Just blocks from my home, a demonstration is under way. News crews are out in full force — barricades barely separate the two sides and their overwhelming mutual distaste and anger. I stand next to a young father, his small son perched upon his shoulders, and I'm struck by how much this boy resembles what my own son looked like more than a decade ago. I can't remember the last time I was able to hoist my two boys upon my shoulders, allowing them a broader worldview. Tonight this little boy, with his crew cut, beaming dimples, soft brown complexion, and unyielding curiosity is mesmerized by the angry crowd. His tiny hands tightly grip his father's chin as he stares unfalteringly at the sea of angry white faces.
Nearby, a tearful teenage Hispanic girl describes the struggles of her high school friends with a local television reporter. "My friends know nothing else but this country," she says. She explains that they crossed the border illegally with their parents as small children, and were raised and educated in the United States. Soon they'll be deported to a country where they declare no identity or allegiance.
Across the barricades, the insults grow volatile, as more intense, hateful yelling erupts. These gatherings are the direct result of a rising tide of anti-immigration sentiment spreading throughout the nation. The mostly Hispanic crowd is generally peaceful, but determined to protest the increased random sweeps and deportations of undocumented workers. A small but vocal group of mostly white Americans gathersinformally on the other side. They speak freely to the reporters, sharing their anger and frustration about the "illegals," while many of the Hispanic protesters are unwilling to go on camera. They're clearly fearful of the overwhelming presence of the law, and rightly so.
As I stand on the periphery and survey the landscape, I struggle to recognize the simmering rage on this street corner. I grew up just a few miles from here and now raise my family little more than a stone's throw from this emerging epicenter. I hadn't intended to hire an illegal alien, or several for that matter, but standing among the crowd I am certain I'd do it again if faced with the same set of circumstances.
In recent years Arizona has enacted some of the toughest employer sanction laws, targeting business owners who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Year after year, flimsily crafted Band-Aid legislation flows through the halls of the Arizona legislature, further restricting employment, health care, education, and most other resources that would benefit illegal immigrants and their children. In lieu of any meaningful national solution to the immigration debate, many Arizonans have demanded more vigilant police enforcement. The local county sheriff, Joe Arpaio, self-professed "America's Toughest," is quick to cater to this growing frustration and anger. He carries out frequent raids in and around Phoenix, where undocumented workers congregate to seek day labor. Handcuffed illegal aliens prove irresistible to local and national media, and as a result have made Sheriff Joe famous.
Many states are following Arizona's lead. Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and Indiana have moved forward with similar punitive legislation directed at undocumented workers and their families. In these states and many others, legislators hope tougher sanctions will send the undocumented back to their homelands, or at the very least somewhere else. The aftermath of such actions has led the U.S. attorney general to review potential civil rights violations. And there are clear economic ramifications. There is now a shortage of manual labor to harvest crops and fill low-paying positions within factories and the service industry. In addition, there is a direct impact upon retail sales and a resulting loss in tax revenues, which has hit municipal and state budgets forcefully. In several of these states, families living in fear are too terrified to send their children, many of them American citizens, to school.
Who shall pass through our borders and what skills will they possess? It's estimated by the Department of Homeland Security that there are 11.5 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S.; more than 50% of these residents come from Mexico. Regardless of a mounting law enforcement presence, thousands without documents pass through the country's southern borders each month — many will cross through Arizona. Of the more than 6 million residents who live in Arizona, approximately 360,000 are there illegally. Once they successfully gain entry, a large number head further north, beyond California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, in an effort to seek economic security for themselves and their families back home. Experts agree that many more illegal residents go unreported, leaving the true numbers well above any official data.
With a growing tide of hostility and increased retribution toward Hispanic immigrants, both legal and illegal, it is a perilous time. Two years have passed since Arizona governor Jan Brewer, signed Senate Bill 1070, which requires law enforcement officers to request identification from "suspected" immigrants, a part of the law which the U.S. Supreme Court did not strike down in its ruling this week. Like Sheriff Joe, Governor Brewer has often blamed illegal aliens for much of the state's economic woes and criminal activity.
Arizonans have spoken by overwhelmingly supporting these tough-talking politicians, and along the way reignited a national debate regarding our borders and the fate of immigration. In the wake of the presidential election, the subject of immigration is likely to remain at the forefront.
Meanwhile, tonight, on this unassuming corner, Arizona feels disoriented and at odds with itself. My front row ticket to this debate comes as a result of my children. As is the case with so many deeper life lessons, our children illuminate the truth. Over the course of a decade, I hired several Mexican nannies to care for my two boys, each an unlikely yet exemplary teacher and role model for both father and sons.
All came with little but gave so much. None had great career aspirations or burning desires to achieve great wealth. Although there was much at stake, each shared an understanding of life's fundamental reason for living: family. At the center of their value system: children. Their unconditional love, revered appreciation for the smallest among us, and unyielding hope through unimaginable odds demonstrated a completeness in each of these women that is worthy of emulation.
As the first, Paulina left the most enduring impression. Her enthusiasm for living, and infectious spirit were only outdone by her unending commitment and compassion for my oldest son. Carmen followed, Mormon Bible in hand, her mission to bring order to our home. Ana, ever the playmate, came and went too quickly. And finally there was Rosa, who brought not only her love and compassion for my two boys, but her remarkable family.
While each of these women is an unlikely American heroine, all displayed an indisputable commitment to my children. Our time together not only made me a better man and father, but highlighted a shared value system that would overshadow any of our differences. Each woman held within her a humble desire for a more prosperous future for her family. Their journeys mirror the march of millions before and after them.
My decision to hire these women had nothing to do with a need to challenge a prevailing philosophical viewpoint or further incite a conservative battle cry; it was simply about the well-being of children; my children. Through these women and their families, I've grown to better understand the motivations of those illegally crossing our borders and the many commonalities they share with most Americans.
One by one, as reporters sign off the air and the camera lights shut down, the news crews quickly disappear. The darkness triggers the crowd to disperse. The boy, who reminds me of my own son so long ago, has since fallen asleep on his father's shoulders. The man gently places his boy in a car seat; he's eager to return home and lay his son safely down to sleep. He gathers his other family members and drives away. For in the end, it's all about the children.
JOHN WALDRON lives in Phoenix with his partner and two sons. He has taught at several universities, and spent much of his professional life in a series of executive positions within sales and marketing. Waldron has just completed a memoir titled A Father's Angels and is now at work on his second book. He can be reached through his website at http://johnstevenwaldron.com.