With the failure of the immigration bill still causing murmurs across the nation, the topic of immigration, legal and illegal, has finally moved to the front burner of American politics. And while most frequently thought a problem in the big cities of such states as California, Arizona, and Texas, it’s an issue that touches even small places. It’s touched Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It’s touched our daughter. And it’s touched me.
As is typical with a lot of liberal-arts majors after graduation from college, our daughter found herself spending about a year back at home, sorting things out. Being a good daughter from a family of Puritans, she knew that the ultimate shame was not working¯and so she took a succession of jobs as a waitress.
One of these jobs was at an ethnic restaurant I’ll call Big Billy’s, which serves mounds of food, smorgasbord-style, on rows of steaming hot trays. Locals have repeatedly voted Big Billy’s their most popular ethnic restaurant. The food is abundant and reasonably priced, and there is regularly a wait for a table. Most of the cooks are from the restaurant owner’s home country, while the clean-up crew and kitchen assistants are Latino, and the waiters are a mix of recent college graduates and a few imports from Alabama and Arkansas awaitin’ their big break as country singers up in Nashville. The place is a babble of foreign tongues and a lot of loud redneck Southern vernacular. (I’ve long thought that it would make the perfect locale for a sitcom.)
One evening, my daughter noticed two new Latinos quietly eating in the kitchen. She asked a co-worker who they were, and he said he had just watched them being "delivered." He had been having a smoke on the back steps a few minutes earlier when a truck drove up, pulling behind it a sedan. A man got out, went to the car, opened the back door, pulled back a blanket, and two men, who had been lying covered up in the backseat, got out. One of the restaurant’s owners came out of the café, spoke with the driver a bit in their native language, then handed the driver a wad of bills and took the men inside, where they were given dinner.
Reportedly, the delivery man was paid $1,500 for each of the workers. The fee, as well as a lot else, had to be worked off. The owners house their workers in two decaying split-level homes about a mile from the restaurant: their own ethnic group’s workers in one, Latinos in the other (the owners’ sister serves as a kind of frat-house mother). The workers are shuttled between the houses and the restaurant in vans. Housing and transportation fees are deducted from their wages. Whatever money is left, the workers seem mostly to send back to their homes.
The Latinos whom my daughter met were hard workers. And they were in the United States because they loved their families and had the courage to go to desperate measures to try to provide for them. But with their world caged between the interior of the restaurant, the continually shuttered split-levels where they are housed, the van that shuttles them between the two, and the fear that they were criminals, they are isolated and deeply lonely. And they found comfort in those two traditional friends of the lonely and the poor: alcoholism and prostitution.
Not surprisingly, Big Billy’s corrupt labor practices spilled over into other aspects of the business. The staff was encouraged to lie about the MSG content in the food¯the line was that it wasn’t used; the truth was that there were ten-gallon buckets of MSG in the kitchen with handwritten English labels on them reading "corn starch." Several of the waiters claimed to have witnessed cash being passed to health inspectors.
You might think that Big Billy’s would be an establishment of interest to local authorities. But it continues to flourish, apparently untroubled. Across the street is an older ethnic restaurant. Not being able to compete with Big Billy’s cheap prices (carried on the back of its largely undocumented laborers), the older restaurant is seriously struggling.
What seems to be missing from the immigration discussion is how deeply this business corrupts everyone who touches it. Our daughter felt corrupted by working there. She didn’t like what was happening to the workers but knew that, if she reported the possible immigration violations, her friends might be deported. And bad as things might be at Big Billy’s, they were worse in Mexico. In any case, her friend’s families depended upon the wages sent down to them from el Norte . And while she had little sympathy for her employers, they were her employers after all and had given her a job. In short, they deserved some loyalty. (Remember, she comes from a family of Puritans.)
The Latino workers themselves were corrupted because, in order to support their families, they had to violate the very laws of the nation that provided them the economic opportunity¯and legal system¯that made their jobs possible and that their own countries denied them. And as they were laboring for their families, they were simultaneously wounding their family life: not only by their extended absence but also by developing habits of drunkenness and commercial sex.
For that matter, the toleration of what is in effect a pool of illegally employed indentured labor corrupts our business community. As long as Big Billy’s and businesses like it continue to be profitable, they will gets loans from the bank, renew their insurance policies, get their ads placed in the local paper, and be honored with a bell at the Rotary luncheon.
The politicians¯all those other folks at the Rotary tables¯seem to be pitching their rhetoric and tailoring their legislation more to a view of capturing the loyalty of a new voting block than finding a solution that is both charitable and honors the law. Law enforcement, perhaps through resigned frustration, appear to be blind to the situation. But equally blind are the patrons. Because the mountains of food are so cheap, we still wait for the tables. We just have to pretend not to see the dark-skinned boy speaking Spanish hauling the plates back to the kitchen.
But then we have a tradition here in the South of not seeing dark-skinned boys hauling plates back to the kitchen, don’t we? Oh, that hurts. Maybe it’s not that the illegal immigration business is corrupting us here in Tennessee. Instead, perhaps it’s our corruption that’s attracting the illegal immigrants. The problem now, just as it was in 1845, isn’t the exploitation of an underclass. The problem is our greed that makes the exploitation tolerable.
Our daughter quit and took another job waiting tables at a café that promises "southern cooking with Italian roots" (which sounds like scampi with grits). In the fall she begins teaching Spanish at a prep school and working on a pilot for a television news channel in Nashville. Her apprentice days busing tables seem over. But when will the indenture of her friends at Big Billy’s end? Seven years? Ten? Never? What old laws will be enforced and what new laws will be passed to make this a land of "liberty and justice for all"? And is there a piece of legislation that can be drafted, and debated, and voted, and signed that will make me less supercilious as I look at our past? As I look at Big Billy’s? As I look at me?
While it’s our opportunity and freedom that draws illegal immigrants to the United States, it’s our greed that shackles and corrupts them. That shackles and corrupts us, as well¯in more comfortable but more damning ways.
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.