By Mark Naison (March 9, 2016)
One of the things that drives me craziest in the current political landscape is the use of the term “illegals” to refer to undocumented immigrants. If there is ever an example of the pot calling the kettle black, this is it. There are very few working class, and even middle class Americans, who can support themselves strictly through legal means, especially now that wages have plummeted and many available jobs have become part time. To get by and support their families, almost everyone has an off-the-books source of income, ranging from painting houses, to fixing cars, to tutoring or styling hair, to producing or selling iilegal substances. Huge numbers of families rent out rooms, and in some cases portions of rooms, to help meet morgage payments or help with the rent. This isn’t accidental, it is institutionalized. The economic system would collapse without these supplementary sources of income. You can’t live on Wal- Mart or K-Mart wages.or by driving for Uber.
But though wage compression and the arrival of the “gig economy” have made participation in underground/off the books economies an essential part of most peoples lives, these activities have always been a part of American working class history. I have often argued that few working class Americans were able to pull themselves out of poverty strictly by legal means. My own family is a great example of this. My mother’s side of the family–Jews from various parts of Eastern Europe–included bootleggers, gamblers, and,enforcers for the mob along with people who worked in countless retail outlets, sold foor from pushcarts, worked in the garment district, drove trucks and taught school. More than that, the mob was an integral part of our neighborhood. Barry H’s father, the neighborhood bookie, was as much a fixture of the community as the grandmothers sitting on the benches commenting on everyone’s behavior.
And lest you think this behavior is just urban or “ethnic”; think of all the country music songs about moonshiners, gamblers, and people being chased by sheriffs or revenue men ( e,g, Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”) And this isn’t just historic. Until legalizatiion started to gain traction, marijuana was the second largest cash crop in the nation- behind corn- and the people growing it, in most cases, were people who had been in the US for generations.
So, the next time you hear someone refer to undocumented immigrants as “the illegals” you might want to remind the person using that term that we are not only a nation of immigrants, but a nation of “illegals.” I am proud to be part of a family of “illegals”- people who worked hard to support their families ” by any means necessary.