By six o’clock they start appearing on the 7 train in New York, but you’ll see more of them the later it gets. They’re usually alone. They sleep deeply and carelessly, huddled for warmth, the way people who are completely exhausted do.
They come from Mexico and Colombia and from even harder bitten South American nations where they have less opportunity to make a living and feed their families than they do here. When their phones ring the image of their sweetheart often appears on the screen.
I have learned that when you look at an undocumented immigrant on the 7 train you are often looking at a perilous 3,000 mile journey contained in one person. Many have put their lives on the line just to make it as far as Miami or Texas, the jumping off point of their particularly hard won American dream.
For as long as I have lived here I have seen them going to work in the early morning and coming home late at night, utterly spent. They work harder and longer for less pay than anyone else in this city.
So far they haven’t protested over it much. It is remarkable the way they get up and just keep on going.
People who don’t live in New York City, people who don’t want to look at who actually staffs the nation’s service economy, like to make the lives of these undocumented workers even harder than they already are through patrols and ordinances and anti-immigrant bills.
We know why they do this. They’re an easy target and they can’t fight back because they are not in status, which draws out the bullies.
Bashing the undocumented is a quick, nasty, cathartic purge. It feels like taking action and it delights some voting blocs.
It has been especially nauseating to witness the years and years of one-sided political abuse heaped on the Latino workers who actually help to make our economy function.
Employers hire the undocumented because they cost less, work harder and agitate less. It’s a law of the market. It’s as impersonal as a dollar bill.
But apparently it’s not enough that they are exploited. Apparently they must also be blamed for the nation’s economic ills. This ignores the fact that you can’t be both. You have to be one or the other.
Back in 2008, Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, was murdered in the town of Patchogue on Long Island. The killing was carried out by a gang of teenagers who called themselves the Caucasian Crew and targeted Latino residents in a sick sport they called “beaner-hopping.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit dedicated to fighting bigotry, Latino immigrants in Suffolk County are regularly taunted and pelted with objects hurled from cars. They are frequently run off the road while riding bicycles, and many report being beaten with baseball bats and other objects. Others have been shot with BB guns or pepper-sprayed in broad daylight.
Because of that longstanding climate of fear most will not walk alone after dark. Parents often refuse to let their children play outside. In America many have no time for dreams yet.
Being Irish, we ought to have a special awareness of the cabinet of horrors that animates anti-immigrant sentiment, having for generations endured the worst excesses of nativism ourselves.
The Irish work in construction still, but nowadays we’re also a force in industry and finance at all levels. We’re in politics and the arts too, and of course we run quite a few restaurants and pubs.
We’ve been successful, in other words. We have managed to overcome all the social boundaries that were once carefully policed to keep us out.
But there are plenty of places in this country where a Paddy still sticks out. If you want to test the limits of our emancipation you don’t have to travel far even yet. If you’re over-represented in some areas -- and we are -- that suggests the job of ethnic integration is by no means complete.
Surely we of all people should understand the challenges of making a living in a nation where your identity is suspect. Huge percentages of Irish Americans arrived here undocumented and they still do.
Are we to hold that inheritance and all of its hard lessons to ourselves? How long can we go on looking at those exhausted figures on a late night train and pretend not to know them?