Now begins the latest chapter in our new president’s dissembling.
Before cheering crowds in Florida last weekend, President Trump declared his resolve to deport “gang members — bad, bad people.” But in the crowded basement of my church in Minneapolis last Sunday, tearful women worried that their children will return to empty apartments, effectively orphaned by our president’s pledge to deport anyone who is in the U.S. without the proper papers except those brought here as children.
No matter that many of those children’s parents have been here for 10-20-30 years, working hard, buying cars and houses, paying taxes without receiving benefits, and contributing in countless ways to our churches, schools, businesses and neighborhoods. Under the Executive Orders on Protecting the Homeland released Tuesday, no one is exempt. Anyone in the country illegally is declared a “removable alien.”
These “removable aliens” — language that makes people sound both rubbishy and extraterrestrial — are not the people I know. I know cleaning women and roofers, car mechanics and cooks who were born in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Some were drawn to the U.S. by the promise of jobs or hopes of going to college. Some fled here out of fear or desperation, because gangs threatened their children or because they could not feed them.
If there had been any possibility of becoming U.S. citizens, they’d have grabbed it. But it’s been 30 years since Congress last created a pathway for undocumented workers to become citizens. That fix hasn’t stopped the flow — the number of undocumented workers has more than doubled since 1986 — because of patchy enforcement and higher-than-expected employer demand for immigrant labor. But rounding up millions of people and deporting them without giving them a chance to see a lawyer or call their children is neither practical nor humane.
Consider these facts: An estimated 11 million people are in this country illegally, a number staggering in size and heartbreaking in its potential for broken lives. Some 8 million of them are working, threatening massive disruptions in many workplaces if they are deported.
In 2012, illegal immigrants were 3.5 percent of the U.S. population (1.8 percent in Minnesota) and 5.1 percent of the nation’s labor force (2.5 percent in Minnesota). Immigrant men are more likely to be in the labor force than native-born men (91 to 76 percent). Undocumented immigrant women are more likely to have young children at home, 22 percent compared to 7 percent, than native-born Americans.
Most of Trump’s “removable aliens” are workers and mothers, not “bad, bad men.”
Last week, while driving back from New Mexico with my husband and friends, I spent a night in Garden City, Kan. Most of west central Kansas is a lonely expanse of corn and wheat fields, so we were surprised to find a vigorous community of 27,000, bright with new motels and restaurants and fragrant with the smell of feedlots and packing houses.
A few days later, a report on National Public Radio explained the reason: The town — now half Hispanic — has welcomed immigrants and refugees who are willing to do the hard, dirty work of turning cattle into steaks and hamburger for Tyson Foods and other meat producers.
“I think our community would be a dying community without the immigrants that have come to fill in the gaps and to grow businesses,” Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue told the NPR reporter. The biggest crime in Garden City in recent months was a foiled plan by three white supremacists to bomb an apartment building where Somali immigrants live. Now Bascue will be called on to deport the very people who have made his community thrive.
The number of illegal immigrants has been falling since the recession of 2007, but they remain a significant portion of the labor force in many tough, low-wage jobs. Nearly a quarter of workers in landscaping and private household employment are undocumented. In apparel, manufacturing, crop production, laundries and building maintenance, roughly 1 in 5 workers are undocumented.
These are not the jobs the Michigan factory workers or West Virginia coal miners want. If they did, there would be no demand for undocumented immigrants.
I am learning much about the anger and frustration that led many Americans to vote for Trump. I understand their anxiety about the security of their jobs and families in a world that is changing with dizzying speed. I recognize that no country can accept all comers without overwhelming its systems and provoking a backlash such as we now see.
In a perfect world, our leaders would be busy discussing how to better share the spoils of technology and globalization, how to prepare our kids for the changing world and how to keep the nation secure while integrating immigrants who have lived, worked and honored our country for years.
But this is an age of scapegoats, not solutions. So immigrants are demonized as criminals rather than the women who clean our hotel rooms and serve our Big Macs, the men who roof our houses and butcher our meat.
Promising to Make America Great Again by attacking cleaning women and meat cutters is dishonest and cruel. We may be surprised by the results. A Mexican friend with the thankless task of cleaning toilets and wiping down sweaty machines at a health club says acidly: “Americans will have to live in their own dirt.”
Lynda McDonnell is a writer in Minneapolis. A version of this essay appeared on her blog at www.lyndamcdonnell.com.