Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Don't immigrants deserve homes, too?

This is a really great piece. -Angela

Don't immigrants deserve homes, too?
By Jorge A. Aguilar
03/03/07 04:21:18

My wife and I recently moved into a new home. The experience of building a home is not for the faint of heart -- nor for a compulsive or impatient personality type. The process -- from beginning to end -- lasted 21/2 years.
Although we followed the construction plans pretty closely, the house seemed to get bigger and bigger as time passed: More windows were added; more tile was laid than we had anticipated; more cement was poured; more grass and bigger and more mature trees were planted.

The cost of materials and labor rose, as did interest rates on our loans. In the end, we spent more than we had planned.

But on the day our home passed its final inspection and the contractor handed us our keys, none of this mattered. My wife and I were ecstatic because we had achieved our dream.

Throughout construction, I asked our contractor for information about his subcontractors. I wanted to know their identities, the length of time that he had worked with them and their qualifications and capabilities. Then I made it a point to get to know each of them as they labored on our future home.

After seeing an early pattern of subcontractors with immigrant backgrounds, I jokingly asked our contractor whether he planned to hire any subcontractors or subcontractor employees who were not immigrants for our home.

Immigrant labor top to bottom

From beginning to end, the only non-immigrants to work on our home were a couple of 20-somethings who laid the tile. Every other subcontractor and subcontractor employees -- from those who laid the foundation, to the framers, plumbers, roofers, electricians, cabinet makers, painters and landscapers, were individuals with immigrant backgrounds.

I had never thought about The American Dream in quite the way that I did the day we first entered our finished home. Not when my wife and I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, or when she received a master's degree, or when I received a juris doctor, or when we had our daughter.

And then I thought about all of the individuals who built our home. That evening, I thought about the cruel irony of my emotions earlier that day: We experienced The "American Dream," thanks to immigrants who themselves were working toward the exact same dream. And then I thought about other homeowners who experienced the same "dream," thanks to the same subcontractors and subcontractor employees.

Yet as difficult as it was to accept, I knew that some of those homeowners resent and even deny the reality of the contributions that immigrants make to this country once their homes pass their final inspection and they receive their keys.

As the new Congress prepares to convene under an entirely different leadership, I have heard increasing talk about the real possibility of an immigration reform package being passed.

I have even heard analysts say that this is an area where President Bush and Democratic leaders actually have a good chance of reaching a bipartisan solution.

Even Governor Schwarzenegger discussed the need to focus on immigration reform during his recent visit to Mexico. Our governor is quoted as saying that "the planned $1.2 billion, 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border is an incomplete way of solving the problem."

I am no expert in immigration reform, nor are most politicians. However, I am a humanist and so I try my best to treat others as humanely as possible. But I am not so naïve that I would claim that the immigration debate would be solved if politicians were more humane in their approach, because I am a realist as well. Today's politics are driven more by financial and other lobbying interests than by the human element.

Where's their opportunity?

My point is that there is a human element to this debate that needs to be taken into greater consideration. As a San Joaquin Valley native, I see the labor needs that immigrants fill. In all my years living in this region, I had never seen a sign reading "Se buscan piscadores de uva" (Grape pickers wanted) until last summer. While I have many fond memories of picking grapes as a young man myself, none of them are fond enough to motivate me to return to the same rows of grapes that I grew up picking.

Just ask my dad, who still is a farm worker and reminds me who really performs hard labor when I complain about stress from my job in which I get to wear a coat and tie every day.

Most importantly, I see the dedication of the workers who are building the homes of my future neighbors by laying the cement leading to their front door, landscaping their new yards, and cleaning them prior to -- and after -- final inspection. I am certain that many of these immigrants hope for the day that they, too, can build their own homes, lay cement leading to their own front doors, landscape their own new yards, and turn the keys to their own new homes.

Do they not deserve the opportunity to experience the same dream that they bring to life for so many of us day after day?

Jorge A. Aguilar is a special assistant to the chancellor and director of the Center for Educational Partnerships at the University of California, Merced.

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