When I was a boy, my dad would often regale me and my brothers with stories about his summer travels to the Midwest to tend the fields as a child migrant worker. He and his eight siblings would join up with other extended family members on farms in Nebraska and Minnesota picking strawberries and other fruit.
Having gone on eight-hour road trips to Dallas for summer vacation, I could not imagine why anyone would need to travel northward for days longer. So I asked.
“No one else would do it but us Mexicans,” Dad would respond, training his eyes again on the 400 miles of freeway we took from Laredo to the baseball diamond in Arlington, Texas, every summer.
From an early age, I understood the importance of the immigrant in our economy.
That made it all the more heart-rending for me to read about the comments San Antonio residents made at a July 30 meeting to explain the purpose of the new migrant resource center on San Pedro Avenue. Residents quoted in reporter Raquel Torres’ article played all the greatest hits in the canon of nativist tropes, while offering little more than conjecture: Rather than the law-abiding and refuge-seeking migrants they are, residents spouted claims of criminals spreading disease and destroying the fabric of their neighborhood.
My paternal grandparents were among the millions of Mexicans who permanently settled in the U.S. to help stabilize the domestic labor force in the years following World War II. Schooled in Mexico for only six years, my grandpa was eager to take any opportunity at employment, whether it was farm work, shining shoes as a teenager in downtown Laredo or later driving tractor-trailers across the country.
The fact of the matter is, people like my grandfather are badly needed in economic climates thrown askew by rising inflation and labor shortages.
Foreign-born workers are more likely to take jobs in construction, hospitality and manufacturing — precisely the industries native United States residents are running away from. Due in part to the lack of immigration over the past two years, the U.S. is dealing with a massive labor shortage. The number of job openings throughout the country is three times the number of unemployed workers.
The pandemic caused record lows in immigration in 2020 because of global limitations on movement during the early days of the virus’s spread and changes in domestic immigration policy. Not to mention the Trump Administration’s Title 42 policy, which granted immigration enforcement authorities carte blanche to expel any migrant, including asylum seekers, from the country due to ongoing transmission of COVID-19. The Biden Administration has continued that policy.
Those expulsions were among the roughly 520,000 immigration enforcement actions U.S. authorities took in 2020, the lowest on record since 1972. The global population has grown by nearly 3 billion since that year.
2020 also saw fewer than 12,000 people seek asylum or refugee status, the lowest that figure has been since the U.S. began gathering that data following the 1980 Refugee Act. That pandemic-stricken year meant more movement in 2021, when travel restrictions began to be relaxed.
For all the emphasis on keeping people out in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the data actually shows that the immigrant population already residing in the U.S. was disproportionately at risk of dying from the disease. Foreign-born people were twice as likely to die from COVID in 2020 than those who were born in the U.S., according to a University of Minnesota study.
The people at the migrant resource center are there because they have followed every legal avenue to have their asylee status adjudicated in our federal immigration courts. The City of San Antonio is neither supporting illegal immigration, nor is it providing a “sanctuary” for people who have crossed the border without authorization.
To look at this issue from the business community’s perspective — after all, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce sponsored the development of the city’s strategic plan for welcoming immigrants — foreign-born workers are a key piece of the economic puzzle. In fact, more than a third of all construction workers in the U.S. were born outside the country. So by giving migrants the resources they need to make a life in this country, San Antonio is indirectly doing its part to fill needed jobs, keep supply chains running and stabilize worker wages. (All of which are factors in the country’s skyrocketing inflation).
I’m grateful for the privilege my forebears have afforded me through their sacrifice, but I wish this country practiced more gratitude to the immigrants upon whose shoulders we all stand. I could not fathom braving this blistering heat to pick fruit in an open field, miles away from the nearest medical facility — especially in light of the past few weeks of record-high temperatures.
The place San Antonio occupies as the main pit stop in migrants’ voyage to their probable new homes in the U.S. is not an altruistic one. We need them as much as they need us.