By Richard Reeves
COACHELLA, Calif. -- I went from coast to coast across the United States last week and saw a lot of things and a lot of people: a lot of immigrants, legal and illegal, in California and Texas, a lot of fools and frauds in Washington.
This town of 30,000 people was the end of my trail, 2,500 miles west of Washington and 40 miles north of Mexico. Ninety-seven percent of the people here are Hispanic, most of them Mexican or Mexican-American. The Town Council has voted to make Coachello a sanctuary, meaning that local police will be ordered not to enforce federal immigration laws if illegal immigration is made a felony instead of a civil offense punishable only by immediate deportation.
In between, I was in Los Angeles, where 500,000 people totally surprised city police by peacefully marching through downtown to protest proposals to put more walls along the California-Mexico border and make it a crime to be or to aid an illegal immigrant. The surprise was a result of the fact that city officials were not listening to the Spanish-language radio stations organizing the giant demonstration of Chicano Power.
I was in Miami, the capital of Latin America, where they say the United States begins in Fort Lauderdale. I stopped in Dallas, too, where high school students left their classrooms to march on City Hall for the same reasons.
In Washington, I was there when members of Congress held a press conference at which Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, stood before a pulpit decorated by a sign that said, Just Say No to Amnesty, meaning that the 11 million or 12 million Mexicans living and working in the United States without proper documentation should be sent back where they came from. That would take a lot of pickup trucks.
Anybody that votes for an amnesty bill, said King, deserves to be branded with a scarlet letter A. That would take a lot of branding irons.
Back to the Coachella Valley, which is part of Riverside County east of Los Angeles. The best-known place in the valley is Palm Springs. There are, according to official figures that probably dont mean much, 233,000 undocumented aliens in the county. There is no figure for the valley itself, which has a year-round population of 285,000, with 100,000 more coming for the sun each winter. But there is a widespread feeling that without illegals, there would be no valley to speak of anyway.
This is from the local newspaper, The Desert Sun:
If we are not here, the very nice area will disappear, said Sostenes Abalos, owner of SOS Cleaning & Maintenance in Cathedral City, which employs eight. The 41-year-old Abalos jumped the fence at the Mexican border 21 years ago, after paying a smuggler $40. He became a U.S. citizen earlier this year, fearing potential changes coming to immigration laws.
Life is different in Southern California, beginning with the fact that middle-class people have servants, underpaid, undocumented, intimidated and desperate Hispanics who build and clean their houses, tend their gardens and care for their children. Folks here, the Anglos, will often speak out against illegal immigration, but it would be foolish to believe they mean it.
The long border between a poor country and a rich one has created situations that are misunderstood in many other parts of the country, including Washington, D.C. The ties that bind and the pressures that separate across that border cannot be unbound or relieved by lawmakers or more fences.
Looking north and east to the capital from here, the press conferences and the compromises seem not only distant but irrelevant to the facts on the ground, including these:
Americans, particularly in the Western states, are addicted to the benefits of immigrant labor, beginning with cheap help around the house and cheaper food prices in markets and restaurants.
The United States needs young people, and Mexico has them. There are only 1.5 Americans under 14 for every one over 65. In Mexico, that ratio is 7-to-1, and many of them are coming here to pay your Social Security.
Legal, documented Mexicans in the United States are related to the undocumentated illegals. And families stick together.
New walls make things worse because they discourage undocumented workers from going home to Mexico and Central America and then trying to get back in, fostering family breakdown on both sides of the border.
None of this is likely to change until there is more income parity between the national neighbors. Americans make four times and more what Mexicans make. My friend Andres Oppenheimer, the Latin American columnist of The Miami Herald, who has looked at similar situations around the world, says the flow of the poor coming north will end only when that ratio gets close to 2-to-1. And that will take a long time -- or it may never happen, and this problem will be debated and fudged by politicians for our lifetimes.
2006 Universal Press Syndicate