and clean office building and hospital rooms – and the people who make it a reality- for granted. I’m a start-up healthcare executive and my wife, a physician. No one in my family has emigrated for four generations. Therefore, I don’t have any such story to share, but Josefina, and millions like her, do. 

So I ask, at a minimum, can’t we treat our immigrants with the respect they are owed? Can’t we give them work visas, provide basic health care and an education to their kids?  Can’t we avoid repeating the same prejudiced patterns of the past? People are worthy of dignity and respect simply by virtue of being a human, but even for the most cynical among us, surely, you can recognize the enormous, critical role these folks play in keeping our country afloat.

And for that cynic: when you take a bite of your dinner tonight or see a clean hospital lobby or whatever it is you may happen to do, I beg of you to ask of the immigrants who made it possible: are they illegal criminals, or are they superheroes?

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