Migrant Workers

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter J. Daly

July 16, 2003


            Last week it seemed like we had half of Mexico working here.

            On the front lawn of the church, a landscaping company was installing a sprinkler system to water the grass. Everybody was speaking Spanish.

            On the roof the rectory men were tearing off the shingles and replacing the rotted boards. All of the conversation was in Spanish.

            At the construction site at the rear of our property, where we are building a parish youth center, they were also speaking Spanish. These days the construction trades in our area are mostly immigrant workers from south of the border.

            All of these men work exceptionally hard. The roofers arrived at 7 AM and worked until well after 8 PM, hardly taking a break all day.

At the end of the day I brought them some pizza and we talked a little about their lives. I tried my best to communicate in my broken Spanish.  I gave them Bibles and rosaries and prayer books and invited them to come back to our church. They told me a little of their stories. They are from impoverished parts of central and southern Mexico. There was no work there.

            Hardly a week goes by that some employer doesn’t call me asking if I know where he can get Hispanic workers. They figure the Catholic priest will know how to get in touch with them.

            Across the Chesapeake Bay from us, on the Delmarva Peninsula, you can drive through little towns with English names and see lots of Latino faces. They catch and pluck chickens in the poultry industry. They shell and clean fish in the seafood industry.

            In our local “big box” department stores about closing time, you will see the night shift coming on to restock the shelves. They too are largely speaking Spanish.

All of these workers, whether in fields, stores, gardens, or construction sites do very hard work at very low pay. They work at jobs that many native-born Americans would refuse to take at any wage. But no matter how long or hard they work, they will never be legal.

            The labor situation in our area reflects the labor situation in many parts of the United States. The fact is that some industries, like agriculture, construction, retail and landscaping simply could not function without illegal workers from Mexico and Central America. 

            So employers go on hiring illegal workers.  The government collects their taxes. Yet nobody makes a move to grant legal status and the rights and benefits that would flow from it.

            This situation shows our hypocrisy as a nation. We need these workers. We want them at low wages. But we are not willing to open up our borders in some kind of rational and orderly immigration process.

            Estimates vary wildly on just how many illegal residents are in this country. Some say 3 million. Others say as many as 5 million. Most of them are from Mexico.

            As the U.S. birthrate declines and the population gets older, we will depend more and more on Mexico and Central America for the youth and energy of its population. Even Federal law cannot reverse the demographics of our population.

 In the NAFTA era of “free trade” the law allows for the free movement of money and goods across borders, but not people. But people should take precedence over capital. Human beings should come before things.

Twenty years ago the Catholic bishops of the U.S. wrote a pastoral letter entitled “The Hispanic Presence, Challenge and Commitment.” They called on the members of the Church to raise our voices in defense of the human dignity of the Hispanic community. They wrote, “We remind our pastoral associates that their work includes the effort to gain for Hispanics participation in the benefits of our society.”

I’m a little late but I want to do my part. We all benefit from their presence. Maybe it is time that our nation admits that we need them and that we make a way for them to work here legally and securely.