To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle, wrote George Orwell.
He had realized how much we tune out in our daily lives. The cleaning lady in the corridor, the Colombian woman picking up the recycling, all the luckless functionaries that quit the stage before the real show starts.
There are thousands of them, a domestic army. Because they arrive so late or so early we rarely ever see them.
They are women and men who no one knows and that appear to know no one. They take the train in from some far away destination in Queens or Brooklyn or the Bronx and they return exhausted to communities we don’t know and never see.
Who are their political representatives? What are their chances of becoming documented? How long will they do the work that no one else will for wages no one else will take?
The longer I live in New York, the more I see how much the undocumented contribute to the life of the city and the nation for so comparatively little in return.
They raise families, they struggle to feed them and keep them together, they contribute to the life of their communities. You can’t miss this fact if you actually see how they live and love.
That’s why it’s become increasingly galling to me to hear how casually some Americans dismiss their formidable contributions and seek instead to reward them only with insult and legal insecurity.
A new law in a town in Nebraska makes it illegal to rent homes to undocumented immigrants. That gives a green light to other states that plan to follow.
It’s an ugly, narrowly targeted law that should be inconsistent with what America stands for -- giving everyone who wants to work a chance -- but instead it targets the most vulnerable among us, making their already difficult lives intolerable.
It seems to me that America faces far more significant challenges than the threat of the hard working undocumented, but vulnerable targets delight bullies, because for some powerlessness can be as strong an aphrodisiac as power.
Virginia Meyer, a Nebraska woman who helped organize the unsuccessful repeal effort, told the press that the new anti-immigrant law has proven divisive and painted her town in Nebraska in a negative light.
“I’ve seen firsthand what this ordinance has done to Fremont,” she said. “It seems to have distracted our town from working on other things that are really important. I wouldn't want to see this happening in other communities.”
It will happen in other communities though. One of the great misfortunes of being Latino and undocumented in the U.S. is that you belong to an easily identified and targeted group.
You can inherit longstanding prejudice in the same way the Irish used to. Political groups exist solely to agitate against you, blocking your every opportunity to become a productive full citizen.
We should remember the unfairness of all this in our bones. The undocumented now are asking no more and no less than we did ourselves in the 19th and 20th centuries.
They want an opportunity to live with dignity. They don’t ask for handouts. They make their living by working. Anyone who has watched just how hard they work already knows this.
So I have been repulsed by the neo-nativism of the far right which sees immigrants as blatant threats to their racial or political standing. Jeb Bush came in for a pasting from them recently for daring to suggest that we recognize the humanity of those who came here seeking a better life.
But Senator Rand Paul, his more conservative rival, took a more pugnacious view. “We can’t invite the whole world. When you say they’re doing an act of love and you don’t follow it up with ‘but we have to control the border,’ people think, well, because they’re doing this for kind reasons, that the whole world can come to our country,” reasoned Paul.
But the whole world is not coming to America. Even the Irish are not coming to America in great numbers now. The challenging economy and the ever-increasing difficulty of achieving citizenship has made it unlikely that they will.
Immigrants are not the main problem that the nation faces, but they are lightening rods for the oldest prejudices that the nation nurses. Because they are vulnerable they make perfect scapegoats.
Bashing them can almost make us forget that the only real difference between most of us and them is the date stamp on our customs forms.