Dawn’s Early Light

January 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: We see them lined up on American streets at dawn’s early light. Depending on our point of view, we call them “illegal” or “undocumented.” The question preoccupying us now as a nation, from the White House on down, is “them”– what to do with them? Grant them amnesty? Send them all back? Make them guest workers?

But I wonder about us. How they have changed us, even while we have paid them cheaply to wash our restaurant dishes and to pick our apples and to sit with a dying grandparents. For much of the 20th century, we employed Mexicans when it suited us.

For example, during the war, we needed Mexicans to harvest our crops. Slowly, mutual dependence was established. A rumor of dollars spread through Mexican villages, and Americans grew accustomed to cheap laboring hands.

Now they come, children following the footsteps of parents and grandparents, often at the risk of death or injury. We say about them that they are disrespectful of American laws. But for every illegal worker employed today in America, there is an employer– one of us– equally disrespectful of American law. Mexicans reveal our hypocrisy to ourselves. They, in their relentless movement back and forth, are forcing us to see America within the Americas.

Long before diplomats and politicians spoke of NAFTA or feckless college students headed to Cancun for spring break, Mexican peasants saw the Americas whole. They — in Peruvian villages, they know when apples are being picked in the Yakima Valley. Brazilian teenagers know when fishing companies are hiring in Alaska. They — they know all about us.

But now they are forcing us to acquire a working knowledge of them. Because of them, Spanish is, unofficially, the second language of the United States, apparent on signs all over the city. Though we are the employers dispensing dollars at the end of the day or short-changing them or threatening to call the police if they complain, they leave us with an odd sense of powerlessness, for we are not in control of the movements of peoples across the borders.

We are not in control because the movement of peoples across the earth is an aspect of tragedy, of circumstances– drought, plague, civil war, poverty. Peasants all over the world are in movement, violating borders.

Even President Bush in announcing his sympathetic proposals for how to deal with them, assumed the given: They are here. We pay them as little as we can, of course, which is how the undocumented, undercut America’s working class, white and black. We say about them, sometimes, that “the illegals work very hard, work harder for less than we can get Americans to work.”

On a carefree weekend, we might suddenly see “them” on the horizon working amidst rows of dusty green. They force us to wonder if we have the courage of such labor or the stamina? Sometimes, Americans will compare these people to their own great-grandparents.

The difference, people say, is that these Mexicans and central Americans are illegally here, whereas our ancestors came here legally. Consider the familiar images of those ships headed for Ellis Island, which have become commonplace in American legend. We picture those immigrants enthralled to the Goddess of Liberty and the freedom she represents.

Today’s undocumented workers do not speak of the Federalist Papers or of Thomas Jefferson. They want only a job. They undermine the romanticism we harbor about earlier generations and about ourselves. They, today’s illegal immigrants, may lead us to wonder whether for our ancestors America was not simply an exalted vision, but also partook of tragedy: A loaf of stale bread. A backbreaking job. A terrible loneliness. “Trabajo? Cheap, Señor, cheap. Roof? Digging? Barato, si, barato.” I’m Richard Rodriguez.