Immigration Reform

Last night, the President announced plans to consider temporary legal status for 12 million illegal immigrants currently working in the U.S. 

The backdrop behind this concession is a remarkable cultural and economic shift that has changed Fairfax County and the rest of America over the past twenty years. It happened so slowly that a lot of people missed it. But it definitely happened.

In my youth in Fairfax, there was a distinct class of people that mowed lawns, babysat children, and worked at McDonald’s for minimum wage. In the summer, you could find them pushing wheelbarrows or waiting tables. This group of Americans was called “teenagers.” Unless they were in college, in which case they were “college kids.”

A half-generation ago, it was rite of passage in our community to have a part-time job. It wasn’t that families were poor. Working was considered an experience that one had to undergo in order to become an adult. Many a college essay articulated how the applicant’s mastery of replenishing the “Super Bar” at Wendy’s bespoke lifetime leadership skills. Hard work was good and it was good for you.

It’s changed. I used to know the family of every youngster working at the local McD’s. Can anyone say that anymore? Likewise, the staff at the local pizza joint — where I once drove the delivery truck — is all foreign born. Try to hire a local landscaping service or a professional nanny. The chances of finding an American-born worker are pretty much nil.

This is a positive sign in one respect. People come to the U.S. to work hard. They are willing to also work for less, which means they get hired. But have we devalued manual work by shifting it solely to immigrants? Do our youngsters know what it’s like to handle a shovel or jackhammer in 90 degree heat? Do they know what it’s like to spend all day on your feet waiting tables?

This is not necessarily a paean to the good old days. The high school and college students I meet are polite, dedicated and socially aware — much more so than we were. However, there’s a disconnect between “progressive” politics and many of its adherents, especially on issues relating to work and wages.

Until you spend all day clearing tables or pulling weeds, you may not know what it’s like to really work.

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