Monday, June 3, 2013

Pick Me, Pick Me!

It's June! First of all...I'm a little freaked out at how fast June got here. Secondly, I'm a little freaked out because June means it's time for Bree to attend SIT (Shakespeare Intensive Training) at the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta. Normally this isn't a time to freak out...but it's her last year so every day is bittersweet and a reminder that she's growing up. I love these trips...the conversations on the way there (once we wake one ever accused us of being morning people) and the excitement and enthusiasm with which she shares her day with me on the way home. This year, knowing it's the last year, that she's finishing school, preparing to go overseas for a year, growing up...I savor this time knowing it's the last time we'll ever do this.

Since I'm unemployed, have no where to be (what an odd feeling!) and need to save $$$ as much as possible, I tend to stay nearby whether than driving back to Newnan. Typically, after I drop Embree off, I drive the short distance down to Ponce to the shopping center on the left. There's a Starbucks, a Whole Foods...well, there's other stores but those are my two hangouts. I spend most of my day at one of the outside tables at Whole Foods...reading, writing, surfing the web when I can catch the WiFi, and taking a walk before it's too hot. (Some of you will know I did this Bree's 2nd year of SIT when Borders was still open and how that impacted my passion on certain issues and the choice to leave OM for Wellspring Living).

So far, no one has questioned my right to be there or run me off and I'm really glad. It's close, the parking is free, I like the atmosphere and the people watching opportunities are great (in a general interest in humans way, not crazy stalker lady way...I'm not that weird!)

Today, as I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed the men standing in a line on the sidewalk. Sometimes they interact, most of the time, they don't. They are in competition. Having worked for a construction company before, I know these guys...not personally, but I know why they are standing there. It's a common site anywhere there is a Lowe's, Home Depot, etc. Anywhere contractors and construction workers frequent. The guys on the sidewalk are waiting, hoping for work. It happens a couple of ways...a contractor comes by and says "You, you and you" and the lucky ones hope in the back of a truck and off they go. Sometimes the contractor just says "I need five guys" and the first five to get in the truck win. As the morning drags on, the men who weren't picked (or didn't make it in the truck), start to show their disappointment, their some cases, despair. Finally, at no specific time but when it's apparent they won't be working that day, the men disperse. Some of them disappear, others congregate in the shade on the other side of the parking lot (joining the homeless, the beggars and the panhandlers).

For some reason it makes me think that horrible custom in grade school know the one...the teacher has you line up in a row and then picks two "captains" to "pick" their teams. The popular kids and the kids good at sports get picked first and then you have the kids like me. Since I didn't figure out how to channel my aggression into sports until middle school and I was way too odd to be popular, I was one of those last picked...or worse, not picked at all and shuffled to the team that was one player short. It was terrible. Being "picked" was all about your validation and value as a person. You had a right to the gym, in the school...on the planet! You stood there in a line screaming in your head "Pick me, pick me!"

For the guys on the sidewalk, being picked is about way more than a 5th graders need for belonging. It's about survival...about being able to eat today or tomorrow, whether they can feed their children, pay the light bill or the rent, send money to family back home.

Circumstances once brought me face to face with a couple of guys like this. A father and a son. Illegal immigrants who'd made the choice to come to America in order to provide for their family (the Mom and two daughters were still in Mexico). Most of the guys who stand on that sidewalk are immigrants-illegal or otherwise-or otherwise disenfranchised...homeless, uneducated, unable to find regular employment for a variety of reasons. They'll work hard and at the end of the day, they'll be paid in cash. "Under the table" it's called...and it's no where near minimum wage.

Construction and landscaping companies rely on these guys to keep their labor costs low. The don't report wages, pay social security or workman's compensation for these guys. If one of them gets hurt and he's lucky, the contractor will pay his doctor bill but he won't get anything for the time he's out of work. Most of the time, he's not that lucky. Illegal immigrants obviously can't do anything about the way their treated for fear of being deported. And others have no resources or idea where to turn for help.

The father and son I mentioned...they lived in a two bedroom house with fourteen other guys. They took any job they could get and sent most of their money back home. When the dad got sick, there was no money for a doctor and fear would've kept them from going anyway. The contractor they'd been working for had no interest in what happened to the father so the 17 year old son had no where to turn. He nursed his dad as best he could until the man died in the early hours of the morning. The son was deported back to Mexico. There were more guys to take their place in the parking lot.

Is this labor trafficking? Only in the broadest sense. But without a doubt, it is exploitation. As these men stand around waiting, hoping to earn money that day, hoping someone will pick them, they are being used by a system that refuses to acknowledge they have dignity, deserve respect or that they deserve to be treated like most laborers should be treated.

I don't know how to fix it all: education, job training, churches and groups reaching out to communities in extreme need, and revising the immigration process are all good steps. But none of those will happen until we stop avoiding the site of these men and take a good long look at them. See them as human beings, men of dignity, deserving respect and fair treatment for the work they are doing.

Let's be real, the moment I admitted that most of the men standing on the sidewalk were immigrants and probably illegal, your attitude changed. You grumbled about immigrants taking jobs from "Americans" (the jobs they do, most Americans would never do...let alone in the conditions they work in), you deemed them criminals never realizing the desperation that causes them to decide to come into the country illegally, you started ranting about welfare (believing-wrongly-that most of them can actually get it). Take some time to learn about the immigration process, the amount of paperwork and the money involved. Take some time to think about the conditions most of them are coming from.

Tell me, if your kids were starving, what would you do to feed them? I remember that question in high school during an ethics it okay to steal to feed your family. Somehow, we almost all agreed that 'yes' it was justified even if it was still wrong. But we don't give illegal immigrants the same grace.

And remember not all of them are illegal. No more than every homeless guy you give money to is a con artist or a drug addict. Each one of them has a different story, a different background. But each one of them has value.

I hate to end without some idea of next steps...but I just don't know. I don't know if this problem will ever be solved. I know that in the '80s there was a housing boom and we needed cheap labor so we turned our heads at the influx of illegal immigrants coming in, working for ridiculously low wages and building our houses and businesses and then we demonized them for doing it. I know the practice is still going on but to stop it would mean these guys would have no work. I just don't know...

All I know is watching them stand there, yelling in their heads "Pick me, pick me" meant that someone needed to notice them.

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