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July 30, 2014
Here at We Are The Practitioners, we don't shy away from expressing our opinions, even when it comes to touchy political issues. We have no desire to alienate anyone, and we don't have a political agenda, but that doesn't mean we eschew controversial topics altogether. Rather, we approach our writing with a strong foundation of respect. We may disagree with someone, but we don't judge that person's worth on the basis of their opinions. They have the right to their opinion every bit as much as we have the right to ours.
That said, today I'd like to talk about illegal immigration, an issue with ramifications for the logistics and supply chain industry that no one among us should ignore. I'd like to tell you a true story — two, in fact — and my intent is NOT to support one side of the debate or the other, but rather to offer some additional perspective on the matter. Furthermore, the US Roadmap for Material Handling and Logistics advises us that the "changing workforce" is among the most important societal trends affecting business today, one that will shape our economy for at least the next 10 years. In light of that, I would like to propose that we start thinking of innovative ways to fix both these problems. There are no obvious solutions here, and when that's the case, it's a good idea to consider how you might turn a threat into an opportunity, a weakness into a strength.
I am not so idealistic as to believe myself impartial, and I highly doubt you'd credit me with a lack of bias anyway, so I'll come right out with it. I am a conservative-minded individual and I oppose illegal immigration. Likewise, I support both the laws that criminalize it and the enforcement of them. I also strongly support legal immigration and pathways that permit those seeking residence and citizenship to attain them.
Consider for a moment: my name is Nico Scopelliti; that doesn't have an especially "American" ring to it, does it? While I was born in California, I come from a line of Southern Italian immigrants. My great-grandfather, Pasquale, left his home region of Calabria in 1920 and arrived on Ellis Island, where he was processed and naturalized. Between 1880 and the year of his arrival, the influx of Italian immigrants to our shores was tremendous. Pasquale was one of about four million, the vast majority of whom had left their homes and families behind in search of work and to escape the violent and corrupt criminal organizations that were — and in many ways still are — the de facto government in control of the land.
But these are different times, not so much for the rest of the world, but certainly for the United States. While millions still want to come, we no longer welcome the world's huddled masses with open arms. We are no longer a nation experiencing a Gilded Age of unbridled economic growth. Today our deficits multiply unabated while our cities go bankrupt. The industrial boom of my great-grandfather's time has long since given way to stagnation. In the second half of the 19th century, there was more work to be done than we there were workers to do it. But today, to put it rather bluntly, we simply don't have any need for the bodies.
Or do we?
Before I offer a potential answer to that question, allow me to tell you another true story.
I'm a regular at a pool hall owned and operated by a lovely El Salvadoran family. I'm there often, so I'm on a first-name basis with the owner, his wife, his sister, two of his daughters, a nephew, and a niece, all of whom work there (it helps that I speak fluent conversational Spanish). The owner's two sons are in grade school or they'd be part of the operation as well. They were all born in El Salvador, and they are all legal immigrants. But this is not their story.
This is the story of "Eddie" (name changed to protect the … well, guilty), a cheerful, unassuming Hispanic gentleman in his mid-forties whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the pool hall. He's a regular, too and one day we struck up a conversation. Eddie is a talker and I'm a listener, so before long he was telling me his life story.
Eddie was born in El Salvador as well. He comes from a middle-class background by Salvadoran standards, a family of hard-working tradesmen who labored together to lift the entire unit up out of poverty. By the time he was 30, he owned two small businesses — a welding shop and mechanic's garage. He also owned a small fleet of four private passenger buses selling transport to and from the capital, San Salvador. He wasn't wealthy, but he made enough to support his wife and children, help the rest of his family, and employ a handful of local townsfolk. Life as an entrepreneur isn't easy in any country, but as evidenced by the scar on Eddie's arm — left there by a .38 caliber bullet — in El Salvador, it's unusually difficult.
He told me that from the day he opened the doors of his first business, the local mara (Salvadoran slang for gang) charged Eddie protection money. While not as well organized as the Italian mafia, these gangs operate as syndicates that pervade the country and most of Central America, and they're infamous for their brutality.
Eddie says he paid the squeeze because that's just what you do. In El Salvador, there is no counterpart to the FBI worth its salt to protect people from extortion and fight organized crime. The local police themselves are owned and infiltrated by the maras, and anyone who opposes them is not long for this world. As a business owner, not to pay is to mark yourself for execution. There is no negotiating; the mara sets the terms. They look at your business, set a weekly payment, and you either agree or you die. Or, as in Eddie's case, you flee.
Every year at Christmas, the maras expect a bonus. But by the holiday season of 2005, Eddie and his businesses had been hit by hard times. He didn't have the money to pay, and so, not knowing what else to do, he hid. Members of the mara came looking for him and eventually rooted him out. He was fortunate enough to escape with his life, but not without first being struck by the bullet intended to kill him. He was able to make it to a hospital, and later stayed with friends while he made plans to leave the country.
Most Central Americans get into the United States by making the dangerous trek across Mexico and then crossing our porous southern border on foot, often led across by paid, professional guides. But as Eddie explained to me, if you have the money and the connections, there are other ways to gain entry. Relying on his friends and extended family, he was able to pull together enough money to buy a P1 visa for athletes. The US Citizenship and Immigration Service states that in order to be awarded a P1 visa, "You must be coming to the United States to participate in an individual event, competition, or performance in which you are internationally recognized with a high level of achievement; evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered so that the achievement is renowned, leading, or well known in more than one country." Eddie is no international athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but for $8,500 he was able to buy a position as a member of a Salvadoran athlete's "Essential Support Personnel." Corrupt elements in our embassies and in local government entities across the world make themselves rich finding loopholes in our immigration system.
Eddie's visa expired seven years ago. As soon as he landed, he simply disappeared. Family connections brought him to a car dealership here in Maryland, where he worked for a time performing menial duties before seeking work as a welder. He has built a network of contacts in the area, and has regular work at construction sites. He lives and works completely under the radar. The only crime Eddie's ever committed was coming here, and he makes a living doing work at which many Americans turn up their noses.
Twice a month, Eddie sends money to his wife and family in El Salvador. His wife still maintains the transportation business and their four buses. The mara charges her $50 per bus per week, $800 a month total, in a country where the GDP per capita is less than $8,000 a year. She also pays a toll each time a bus crosses into a different mara's territory, which is multiple times each trip. Between the small profit left to the business and the money Eddie sends, they get by.
Eddie told me that if he leaves the US, he won't have a way to get back in. You need connections and a fair share of luck to make that happen, he says. He doesn't have those connections anymore, nor is he keen on trying his luck. Besides, he couldn't return to his hometown even if he had the money to pay off the mara. In El Salvador, he's marked to die, and he believes that if he had stayed there a day longer, it would have been his last.
Eddie says his purpose in the United States is to work. That is, in fact, his life's purpose. We all wish for the love and company of a family and spouse, but he was robbed of that by evil people. While he maintains contact via telephone and e-mail, he hasn't seen his wife or children in eight years. But, he says, "It's better to watch my children grow up from afar than not at all." And he is grateful for the security and opportunity the US offers him to make that possible, even if he's not wanted here.
My great-grandfather came to America to work, to send money home, and to escape evil people. There's little difference between Pasquale and Eddie, except that Pasquale came during a relatively short period of time when he was welcome.
As I stated above, I do not support illegal immigration and I'm not prepared to make an argument in favor of amnesty. Among those crossing our borders illegally are large numbers of violent criminals and gang members who, after ruining their own countries, are coming here to ruin ours. That needs to be brought to a halt.
Yet, if I had the power to send Eddie back to El Salvador, I wouldn't. Would you?
It is, for me, an ethical conundrum, and I don't have a solution. But I do have a half-baked, partially-formed, wisp of an idea I'd like to throw out there. Consider this:
"If you haven’t heard by now, the workforce is changing. Baby boomers are retiring and the millennials don’t want to work in warehouses. The truck driver shortage is going to get worse as the drivers (whose average age is 56), retire, and the millennials don’t want to drive trucks. The headlines are breathless, proclaiming that by 2018 we are going to need 1.4 million new workers for the supply chain."
That is the opening paragraph to WATP Editor-in-Chief Dave Schneider's article titled, "The Changing Workforce."
We have a problem in our industry. Millennials don't want to work in warehouses and they don't want to drive trucks. We have a problem at our border. Thousands of people who would consider themselves lucky to get a job picking orders in a warehouse or driving a semi are clamoring to get into our country, risking their very lives to do so.
I don't have all the answers, but isn't there some way we can kill two birds with one stone?