When you grab hold of the thorny topic of immigration, sometimes you can’t tell what part of the discussion will prick your finger.
I recently addressed the subject as part of a panel. Given the questions – one person suggested opening the U.S.-Mexico border – I’d say the audience was fairly liberal.
When I called for punishing employers, insisted that racism was part of the debate and asserted that much of the ruckus was based on the fear of a changing America, I didn’t get much reaction. But then there was the comment that hit close to home.
“You know,” I said. “It’s worth mentioning that not only do illegal immigrants do jobs that Americans won’t do, but many of the jobs they’re doing were once done by young people in their teens and 20s – your sons and daughters – who, as a generation, have shown themselves to have a terrible work ethic.”
My point was that besides better immigration laws and better enforcement, we also need better parenting – the sort that produces young people who know how to work and aren’t afraid to break a sweat.
Then, the employers I’ve heard from – apple growers in Washington, restaurant owners in North Carolina, etc. – who claim they can’t find young Americans who want to work wouldn’t feel as if they had to hire illegal immigrants to pick up the slack.
Afterward, I was surrounded by a group of angry folks who said they were offended. They insisted they had good kids – the kind who worked hard in school and volunteered for worthwhile causes in the summer.
But when I asked whether their children had after-school or summer jobs, they changed the subject. Some told me what they have told their kids – that their “jobs” are to study hard in school and get good grades.
Fine. But young people also need to learn how to find a job, take orders, show up on time, and be a dependable employee. Those, too, are valuable skills.
And if many young people aren’t learning them, we shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve arrived at a point where many jobs would go undone if not for illegal immigrants.
What evidence did I have that young people had a weak work ethic? one man demanded to know.
I responded that several books have been written about the so-called Millennial Generation, born between 1982 and 2002. Most of the authors make the point that this cohort is self-absorbed to the point of narcissism, consumed by fame and fortune, plagued by a sense of entitlement, and averse to concepts such as “paying your dues” or “working your way to the top.”
Many of these kids were raised to believe that they were “special” and now they consume a steady diet of “American Idol”-type reality shows where the right break, and the right amount of talent, can make you rich and famous overnight.
When they do show up in the workplace, many young people are – according to those who supervise them – notoriously tough to manage. They dress like slobs, question authority, shrug off criticism and impatiently wonder why, if they start in the mailroom on Monday, they’re not on their way to being vice president by Friday.
Besides, I said, the MySpace generation has such high self-esteem that many of them would never debase themselves to take the hard and dirty jobs that go to illegal immigrants.
The guy shrugged and walked away. He didn’t want to be persuaded. He just wanted to defend his kids. That’s natural. In fact, it’s commendable.
It’s just not helpful. We’ve blamed Mexico, big business, the media, special interest groups, the U.S. government, and, of course, the illegal immigrants themselves for our current plight.
In fact, we’ve just about run out of blame. Is it any wonder that there’s none left for those of us who are raising children?
Almost eight years ago, President Bush started what became a national conversation about immigration reform. We’ve talked about nearly every facet of the issue. We’ve covered it all.
And yet somehow – and I don’t think it was by accident – we never got around to an honest and candid discussion about one of the things that contributes to illegal immigration: the fact that too many of our own citizens, especially young citizens, were raised to turn up their noses at jobs that wind up going to you-know-who.
If we want to find a solution, we should accept our share of responsibility for the problem.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org