Thursday, March 30, 2006


When my wife and I had our second child, twenty years into our marriage and ten years after our first son was born, we were not in our “first youth” as the French say, and we were looking for a mother’s helper to assist us with the care of a demanding, colicky infant. Gloria, a Hispanic woman who worked as a housekeeper for a family in our apartment building, hearing of our need, told us that she had a “cousin” – Esperanza -- newly arrived from Bolivia – who needed work. And so we arranged to interview Esperanza. I call her that, although it is not her real name. I am not trying to hide her identify for any legal reason but to protect her privacy which she values.

A tiny young woman dressed in a rough woolen sweater of vivid Indian design, Esperanza came to the interview wearing a long shining black braid, luminous dark eyes, a short turned down nose; hers was the profile of a Mayan goddess found in a frieze in an ancient ruin. Her few words of English were fortified by a great smile, and her bright eyes trained themselves on the books in my library with what appeared to be a wonderful curiosity about a world larger than the one she had known. With the help of her cousin Gloria – who had a fine command of English – and my own wretched high school Spanish – Esperanza informed us that she knew a great deal about child care, loved children, and had infinite patience– and although she arrived with no references other than Gloria’s testimony, it was all proven to be true in the next five years that she lived with us. Later we would learn that in the culture of Hispanic household workers “cousin” was a description of friendship and common geographical origin, and had little to do with actual blood kinship. Slowly over time, as Esperanza mastered English, and she came to trust us, we learned how this young woman had come into the country.

Esperanza, at eighteen, had been hired in her native Bolivia to act as the nursemaid and housekeeper for one of the Bolivian diplomats working at the UN. Eager to escape the relentless poverty of her life at home, and determined to help her impoverished family with her wages, she readily agreed to accompany the diplomat and his family from Bolivia to New York. After months of working for the diplomat, cleaning his house and caring for his small children, with no wages paid, she was advised that none would be paid. She was told that she was lucky to live in a clean room and eat three meals a day, and to stop bothering the diplomat and his wife about a salary. Didn’t she know that there were thousands of young girls like her back home who were eager to work under these conditions? Her job turned out to be a twelve hour seven day a week employment. She soon understood that she was being held in virtual slavery by the diplomat and his capricious, demanding wife, and that there was no one to turn to for help but the network of fellow countrymen whom she met on a grocery shopping expedition. She longed to escape from her unpaid bondage, but Esperanza was without a visa, a passport, or a green card, the diplomat had held on to her visa to keep her from escaping: she was as “undocumented” as a human being could be, and she knew she risked deportation if discovered. Her options were few. She could not return to her impoverished family in Bolivia, indeed, the diplomat might have made it difficult for her if she had, since he was a man who might seek to punish a girl who had fled his home.

In the course of a few years, while she was living with us and caring for our young son, Esperanza attended English classes at night, mastered the language both as a speaker and a writer, obtained her GED High School degree, cut her hair, learned to dress in a fashionable style, fell in love, and upon discovering that she was pregnant, married her lover. The marriage failed. The machismo of the husband was offended by his wife’s desire to improve her education, and she grew tired of his abuse and unfaithfulness. He moved on, leaving Esperanza alone and pregnant again. The right to life people found her on the way to a clinic, and convinced her to have her second child. They provided her with a crib, but nothing else in the way of support over the years. Alone, she continued to work to support her children, finding employment as an aide in a nursing home where she cared for the elderly, emptying bedpans and often lifting the aged into and out of wheelchairs, injuring her back, but continuing to work. During this time, she advanced her education with college courses and found work in an inner city nursery school as a teacher. By the time her son was in High School she had been voted Mother of the Year in her city. Her son went on to become a schoolteacher/coach, her beautiful daughter the editor of a Spanish language fashion magazine, and Esperanza herself found work as a liaison between the Hispanic community and the local school boards. She was never far from the poverty level, but she had raised two splendid children, and entered middle age a woman of accomplishment with loving friends and family. And she had made an important contribution to the Hispanic community in her city, and one to my children, my life and my wife’s.

This story might have had a very different ending if not for the intervention of some caring people. Tired of living in the half world of the undocumented, Esperanza tried to legalize her status and she applied for a green card at an immigration office. She naively reported herself believing that this would help to resolve her status. This only led to an order of deportation. She called my wife and told her what had occurred, fearful that her son and daughter, who had been born in America, and raised as Americans, were going to be forced to return to a Bolivia that they did not know, one in which they could not prosper. My wife, determined to prevent this, contacted the Governor of the nearby state where Esperanza lived, told him of this woman’s life and struggle, and he offered to help. Nevertheless, even with a Governor on her side, Esperanza had to make an appearance before an immigration Judge, and my wife and I were asked by the public defender to testify in her behalf. We swore to all that we knew that was good and true about her. But it was her six year old son, who arrived in court with a flute, and played it for the Judge, who clearly won the day for her. Music hath charms more powerful than friendly rhetoric. After much paper work by the lawyers, and months of delay, Esperanza’s status was legalized, and this country eventually obtained a remarkable citizen who added immeasurably to the good of our society.

I write this not because I want to glorify an exceptional woman who would much prefer that nothing was said about her, although she deserves whatever glory she has earned, but because I am confident that there are thousands of Esperanzas in our country, men and women struggling to make a good life for themselves and their children, fearful of deportation because they are “undocumented,” and swept into the generalizations about illegal aliens who break our laws, drain our resources and offer nothing back to our country but cheap labor.

There is an element of nativist racism in the argument against a more open and humane immigration policy. If the eleven million undocumented aliens were not brown, but fair haired Canadians from North of the border, would there be such an outcry? The problem of the undocumented is deeper than people being smuggled across the border into our country to pick strawberries and work our restaurant kitchens. If they willingly take low paying jobs that Americans refuse to take, is it the nature of the job, or the low minimum wage that is behind this refusal of our citizens to work at minimum wages? If the undocumented use our hospitals and schools, are they the problem for struggling hospitals and overcrowded schools, or is it the lack of universal health care in this country and the way funds for schools (derived from real estate taxes) are distributed? We can blame only so much on the undocumented before we are obliged to look at the documented failures of our own society and the Bush administration in the field of health care and education.

I know the downside of a guest worker program or one of amnesty; it appears that it is rewarding illegal behavior. Yes, true, but our society does that time and again. We reward a President who violates our constitution by refusing to censure him, we reward a Congress who squanders our treasure with pork barrel legislation designed by lobbyists; none of which is an argument for rewarding the undocumented, but it does help to put some perspective into this problem of what constitutes illegality. I herewith make a modest proposal. Why not return Texas and California to Mexico so that all the undocumented were citizens again? What would we lose? Some bad politics and some bad films? Best of all, gone from our republic would be the two states that gave us George Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger? And if we throw in Arizona, we might be spared the Presidency of a John McCain, wildly careening ever rightward towards the Republican nomination. Best of all, the undocumented would find themselves legal residents of a greater Mexico, and the problem would disappear overnight. Makes sense, doesn’t it?