Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who outed himself as undocumented, has been raised by some as a prime example of the kind of immigrant who should be allowed to stay in the country. He has worked hard, earned proper degrees and won acclaim in his profession. He is an attractive, well-dressed and articulate young man. Had he not revealed his secret, one could swear that he was born here.
But what about the migrant farm or restaurant worker who has little education, speaks nary a word of English and chooses to remain in the shadows so that he might keep toiling, earn a meager wage and barely provide for his wife and American children?
Who is the desirable immigrant? Who should stay and who should go?
This is what unsettles me most about this whole affair, why I expressed ambivalence about Vargas’ actions in a podcast for Feet in 2 Worlds.
Vargas’ coming out and ongoing advocacy has certainly refueled discourse about immigration and what ought to be done with the millions who live and work in America without papers. However, his example perpetuates only one idea of who we should welcome and embrace.
There is no doubt that the country stands to gain by luring the best and the brightest. In order for the United States to maintain its economic standing globally and keep China and India at bay, we need to attract and embrace those with advanced degrees, particularly in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).
We must bear in mind however, that in order for the country to keep running we also need those who are willing to harvest our fields, work in construction, watch our children, wash dishes in restaurants, maintain our lawns, clean our offices and serve us fast food. As it is, newly minted state laws are scaring such immigrants away in Georgia and Alabama much to the detriment of the states’ economies and their residents’ well-being.
It is of national interest to have the right labor force mix which includes both highly educated and skilled workers and manual and low-skilled laborers. Although farming has become highly mechanized, there is still a demand for people willing to do back-breaking labor under the hot sun. Although factories are increasingly automated, America still needs hands to manufacture goods, and service and retail industries have grown exponentially.
We cannot be blindsided by our bias for the well-scrubbed and well-spoken. After all, who’s going to keep the offices of award-winning journalists clean?
Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds, July 14, 2011.