The victim was angry, even more angry than victims usually are.
The scene he described was tragicomic: every employee in his dealership scampering about in thick smoke to move “over a million dollars’ worth” of recreational vehicles as the grass fire allegedly started by the defendant loomed closer. Mass confusion, with the danger of hitting each other in the clouds of smoke almost as great as the danger of burning.
The defendant, a Mexican youth of about 18, looked miserable. He squirmed in his seat and looked at the floor as the victim’s testimony was translated. Tears were welling in his eyes when he took the oath to testify on his own behalf.
His story was familiar. Leaving behind a large family, hungry and unemployed, he walked across a dry spot in the Rio Grande. Hiding by day and walking by night, he made his way north, following a main highway.
He could not remember how many days had passed since he had eaten when, on I-35 north of Austin, he spotted a rabbit dead in the road. At a nearby service station, he bummed some matches from a Mexican-American attendant.
So the fire, he told me, was meant to cook a rabbit, not a Winnebago. It was an accident. He was sorry.
I believed him.
With the trepidation that only an elected judge knows, and a sidelong glance toward the irate victim, I found the defendant not guilty of criminal mischief but guilty of the lesser offense of reckless destruction of property for allowing the fire to get away.
Since the boy had more than served his time for the lesser offense while awaiting trial, and since the state authorities were at that time not allowed to enforce immigration laws, he was free to go.
Free in the land of opportunity. Free to trudge on up the highway and find another rabbit, or perhaps a succulent armadillo.
The victim, who moments before had seemed to regret that criminal mischief does not carry the death penalty, saved the day when he offered the kid a job. The offer was accepted with alacrity; this, after all, was why he had come to Los Estados Unidos.
And what did the victim get for his act of generosity? He got an employee to whom the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and other pesky regulations do not effectively apply. An employee for whom Social Security taxes are optional and who will never expect workers’ compensation coverage and who need not be paid if a phone call is made to the agency since renamed aptly ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. An employee who must always cringe at the fearsome discipline of that telephone call.
Before the Civil War, Texans had a more honest name for employees like this. We called them slaves.
Periodically, Congress rides to the rescue…of employers. Some kiss on the cheek employer sanctions get traded off for a high dollar method of reaching citizenship while those who can’t afford the costs get upgraded from slaves to indentured servants. And there have to be “guest workers,” so Latin Americans can still be imported to do the hard and dangerous work and employers can be protected from paying what it is worth.
The problem is not that some employers want to hire Mexicans instead of Americans. Virtually everyone would agree that Americans should have the first crack at American jobs. The problem is that some employers want to ignore hard won laws that guarantee Americans minimum wages, insurance, and safety on the job. These employers compete unfairly with those who choose to obey the law.
Why not attack the real problem? Let every undocumented worker who brings a valid complaint against an employer for violation of federal or state laws pertaining to employment practices be rewarded with a green card. I would throw in anti-pollution laws as well, since illegals are most often tasked to deal with the really dirty stuff. At one stroke, after saturating the border areas with leaflets announcing the new rules, Congress could take away the incentive to break the laws and create a powerful incentive to turn in those who do.
Then who would be fearing a telephone call to the government?
Until Congress can grow the cojones to crack down on immigration violations by penalizing those who profit handsomely rather than those who can just get by, this modern brand of slavery will persist. Mexicans, Americans, and Mexican-Americans are all — in slightly different ways — victims, and we should all be angry.