The immigration debate isn’t about hysteria. It’s about human beings. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s about hard choices that bring heartbreak. It’s about accepting that, as Bruce Springsteen says in his haunting ballad “Sinaloa Cowboys”: “For everything the north gives, it exacts a price in return.”
I recently learned that lesson from spending an afternoon with a “bad hombre.”
That’s the term of endearment President Donald Trump has given to some of the undocumented population. It’s only a slight improvement on what President Barack Obama called them: “gang-bangers.”
In his address to Congress, Trump declared: “We are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens.”
But still, as with Obama, Trump’s definition of “criminals” includes housekeepers, gardeners and nannies.
I found the bad hombre – whose name is Jose – on a 60-acre farm in Northeast San Diego County. The family operation grows avocados, tangerines and wine grapes. These crops cannot be harvested by machine, especially in the cramped space on which this farm is located.
Instead of preying on citizens, Jose is pruning grape vines. It is called work.
Look up that word in the dictionary. These days, Americans hardly recognize physical labor. We’re raising our kids to be soft and to see any physical job as beneath them.
According to the president, the bad hombres are takers. They take dirty jobs that we’re told Americans want to do. They take benefits that make them dependent on politicians. They take away our safety by committing crimes – albeit at a lower rate than U.S. citizens.
Trump told Congress that removing illegal immigrants will “save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages and help struggling families – including immigrant families – enter the middle class.”
One can peddle that nonsense in Washington. Luckily for me, I live nearly 3,000 miles outside the Beltway. And today, my classroom is this family farm.
For a taker, Jose is awfully productive. Hailing from the Mexican state of Guanajuato, he cares for this farm like it was his own. And he feels valued and appreciated by the farmer. In fact, they seem like partners.
Jose earns more than $13.50 per hour, an improvement on California’s minimum wage of $10.50.
Far from exploiting him, the farmer pays his worker well because he respects what the farmer values most: his fruit.
In choppy Spanish, I tell Jose that my grandfather came from Chihuahua as a child during the Mexican Revolution.
“I know Chihuahua,” he responds with a half-smile.
I tell him I grew up around farms in Central California and that I’ve come back to the fields to find out what effect Trump’s proposed deportation force will have out here.
“It could cause a lot of problems,” Jose says. “A lot of people are worried.”
He follows the news by reading Mexican newspapers online at the public library. And so he knows that Trump and other politicians want to use deportations to open up jobs for U.S. workers.
“They say this is about work, that we’re taking work away from Americans,” Jose says. “But work we have plenty of. They should come down here and help us do some of it.”
Gently, I ask about his legal status.
Jose has no documents. The first time he crossed the border was about 13 years ago, he says, and he paid a coyote (smuggler) $3,500. Three years later, he briefly returned home. Then he paid $4,500 to get back to the United States so he could continue to earn money for his family, who stayed in Mexico. The next time he goes back, he’ll stay for good.
Finally, I ask about his family. He tells me proudly that he has two daughters in private school in Mexico, where they’re learning English. They’re teenagers, 13 and 18.
Even more gently, I ask when he last saw them. After a pause, he says it was on his last trip to Mexico – 10 years ago. This poor man has missed most of his daughters’ lives, all so those lives could be better. His eyes fill with tears, and he looks away.
The north has collected its price. The bad hombre is broken.
On the drive home, I wonder: Are these the people that Trump wants us to be afraid of?
Forget that. I’m much more afraid of despicable politicians, in both parties, who wreak havoc in people’s lives by fiddling with complex issues they don’t understand.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.