Immigration: Time to share the heavy lifting

Three years ago I was unloading some 50-pound bags of landscape pebbles from the trunk of my car when I felt a four-inch blade of molten steel jab into my lower

back. Middle age had officially arrived, and my doctor ordered the permanent closure of Eshman Lifting and Schlepping, Inc. It was time to find younger men with stronger backs to do my dirty work.

That’s how I met Luis.

Driving out of Home Depot with more bags of rock and soil, I pulled over, and a dozen day laborers rushed to my window. I motioned to Luis and another guy, and they scrambled inside. We exchanged names, then I went back to listening to NPR — a Weekend Edition interview with the singer Neil Sedaka about his new album of Yiddish melodies. Halfway through Sedaka’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Mamme,” Luis, who was sitting in the front seat, turned to me.

“I always thought his voice had a feminine quality,” he said.

I don’t know what I expected, maybe just some thoughtless muscle by the side of the road, a Latino golem. But I was stunned.

“I didn’t know he was Jewish,” Luis went on. “He must be Sephardic.” Luis, it turned out, was studying music theory at a community college. He had left southern Mexico years before, worked at a traveling circus in the United States and Canada, and eventually landed in college, where his goal was a degree in something called neuro-computer science, or, as he explained it, “the interface between the brain and computer technology.” He was also a student of religion.

Raised Catholic, he became a devout evangelical, then studied Judaism, and now, at 40, had settled into regular Buddhist meditation.

Luis was my first illegal alien, and his presence in my life forced me to rethink every aspect of a debate that never seems close to being either rational or resolved.

One thing Luis’ biography made clear to me was that if he was the first illegal immigrant I willingly and knowingly employed, he certainly wasn’t the first from whom I benefited. Furniture stripping, gardening, moving and storage, hauling, food service — these are just a few of the jobs Luis has worked, so employers could keep the prices to us consumers lower.

Every single one of us, from CNN’s resident border guard Lou Dobbs to Mitt Romney and his I-could-have-sworn-they-were-Swedish landscapers to Luis himself, benefits from illegal labor in our daily life, at the very least by paying less for myriad goods and services.

But I also know that one anecdote does not good policy make. Proponents of harsher anti-immigrant measures might point out to me that not all of the nation’s 12 million to 20 million illegal immigrants have clean records, study neuro-computer science and know that Neil Sedaka is a Sephardic Jew.

They make up 6 to 7 percent of the prison population (not 30 percent, as Patrick Buchanan claims). They burden social services like schools and health clinics.

Perhaps most damaging is that these immigrants take jobs that unskilled Americans could otherwise take, helping to create a permanent underemployed, undereducated class of Americans. Early this decade, as the unemployment rate of 18- to 64-year-old natives without a high school education rose from 10 to 14 percent, it fell from 9 to 7 percent among their foreign-born counterparts.

So what is a humane, nonhysterical, mutually beneficial approach? What policies can American Jews support, given their awareness of the good that hard-working outsiders can bestow and the dangers that xenophobia can wreak?

Last week, in an address to the Pacific Council on International Policy, Jorge Castaneda, Mexico’s former foreign minister, outlined one set of solutions. Castaneda — the son of a German Jewish mother and Mexican father — said that any deal must take into account the pull of economic opportunity in the United States and the push of poverty and poor social policy in Mexico.

Mexico should agree to enforce its southern border, a thruway for migrants from Central America; stop people from leaving the country illegally; reward those who stay with better benefits; penalize families whose members emigrate; and provide development and job opportunities to those who stay.

The United States should agree to better enforcement at the border and with employers, a tamper-proof ID system and an expansive guest/temporary worker program. Two-thirds of immigrants prefer to come and go, Castaneda said, working for American dollars but living in Mexico. Tighter border controls under the Clinton administration only served to lock illegal immigrants in, not keep them out.

Finally, the United States needs to create a simple and expedited path to citizenship for the 12 million or more Mexicans and others in the country today. Just 4 percent of the population, they will eventually be assimilated into the fabric of the country — a country that over the last decade, I might add, they helped build.

Castaneda, who is also the author of “Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants” (The New Press, 2008), pointed out that Americans seem to favor a humane and sensible approach. Two Minuteman-approved presidential candidates, Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo, were quickly deported from the ’08 race. Sen. John McCain, the Republican with what Castaneda calls “the most sensible and generous” point of view, is so far his party’s front-runner.

The Jewish community needs to be loud and supportive of such moderation. We can’t leave all the heavy lifting to Luis.