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Work: An Immigrant Story

What happens when you can't find native-born Americans able and willing to do hard physical labor?

In his column today, David Brooks writes about immigrants:

Get in your car. If you start in rural New England and drive down into Appalachia or across into the Upper Midwest you will be driving through county after county with few immigrants. These rural places are often 95 percent white. These places lack the diversity restrictionists say is straining the social fabric.

Are these counties marked by high social cohesion, economic dynamism, surging wages and healthy family values? No. Quite the opposite. They are often marked by economic stagnation, social isolation, family breakdown and high opioid addiction. Charles Murray wrote a whole book, “Coming Apart,” on the social breakdown among working-class whites, many of whom live in these low immigrant areas.

One of Murray’s points is that “the feasibility of the American project has historically been based on industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity.” It is a blunt fact of life that, these days, immigrants show more of these virtues than the native-born. It’s not genetic. The process of immigration demands and nurtures these virtues.

Over all, America is suffering from a loss of dynamism. New business formation is down. Interstate mobility is down. Americans switch jobs less frequently and more Americans go through the day without ever leaving the house.

But these trends are largely within the native population. Immigrants provide the antidote.

One of his points is that immigrants are willing to work harder than native-born Americans. He might have a point. It’s easy for a Times columnist to say this after stating that he’s talking about places that are 95 percent white.

What about places that are heavily black? Here’s an anecdote — that’s all it is — but I add it to the discussion.

Around 2007, I think it was, my late father, who lived in rural Louisiana, had some brush he needed clearing in a field he owned. He usually did this himself — or, when I was a kid, with me — but by then he was long retired, and was physically unable to do it. I was living far away.

When I was a teenager, back in the 1980s, it wasn’t hard to find high school kids to do this kind of work. Our parish was 50 percent black, and 50 percent white. We had almost no Asians or Latinos. White kids, black kids, you could hire kids to do this work. As I said, I did this kind of work for my dad. I hated it. It was hot, and it was demanding. But this is what you did.

Not by 2007. No white teenage boys wanted to do that kind of hard physical labor. My father drove into a black neighborhood and found groups of young men — men in their 20s — sitting around with nothing to do. He offered them several times the minimum wage to come clear brush for him for a day. They all declined. They were all out of work and doing nothing that day, but it wasn’t worth it to them. He was a retiree on a fixed income, and couldn’t pay anything more than that. But when I was a teenager, any number of young men would have jumped at the opportunity. Not anymore. Neither whites nor blacks would do physical labor.

(That’s not strictly true — I know a handful of both white men and black men there today who do exactly this kind of work, but at the time my dad needed it, they either weren’t in business, or were too booked up.)

Anyway, my dad didn’t know what to do. One of his friends said that a few Guatemalans had moved into the parish recently. If I recall correctly, they had come with a large contingent of Central Americans who had moved to New Orleans to work on post-Katrina reconstruction. My dad’s friend put him in touch with one of them. They were eager to work. My dad hired the three Guatemalan men who were in town. They cleared the brush in a day, and did a great job of it.

My father was grateful, and he ended up hiring them on more occasions when he needed that kind of work done. My dad was an old white Southern man, and though we never talked about immigration, I imagine he held the usual prejudices about outsiders from Latin America. But I know for a fact he was impressed by those Guatemalan men, and came away with a very positive impression of them. As I’ve mentioned here on other posts, my dad grew up poor, and had a very, very strong work ethic. He judged men based on their willingness to work. As far as he was concerned, those Guatemalan men proved to him their worth that day.

Here’s the thing. In that time, and in that place, there was physical labor to be done. My father, who was very conservative, tried to hire native-born Americans, both black and white, to do the work. He struck out. Over the past 40 years, the cultural attitude towards hard physical labor has changed, for both blacks and whites in our parish. The only men he could find who were willing to do the work were Latino immigrants. Ours is a relatively poor part of America, so the wages he offered them for a day’s labor were standard.

Now, you could say that the immigrants were undercutting the locals by being willing to work for less. You might be right about that. But in my recollection, the locally born young men, white or black, would not even name a price. They simply didn’t want to do the work, even though they had no work otherwise. My pensioner father, being a rural man of the Depression generation, read that as moral decline.

Six years ago, when I returned to this parish, I found myself in conversation with a local businessman who had a need for unskilled labor. He said the most difficult part of his business was keeping the menial but necessary jobs filled. You could not find reliable workers, he said. You’d hire people, and they’d show up for a while, but some days they just wouldn’t, and they wouldn’t let you know in advance, leaving the rest of the crew to scramble. The problem was a crappy work ethic. He said that his workers had no sense that they had a responsibility to show up for work faithfully. There was a lot of turnover. (J.D. Vance wrote about seeing a similar thing in a warehouse where he worked as a younger man.)

I remember thinking: this wouldn’t be happening if you had a Latino immigrant crew. I heard the same thing from a small restaurant owner I knew when I lived in Dallas. He told me that the Latino immigrant workers were by far and away more reliable than the native-born Americans. They hustled. They didn’t complain constantly. This owner was himself a (non-Latino) immigrant who arrived in America with nothing, overcame astonishing odds, and who worked very hard to better himself. He reminded me of my own father: he was a hard, hard worker who had no respect for people who wouldn’t work, for people who were lazy, and complained all the time. Unfortunately, this was his experience of native-born Americans. It was not his experience of Latino immigrants.

Brooks’s column made me think this morning about my restaurant owner friend. He was from a country most of us would consider to be a shithole. His family was terribly persecuted, and were lucky to escape with their lives. That young man was a poster child for the American dream. He was immensely grateful for everything he had here, most of all the opportunity to better himself without having to deal with the kind of prejudices and persecution his family endured in the old country. This immigrant was in every way a benefit to America. If all he had done was run a good small business, that would have been enough. But he also gave back to the community in real ways, supporting charitable efforts and the like. This guy — I’ve long lost touch with him — was everything we Americans like to think of ourself as.

And, assuming he was telling me the truth about his work force, so was his Latino immigrant crew.

My only personal experience with immigrant labor came a decade or so ago, when we were living in an old house in Dallas, and had to tear down and rebuild our collapsing chimney. We hired a native-born Latino mason who lived on our street. He was local, he was licensed, and we figured he was reliable. He wasn’t cheap, but then again, we didn’t expect him to be. The man came in with his crew, all immigrants, and they worked their butts off. They got the chimney torn down, the bricks cleaned, and rebuilt — adding a big hearth — in three days. We were home for most of the labor, and I tell you, those men did not mess around. The work was stellar, and the crew could not have been more polite.

To be fair, we lived in a gentrifying neighborhood, one not too far from what was at that time a Latino ghetto with a lot of crime. As I’ve written here, on some nights, we could hear gunshots in the distance. Still, ours was a safe neighborhood. I was one of those middle-class Dallas people whose only interaction with immigrant culture was through hiring workmen or in restaurants. It was easy for me to ignore the cost on native-born people from the immigration wave. My kids’ schools weren’t being overrun by children who spoke no English. We didn’t use the public hospital, which could scarcely handle the influx of illegal immigrants with health problems. My neighborhood wasn’t turning into a ghetto. Point is, I was the sort of middle-class Dallas resident for whom immigration was only positive.

I get this. As I’ve said here many times, a lot of us middle class professionals refuse to see the burden that immigration puts on native-born Americans who least have the skills to cope with it.

Nevertheless, this cannot be denied: Latino immigrants worked their butts off. You saw it every single day in Texas. If my dad were alive today, it would be interesting to know what he made of the immigration argument. He was so devoted to Fox News that we bought him a small TV for the end of his home hospice hospital bed, so he could spend his last week on earth in the company of Bill O’Reilly, as he preferred. Nevertheless, my father saw something in the Guatemalans who came to work for him when no white or black people would. He saw in them an America that we used to have, but have lost.

I know this is not the whole story. But it’s what’s on my mind this morning, and I wanted to put it out there. I believe that we have a duty of solidarity with the people who are already here, before we import more. I don’t believe America is a business, but rather a nation. That said, what do you do when the local economic problem is not one of wages (i.e., not being willing to pay native-born Americans a sufficient wage) , but of the inability to find native-born Americans to do hard physical labor, and to do it reliably, because the culture has changed such that they don’t want to do it? This is not a problem confected by publicists at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and George Soros’s think tanks. This is a problem that people I know, including my own late father, have had to deal with.

(Warning to readers: immigration is an issue that people feel very strongly about. I am happy to take comments from readers on all sides, but I exhort you to write civilly and respectfully of those with whom you disagree. I’m not going to publish rants and name-calling. I’m going to cull these comments even more closely than I usually do.)

UPDATE: I don’t want to start a new and different thread on immigration this morning, so let me put Damon Linker’s column here. In it, Linker, who is on the center-left, says liberals have lost their minds over immigration. Excerpt:

As a series of useful historical maps, also from the Pew Research Center, make clear, immigration from Mexico began to dominate the Western states around 1980, when the total Mexican-born population was 2.2 million. By 1990, the number had nearly doubled (to 4.3 million), with Mexican immigrants becoming the leading immigrant group in 18 states. Ten years later, the Mexican-born population had more than doubled again, to 9.2 million; now Mexican immigrants were the leading immigrant group in more than half the states. Today the total number of immigrants born in Mexico stands somewhere between 11 and 12 million, with the Mexican-born population leading all other immigrant groups in most of the country outside of the Northeast.

The liberal position appears to be that, even though these trends came about as a result of deliberate changes in immigration policy since 1965, American citizens cannot dislike or wish to alter them in any significant way because that would be racist. Americans may therefore either affirm the status quo or passively accept it, and perhaps be permitted to favor slight adjustments to the mix of considerations that go into the decision regarding who gets approved for work visas and green cards. But actually cutting the number immigrants admitted annually or making changes that could result in a drop in the number of Mexicans relative to those from other countries of origin? That is unacceptable — because, apparently, morality requires that immigration levels remain frozen at their current levels, even if it means that the cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and racial character of the country changes significantly as a result. About such issues, morally acceptable citizens can have no negative opinion.

But of course many millions of Americans do have negative opinions about such trends — and all the finger-wagging and name-calling in the world isn’t going to change that. Those millions of Americans are our fellow citizens. They will continue to vote and therefore exercise political power. Can anyone seriously believe that attempting to declare their views beyond the political pale and denying them a seat at the policymaking table will accomplish anything beyond radicalizing them further, potentially sending them outside of the existing party system to do battle with it from an even more extreme position?

Read the whole thing.   He’s 100 percent correct.

UPDATE.2: Reader March Hare writes:

Rod, I can move that story 1500 miles to the northeast, to my rural county in upstate NY with virtually no African Americans, and repeat it almost verbatim. And I’m embarrassed to do so, because I’ve spent the last few decades screaming at the TV every time this issue came up: screaming that the problem was that native born Americans wouldn’t do this work at the crappy wages being offered.

Raise the wages, and the problem would disappear! Except that this is total crap. There has absolutely been a sea change in the culture on this issue and it has taken me two decades of fatherhood to recognize it.

My case in point is a dairy farm, on the road between my house and the nearest market town. My school bus route went past this farm twice a day, and I rode that bus with the kids raised on that farm. (I also grew up raising sheep myself, so I’m quite familiar with the physical labor involved in agriculture.)

The farmer retired some time ago, and the farm has expanded and mechanized substantially. Cows are no longer led around by humans, feed is no longer distributed by hand. The barn is at least somewhat heated. Hay is cut, dried, baled, and delivered to the barn without ever being handled by humans. Manure is no longer moved by hand; there’s a liquid handling system that delivers it to a tank.

(You’d have to have had the experience of cleaning barns, or walking along and throwing 60 lb bales onto a hay wagon every summer to appreciate what those last two sentences really mean.)

The current work force?

100% Peruvian. All of them legal immigrants. Paid well above minimum wage, and at least some of them get free on site housing.

My county is one of the poorest in upstate NY. Nothing to compare with rural Dixie, but considerably poorer than the rest of the state. The small industry economy has nearly disappeared. We don’t have a huge opioid problem yet, but you can see it’s coming.

And your chance of recruiting people to work around smelly dairy barns (in the heated or air conditioned cab of modern 4 wheel drive tractors, complete with the music of your choice on the stereo? You guessed it. Zero.

The culture now actively ridicules physical labor. I’ve done my best to inoculate my sons against this, and I’ve lost. One of my most rewarding activities is gardening in the summer, and I can’t get either of them to join in any of the necessary components of vegetable gardening (much less livestock work) without outright coercion. If I weren’t paying their Verizon bill, I would have no persuasive power at all.

It is NOT racist or classist to point out that this is a sea change in American culture, and that it really sucks.

UPDATE.3: Reader Pete from Baltimore comments:

I’ve worked alongside immigrants from dozens of nations.And I greatly respect the work ethic that most had

But I have to say this. Im a white 48 year old guy.and I just spent my day loading up heavy , old and wet lumber,in a dumpster, in cold, windy weather . My employees and co-workers were all American born. The oldest was 40.Another guy was 32.And I have two brothers that are 20 and 21 years old working for me.

I usualy have 5-10 employees[a lot are out this week due to serious illnesses].Some are white.Some are black.And while I could tell you stories about he lazy American kids that ive had to fire over the years, I could also tell you about the dozens of hard working ones that are willing to take buses and even walk for an hour, to get to jobs where they have to do brutally hard labor all day

Me and my guys often carry up to two hundred 80lb bags of concrete a day .And we dig out basements by hand[no machinery] a lotof the year

How do you think its makes us feel, coming home after a hard days work, to hear or read guys like David Brooks, describe people like myself as lazy?

I don’t begrudge LEGAL immigrants for coming to America LEGALLY . I just don’t want any coming to America ILLEGALLY .Why is that such a hard concept for Brooks to grasp?

Before they came to work with me, many of my guys literaly could not get a job in construction in our neighborhood.Because the crews and crew leaders are almost all immigrants who hire other immigrants.

Me and my guys don’t have anything against immigrants.We just don’t want to compete against ILLEGAL immigrants.And we don’t like being demonized as lazy bigots

David Brooks is clever and funny when writing books about “Bobos”[yuppies].But he is out of his depth when talking about any kind of working class American. One has to wonder if he even socializes with any ?

Pete has a few other good comments after this one, below. Check them out.

UPDATE.4: Reader Optatus Cleary comments:

For those wondering whether the native-born children and grandchildren of these immigrants will disdain physical labor, I can tell you without a doubt that they will. That is the very purpose of the immigration. Our administrators and teachers routinely point out to the students that their parents “want more for you than physical labor,” “want you to work in an air conditioned office,” “want you to go to college so you don’t have to work like they did,” etc. The children of these immigrants are almost all hoping for white-collar jobs. The idea that Mexican immigrants will remain a permanent farm-labor caste is absurd. Their children follow the exact pattern that any other American does, which will require further immigration to supply labor for the farm jobs.

I strongly believe that Mexican immigrants are the future of America. I support almost no limits on immigration, and believe that most anti-Immigrant sentiment is motivated by anti-Catholicism and racism. I believe that one should be deported. However, this doesn’t mean that these immigrant families are a panacea. They assimilate very quickly to American norms, and if cheap labor is needed it will not come from the children of these immigrants.



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