Last week I ran into a friend who brought up the border fence. He seemed thrilled with the prospect. Said it would keep the illegals from coming over here to take advantage of our welfare system. I mentioned I’d been teaching on the border for over twenty years and didn’t know any immigrants, illegal or otherwise, who were on welfare. After that, the conversation died like it often does when two friends make a social agreement to be polite when complicated and opposing viewpoints arise.
I’ve heard this “illegals taking advantage of the system” argument before from other supporters of the fence, but I find it hard to swallow. I began my teaching career at an elementary school in Nogales, Arizona; a border town 200 miles west of the ranch. I taught migrant kids whose parents worked half the year picking fruits and vegetables here in the States and the other half in Mexico. Most of the families lived in tiny RVs or ramshackle single wide mobile homes on the edge of town in trailer parks owned by sketchy landlords. Parents worked long, grueling hours in the fields. Older children took care of younger siblings after school leaving little time for homework and extracurricular activities. The folks I knew would have benefited greatly from social welfare services, but to do so would have meant finding a ride to town and missing work to fill out applications in a foreign language. There was also the constant risk of deportation. At the end of the day, these immigrants didn’t have the resources or energy to scam the system. If they were lucky enough to save a little bit of money, a mother or father would purchase a fake Social Security card so he or she could work an honest job for honest pay.
Some years later I moved to Douglas, Arizona. My first job was as an English as a Second Language Instructor (ESL) at the community college where I still work. Most of my students came from Agua Prieta, a border town across the line in Mexico. Families scraped together what they could to send their children to college. For the students, it was a great privilege to be attending school in the United States. After 9/11, our program dwindled because of new immigration laws. Without proper identification, students could no longer attend classes. Dreams died, and I lost my job because of the decline in enrollment.
The college hired me back the following year as an instructor for a family literacy program where I worked in an old school on Fifth Street. Just five blocks from the port of entry, the fence was visible from my classroom window. My job was to help the women develop their English and job skills so they could find work in the community to help support their families.
I eventually moved to the Sierra Vista campus near the Fort Huachuca Army Installation where I continued to teach ESL for the college—this time to immigrants from all over the world. I supported these students while they built community and friendships around the common goal of creating better lives for their families.
I’m aware there are people who come to this country and take advantage of our system, just like I know there are people who were born and raised here who receive government assistance. Like so many times in my life, I avoided a conversation with a friend because I didn’t have the right words or maybe lacked the confidence to say what was on my mind, but I should have muddled through it. I have friends and family members who came to this country illegally. My nephew’s father is from Mexico. My husband’s father was deported to Mexico as a child during WWII when people were rounded up and sent back to their country of origin. The poet, Maya Angelo, once said her house was open to everyone, but that she would not tolerate anyone at her table who disparaged people because of their race, religion, sex, etc. That seems reasonable to me.