Whenever the immigration issue comes up, as it has now with the ongoing Supreme Court review of Arizona's anti-immigrant law, so does Joe Arpaio. The famous Phoenix sheriff is in the national news again this week over a recording surfaced by The Associated Press in which Arpaio can be heard doing a kind of stand-up routine -- and getting laughs -- in front of a Houston audience, bragging about arresting Mexican laborers "just for spite."
You know Arpaio. He gets rave reviews from the anti-immigrant crowd for torturing arrested immigrants and American citizens, stuffing them into canvas infernos in the Arizona heat, feeding them green bologna and dressing them in pink underwear -- a truly pervy form of amusement.
In the deepest depths of my soul, I swear I do not get it. I swear. Tell me where it comes from. Do you know?
The houses in my neighborhood are old and in a state of constant re-repair. We're a middle class street. People often have to get the work done cheaply. The lesson of time, however, is that you'd better get it done well, or the house will punish you. I do a lot of stuff myself, badly. Then I hire somebody to fix it.
There are white and Hispanic-American guys who show up in sleek white vans to do serious work on the street -- tear out a bathroom and build it back for wheelchair access, something like that. They're professional. When you need them, you need them. It's a mistake to go any other way.
But we also have this floating population of illegal guys. They walk up and ask for work. They work as hard as they can all day long. The ones we hire back do great work. We pay them cheap. In the evening when they are done, they sometimes tip their heads, hats in hand, and say, "Thank you for the work."
Thank you for the work. How can any of us hear that phrase and not feel a rush of admiration? How can "thank you for the work" possibly be a bad thing?
Is the legal status of illegal workers a bad thing? Is the condition of their lives a bad thing? Are we crooks for using them? Sure. Yes to all of the above.
But tell me what they did that was bad. They came here to work. They do work. They work hard. We pay them to work hard. So tell me how and why we could possibly wind up hating them, ridiculing them, torturing them for coming here and working hard? There's a profound moral sickness in this, some kind of sick projection of our own guilt.
Do they break the law by coming here? Yes. But we pay them to break the law. We beg them to break the law. We need them to break the law.
Here's a metaphor for it: I call a dope dealer and ask him to bring me a bag of weed. He shows up. I buy the drug. And then what? I say, "You son of a bitching crook! You made me buy illegal drugs!" And then I call the cops on him? That is so twisted. So profoundly morally corrupt.
One day a guy working at our place gets a phone call, and I see him speaking into the cell phone with an expression of deep anguish. He's trying to reassure someone.
My own Spanish isn't just broken, it isn't Spanish. But we manage to communicate. Back in Mexico there is an hijo, a niño problematico, a son who won't go to school, hanging with the wrong crowd. It's eating up his wife. He's trying to give her strength.
"How long since you've been home?" I ask.
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Damn. Damn. Six months away from home, eking out a living from guys like me, shipping all the money home to keep a roof over the family and food on their table. Six months away from his son.
Why don't we see nobility in that? Why don't we hear echos of the courage and self-sacrifice that made this country great in the first place?
I'm not even suggesting that I know the answer to the immigration conundrum. I'm not really talking about that, at bottom. I'm talking about the moral conundrum.
How can people laugh at Joe Arpaio? Do you know?