On Sunday night before St. Patty's day, Bruce Springsteen's concert encore in St. Paul ended with a rousing Irish sing-along called American Land. It's a Woody Guthrie-inspired of the immigrant heritage of American, and among it's lyrics are these:
What is this land America so many travel thereThis morning on the northbound 4F bus, I saw this young family that clearly came from somewhere far, far south of here, originally. It was likely an important morning trip, since at this time of day it costs $10.00 for a family of five to ride the bus. Perhaps they are going to the clinic; one of the children has a bad cough.
I'm going now while I'm still young my darling meet me there
Wish me luck my lovely I'll send for you when I can
And we'll make our home in the American land
The story I visualized for them was entirely from my imagination, but in all likelihood is precisely the story of some immigrant family, if not this one.
The young parents are among the most proud and ambitious and hardworking of their extended families somewhere in central Mexico, south of Mexico City. They would have to be among the best and brightest, to pull up all stakes and travel 3,000 miles north, to a land of bitter snow to seek their fortune.
Like many of their fellow central American immigrants, they have taken exceedingly low paying and physically demanding jobs. The mother cleans rooms at one of the high rise hotels; the father works on one of the residential roofing crews, which in this area work all winter long, the workers clothed in thick insulated canvas bib overalls against the bitter cold. Come late summer, he may travel down to the Green Giant vegetable fields in southern Minnesota and Iowa to work 5:00 am to 10:00 pm harvesting peas and beets and green beans for the big commercial canneries, leaving his family behind in Minneapolis. The work is back-breaking, but unlike some of the jobs he's had in the city, the company doesn't take advantage of non-resident workers by stiffing them on the paycheck after squeezing two weeks of labor out of them.
The parents' paychecks will have taxes withheld for federal and state income tax; yet should they ever fall into difficult times, many citizens around here will resent the fact that they receive a bit of public assistance. And they also pay social security taxes, and medicare taxes, even though they will never receive any benefits whatsoever, unless they manage to naturalize as citizens, a feat that has become increasingly difficult in recent years.
The three children are approaching school age, and although their parents pay taxes, there are those that will regard the education of these kids as larceny. Like many such family, it may be the children learning English in the schools who translate for their parents at parent-teacher meetings. It likely will be from the children that the parents perfect their English. Like many central American children, these kids might prove themselves to be terrifically hard-working in the schools. My wife, a middle-school employee, has seen this again and again: Peruvian or Mexican or Tibetan of Somali kids triumphing against all odds.
If the parents and children work very hard, in 15 years or so the oldest of the kids might qualify for college—an accomplishment that would move this family from third-world status into modern times. But the governor of Minnesota, frantically trying to position himself as a Republican Vice Presidential candidate, has promised to veto a bill that would allow non-residential foreigners who have gone to local highschools for at least two years to go to college at residential tuition rates, rather than paying out-of-state tuition.
So these kids, if they're lucky enough to qualify after 15 years of hard work, will pay more to go to college than the privileged white kids from Wisconsin, who happen to enjoy reciprocity with Minnesota.
This kind of mean-spirited policy is shrewdly concocted by Governor Pawlenty, since he knows it will cast him as being tough on immigration with the Republican party machine.
Soon before the family departs the bus on Lake Street, the little girl sitting on the end catches my eye, and her face lights up in a beautiful shy smile as she buries her face in her mother's sleeve. As they leave the bus, the little girl looks back and waves at me.