Monday, April 26, 2010

After listening to his employees, boss finds empathy for immigrants

Photo by Stephen D and Digital Desktop Wallpaper.
Licensed via Creative Commons.
"I hadn't ever stopped to consider their perspective or their position in life."

I recently re-read a guest editorial that appeared in the Tennessean in 2007, entitled "Talk to hard-working immigrants before you make up your mind." The author, William D. Batson, describes a sit-down he had with employees that changed his mind about immigrants.

Talk to hard-working immigrants before you make up your mind


I recently had the unique and enlightening experience of talking with a group of immigrants of five different nationalities. They hailed from Chile, Panama, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Guatemala and are under my direct supervision at the manufacturing plant in which I work. This impromptu discussion panel was born out of an attempt on my part to offer all of my workers the chance at a 40-hour week.

We had incurred a shortage of containers in which to put the product we manufacture, so I called a meeting of our employees to explain the situation. I expected to hear mumbles and groans about how it was a waste of their gas to come and the time-honored, "Well, the plant must be going to Mexico."

But, never fear, I had a plan. I would offer them a chance to do some much-needed painting in order to get their full week's check. As it turned out, the only volunteers were these five immigrants. The Americans nearly ran each other over getting to the time clock.

So, there I was with five non-English-speaking immigrants waiting for me to put them to work. My translator even took the opportunity to go home early so, boy, was I in for a fun night.

Not to be deterred, I took them back to the area I wanted them to work and mimicked what I expected them to do, hoping that they understood my futile attempt at communication. They just smiled cordially and went right to work, probably thinking to themselves, "What a boob!"

Then it dawned on me. I was in a great situation. I had the rare chance to elicit their perspective on illegal immigration. I have a degree in political science and will start law school in the fall, so my appetite for social discourse is insatiable. I was excited for the chance to get real feedback from a group of immigrants, so that when I got home and watched Bill O'Reilly, I would have the inside scoop. I might even blog this one, I thought.

I began by asking if they were "legal," and that went over like a lead zeppelin. Then, I asked why each of them came to the United States, and almost in unison, they exclaimed: "work." There was no mention of freedom, democracy, ideology or peace — just the simple thing that Americans at this workplace had taken for granted not 15 minutes earlier: a chance at a steady job.

It hadn't dawned on me that Career Builders doesn't help in a country where cartels run rampant and middle-class jobs are as scarce as a preacher at a Marilyn Manson concert.

They truly want to work and have a chance at a better life for themselves and their families. One of the ladies pulled a digital camera from her purse and showed me photographs of her two kids' graduation the prior weekend. She looked up at me, smiled and said in a gallant attempt at English: "That is why I am here, sir." One of the other ladies just grabbed me by the arm and whispered: "We have nothing in our country — nothing!"

I was taken aback. I hadn't ever stopped to consider their perspective or their position in life. I began to feel contempt for anyone who would deny these fine people a chance at going to their kids' graduation or not allow them to experience the amenities that so many Americans take for granted. I was outraged. How can, on the one hand, we wield democracy as if it were the cure for the plague and, on the other, thwart a chance at happiness for our neighbors across the border? It just didn't seem right.

Then, it hit me.

That was me — 10 minutes ago.

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