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April 7, 2006

There but for the grace of God.

Chris Patterson

As a nation, we are involved in a very tough debate right now. Most Americans agree some immigration reform is necessary, but in what way? And to what degree?

There are some things we need to consider during this deliberation.

As a nation we love to give a leg up, but most of us don't want to carry those who won't - at least - try to help themselves.

And that's the problem we must consider. The amount of poverty in Mexico and other Central America countries is substantial, even in places where money is flowing like water down the Mississippi River.

A few people control the money. More families than you can imagine are living in poverty. They dream the American Dream. They dream of decent work, schools and medical services. They want to find it here if they cannot get it in their homeland. So they come here.

My husband and I recently spent two weeks in Mexico on the Mexican Riviera, including Pacific coast cities such as Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta. The beaches were beautiful, the breezes warm and fresh with flowers. It was an exquisitely relaxing vacation away from the worries and cold weather of February.

While each of these towns has a high tourist population - and there is much American money flooding in - the high level of poverty was often difficult to handle. You cannot walk onto the pier, or into town in any of these places, without passing many women and children trying to sell everything from packages of gum to brightly painted bowls. Even while we were in an open-air tavern enjoying bottled water, they seek a small sale of silver necklaces and bracelets.

One learns not to fret too much about this constant clamoring for American dollars. The residents are not bullies. If you say no, they graciously walk away. But if you venture to deal with them, it can be a bit of a game.

When we were approached, my husband would have me to haggle for a better price, just to see how low we could go. But then his generous nature would get the better of him. For every price I finagled down, he would tell me to go ahead and pay the original price. Mind you, they never expected to get the asking price. Bargaining is the rule there, but they always ended up getting it from us.


An eight-year-old boy - Fernando - approached me at the dock as we were leaving one of the towns. He was golden brown from the sun and had a smile that wouldn't quit. He could speak English well enough to haggle. His glib style and charm reminded me of my eight-year-old grandson, and I suddenly thought "there but for the grace of God" (or an accident of nature, depending on your personal beliefs) - it could have been my eight-year-old little man standing there.

So we bought two little hand-made clay turtle whistles to take home to the boys. We paid full price. He said "gracias." As we walked away we heard Fernando running to his mother "Mama, Mama, look," he said waiving his money. He was so proud.

In Cabo San Lucas we passed a woman on the street painting clay tiles with oil paints. She was using her finger and had no brushes. The tiles were beautiful. When she gave one to us, she made sure the wet tile was packed so it would not be smudged and was protected from breakage. She wanted her work to arrive safely at our home. We paid full price there, too.

In one town, we met generations of a family that painted beautiful bowls and platters in bright colors. In an open-air market, they sat together painting their wares next to a tiny space where the fruits of their labor hung from every possible space. The father, the son, and the grandfather worked there.

In Acapulco, we had a wonderful cab driver. He drove us to dinner to celebrate our anniversary. He waited for us, and then drove us to see the Cliff Divers and back to our ship when the show was over. All evening we talked with him and learned a lot about the city, the lifestyles there, even about each other. The workers on the ship had already told us the best price for taxi service around the town. Our driver was a fair man and didn't overcharge us. He made us feel safe in this place we had never been.

And that is what we saw all over Mexico. People who were trying to make money any way they could. They were not pushy or obnoxious. They were not pathetic or pitiful. They were just trying to make a living. They were trying to survive, to feed their elderly parents, to feed their children. They weren't waiting for a handout. They were trying to work.

So when I say the immigration laws must be toughened and our borders must be tightened, I say it with a heavy heart.

America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. But land of the free does not mean a free ride. I'm not concerned about people who argue the low wages paid to Mexican day workers is driving down wages for Americans. Sorry, we Americans don't want to do that kind of work. And competition is the heart of capitalism. If someone is willing to do a job for less money, so be it.

What concerns me is the muddy area of providing services for the children of illegal immigrants when the parents are not paying taxes. The children are born here and are therefore citizens. As citizens, they are "entitled" to the education and minimum medical services all Americans receive. That is one of the reasons Mom and Dad crossed the border to give birth to their children here. They want them to have things - to have the American dream - that they cannot get in Mexico, Cuba or wherever.

But we also cannot encourage a culture of expectations for nothing. That is not the culture these immigrants have come from. They come from a culture where they must work very hard and long for their money. We already encourage American-born citizens to expect something for nothing. Let's not encourage new Americans to do the same.

We must get control over this situation, but not forget the people, the faces of hard workers who just want to share the dream with us.

There is a way to welcome new friends without supporting them. We just have to find it.

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