Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor ... Or Have We Forgotten That?

Work hard, tell the truth, and what does it get you? Juan was an exemplary employee for more than two years. He came early. He stayed late. He never was a fast worker - just steady and dependable. In the time he worked at Tempo Mechanical Services (Irving, Texas), I got to know about his life and his past.

Juan was a mid-level bureaucrat for a Central American government. He first resisted implementing torture on others, and then became a victim of it himself.

He fled to the United States, seeking and receiving political asylum. In the 20-plus years he lived here, Juan bought and paid for a home, rearing three children, two who are college graduates. At night, he studied to become a minister. Eventually, however, he could no longer withhold the complete truth about himself from his co-workers. He told me, his boss, that his residency papers were falsified.

Have you ever tried to help someone get legal status? Do you have any concept of the morass of confusion, misdirection, penalties, and difficulties connected with obtaining permission to stay in the United States legally? Each step in the process comes with a wait of days, months, or more - all with the unspoken ax of deportation hanging over the legal applicant's head.

On one point the law is brutally clear. If an employer knows that a worker is undocumented, then immediate termination is the only option that will keep the employer within the law. Juan had to go.

In the midst of this contentious debate about illegal immigration, who will defend the value and the values of these undocumented workers? With Juan and many others in mind, I am glad to take up the challenge.


Part of my support is based on idealism. We promote the United States as a haven for oppressed people from other parts of the world. The hand of welcome is physically symbolized by the Statue of Liberty and verbally expressed in the poem by Emma Lazarus.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore -
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

And so I believe that the United States welcomes as new residents engineers, physicians, artists, and authors, but also persons who may be downtrodden. Many of those who have been the most desperate to reach our country also have been the most appreciative of their freedom here. And, as a group, the work ethic, family values, and spirituality shown by the largely Hispanic immigrants of this debate are humbling. As history tells us, admitting "the wretched refuse" has been pretty successful for our country.


I also am motivated by practical concerns. Many undocumented workers are the individuals who do the dirty and dangerous lifting in this economy. As is well known, they are heavily involved in agriculture, construction, food service, and other essential activities. Without their labor, many businesses - whole sectors, in fact - would be crippled and perhaps shut down.

Many of the so-called answers in the current immigration debate are simplistic pandering to the prejudiced. In particular, I worry about the idea of deporting millions of persons, mostly Hispanic. It doesn't align well with the images of freedom and democracy that we promote in Iraq and Darfur.

Are we the least bit nervous about the potential for civil liberties violations as we identify and root out these workers? Are we ready for the national heartbreak of ripping the "illegal" breadwinner from the arms of "legal" residents? How is our national self-image enhanced by the spectacle of thousands of miles of steel fences along the Mexican border? Will the departure of these millions of persons open up "lost" jobs for the chronically unemployed and provide impetus for economic growth?

There are no easy answers. But I strongly believe that Juan is representative of "every man" and that each illegal immigrant has his or her own distinctive and compelling story. To be effective, solutions in the current immigration debate must embrace good people like Juan and be centered in the historical virtues that have made America the greatest country on earth.

Steve Saunders is CEO of Tempo Mechanical Service, Irving, Texas. He can be reached at

Publication date: 06/19/2006

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