Around 1980, I was the copy editor of a special section called Faces Beyond the Fence in an Escondido newspaper.
It was inspired by a Los Angeles Times freelance photographer who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border who a group of illegal immigrants. The Times wasn’t interested in doing more than a page with his experience, so my paper, the Times-Advocate, gave him a $2,000 commission and hired a freelance reporter.
The team went deep into Mexico, to Jalisco and Oaxaca, where many immigrants came from, and followed them around for weeks. One migrant ended up as a busboy in Yosimite.
I read the entire package aloud to my future wife one night, about 500 column inches, editing as I went along.
I remember the busboy saying he does work that most Americans won’t do. And he talked about the term “illegal alien.”
“It sounds like we’re from another planet,” he said, “but many of us were born just a few miles away from the United States. It seems like a pure accident of geography.
“And I understand that people do illegal things, but how can a person be illegal?”
Now, 30 years later, I’m still wrestling with this issue.
On Sunday, our editorial package is about a new report that says in the last five years, many Mexican immigrants returned to their homeland, because the jobs here are shrinking and the economy there is improving.
That seems to be a good thing.
I don’t condone illegal border crossings and remain uncomfortable with amnesty for those who break the law. But with millions of immigrants living here for years, doing work that most Americans won’t do, there should be a path to citizenship.
Given the chance, many would become loyal Americans like the rest of us. Others will return to Mexico, and that’s fine with me.
By the way, Faces Beyond the Fence nearly made it as a Pulitzer finalist and it won a Robert F. Kennedy award. And I attended the wedding of the reporter and photographer in Tuscon.
Tell me what you think of the issue in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org