Editorial: Immigration Brings Us the World

By Becky O’Malley
Friday April 14, 2006

Last Friday we found ourselves in Oakland at lunch time, in fact in the Old Oakland area near Ninth and Broadway where the Friday Farmers’ Market is held. Every farmers’ market has its own personality.  

The Berkeley ones are all-organic and almost painfully sincere, shrines for those who take food very seriously indeed. The Ferry Plaza market in San Francisco is upscale, with gem-like produce surrounded by luxury accoutrements.  

The Old Oakland market is different, because it’s the closest one to Oakland’s booming Chinatown, which is a real shopping area for locals, not a tourist destination like San Francisco Chinatown. It features uncommon Asian fruits and vegetables, and I’ve even seen live chickens and fish, presumably for shoppers to dispatch at home before cooking. It’s also a showcase for ready-to-eat food prepared by small-time enterprises and at-home cooks, reflecting the scope of the whole international Bay Area population mix. 

Because we were in a hurry, we decided to settle for the first stall on the Broadway end of Ninth Street, especially because it had a substantial though fast-moving line. All Star Tamales, which seems to sell only at farmers’ markets, has the most amazing variety of tamales I’ve ever seen—I have no idea if they’re authentic, but they certainly taste good and are cheap: two for $4.75. Nine or 10 choices, among them green pasilla, chicken mole, picadillo. 

There were a few plastic picnic tables behind the stalls, so we ordered our tamales “for here” and sat down. We shared a table with a group of young women who seemed to be taking a lunch break from an office where they all worked. They looked like they’d just left one of the Eileen Fisher clothing ads in the New Yorker, which feature a variety of cheerful normal-looking multi-ethnic women who aren’t necessarily professional models, a veritable bouquet of fresh faces of many colors. One of them, seemingly Latina, explained to the others how tamales were made in her family for special occasions, and they all then resolved to get together soon for a tamale-making lesson. The supplied salsas were too hot for some and not hot enough for others. (By now the reader is probably wondering if this is an editorial or a restaurant review, but never fear, the moral of the story is coming in due time.)  

When we finished eating, we looked around for a trash can, but what we found instead was a very elderly bent-over Asian lady with a little plastic shopping bag, who took our used plates with a smile in exchange for a bit of small change. All in all, a good lunch and a pleasant experience on a nice day in Oakland. 

And the moral of the story?  

Last week the big boys in Washington thought they were going to settle the immigration question once and for all. They made a deal, divvied up the spoils, and planned to get out of town fast. But the American people had other ideas, and let them know in a hurry. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, many but not all from Spanish-speaking roots, took to the street to let the country know that they won’t stand for having people who have come to this country without proper paperwork turned into felons.  

The first demonstrations in Los Angeles surprised some commentators, but not others, since the Spanish-speaking population of southern California has been vocal and politically active for a long time now. But when demonstrations took place Monday all over the rural South, that was news. The Associated Press reported with some amazement from North Carolina that “more than 200 people walked five miles along a highway in Smithfield, about 30 miles southeast of Raleigh in Johnston County, many carrying American flags and wearing white.” 

The polls this week suggest that demonstrators have pretty good underlying support from about three quarters of all Americans, not just from Spanish-speaking respondents, if the question is whether those who have been in this country for five years and stayed out of trouble should be allowed to stay on. The California Field Poll dispelled a pervasive myth, that African-Americans might be anti-immigrant because they feared competition for low-end jobs. Eighty-two percent of the African-Americans polled by Field were in favor of letting those who are here stay on without being criminalized for undocumented entry. Other more complicated questions produce somewhat different numbers in polls, but over all it’s quite clear that most Americans like having the Latin immigrants here, however they came. 

And why shouldn’t we? After our pleasant farmers’ market lunch we reflected, and not for the first time, that it’s possible to get many of the supposed benefits of world travel without the hassle and expense, almost any day and almost anywhere in the Bay Area. We stay home and the world comes to us. What could be nicer?  

The stereotype is that immigrants do jobs that Americans won’t do, and like many stereotypes there’s some truth in it. The old lady who picks up the lunchtime trash has indeed created a unique niche for herself in a self-service economy, one that I’ve seen in Asia but not in this country before. She gets out of the house into the sunshine, picks up a little pocket money, and the street stays cleaner. What’s not to like?  

There are vexing unsolved questions, to be sure. Under the present situation, there’s a temptation for employers to exploit undocumented workers and exclude native-born workers because they know that people whose immigration status is shaky won’t be able to complain. One good remedy is to remove the temptation and level the playing field by mandating that a living wage must be paid to all workers, native born and immigrants, citizens and non-citizens alike. That’s happening in some places, including Berkeley. Though enforcement could be better, it’s already working pretty well.