Undocumented at the Beach

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“Antonio” was visiting a small Oregon Coast tourist town in 1993 when he heard a man shouting to him out of nowhere. Alarmed, he quickly realized the stranger spoke to him in Spanish. “Trabajas? Trabajas?” the man yelled awkwardly, race-walking to catch up with him. “You work?  You work?” Antonio, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, lived in California at the time, having come to Oregon to visit a brother. After the encounter, Antonio spent the remainder of his visit working full-time, eventually deciding to relocate. He had a new job, in a restaurant in an Oregon beach town of such extraordinary beauty it attracted tourists from around the world.

To the desperate restaurant owner walking down the street, Antonio looked like one thing: cheap labor. He was well-built, young and Latino, exactly what coastal business owners sought.

Both in tourism and property values, the northern stretch of Oregon’s coast had experienced several boom years by the early 90s. The concerted efforts of developers and leisure-industry investors in the 1980s had transformed the coast from a quirky, quiet family-vacation site to a high-rent district and status symbol. Thus tiny towns strewn along the coastline attracted masses of vacationers each summer, as well as second-home buyers who drove up values and property taxes. Come summer, the towns needed a swarm of workers to run the hotels and restaurants frequented by visitors seeking sunsets and bonfires and five-star dining. By the early 1990s, restaurant and hotel owners in the town were so hard up for workers, they actually sent buses to the nearest city to pick up Latino immigrants willing to work. Most of these workers were undocumented.

The problem is the same in many vacation destinations across the U.S. today. Wooing legal workers to high-price tourist towns requires raising wages and travel costs for consumers, so the tourist industry, like the agricultural industry, relies on undocumented workers to keep costs down. The workers make ends meet by juggling multiple jobs or wedging several inhabitants into small apartments, subsidizing the vacations of middle-class people like me.

Since the late ‘90s, American immigration policies have blocked access to legalization for so-called “unskilled” immigrants and those from places like Mexico and Central America. Government leaders on the national and state levels restrict immigrant rights and demonize undocumented immigrants in public speeches, referring to them increasingly as “illegals” and stoking anti-immigrant sentiment.

Granted, sometimes immigrants who work in the U.S. tourist industry are treated respectfully by their employers and by guests. They may be thankful to reside here, to have work and opportunity, and to raise their children in the United States. Some immigrant friends working in Oregon tell me this is their experience. But in the country as a whole, conditions for immigrants are deteriorating rapidly. Just one example: after economically disastrous laws passed in Alabama in 2011, undocumented immigrants could be arrested for setting up water service, people were required to show immigration status when registering children for school, and it is literally a crime to be undocumented in the state. Even in my home state, immigrants can’t legally drive (this is soon changing, howeverfingers crossed), they can’t get an account at most banks or receive a credit card, and they live with the constant threat of a sweep by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that could have devastating consequences for families (currently in the U.S. thousands of children flounder in foster care because their parents have been deported or detained).

After almost twenty years, Antonio still lives in the same Oregon coast town and holds down jobs catering to tourists and second-home owners. He and his wife each work two to three jobs, depending on the season, and both, to this day, are undocumented, as are most Mexican-immigrant workers in their mid-forties or younger due to the legislative changes of the late-1990s. Extreme uncertainty is a fact of life for the undocumented.

U.S. tourists can better understand both undocumented immigrants’ contributions to the tourist industry and their disenfranchised status in the Unites States in order to be informed, conscientious travelers. Equipped with awareness, we can take steps to travel justly.

SIDEBAR: 

Tips for ethical travel in the U.S.:

-leave a tip specifically for the dishwashing and culinary staff at restaurants to help increase equitability among workers

-generously and directly tip housekeeping staff at hotels

-eat at small, family-owned restaurants and avoid all chains

-boycott travel to states with egregious anti-immigrant policies

-choose unionized, worker-friendly hotels, such as those listed in the directory at hotelworkersrising.org(though the fact remains, undocumented immigrants rarely join unions for fear of deportation – a threat employers can easily levy against them)

When you get home, here are some ways to thank the workers who served you on your vacation:

-call or write to your political representatives advocating for comprehensive, immigrant-friendly immigration reform

-write a letter to the editor of your local paper advocating the same (encourage your faith community to join you)

-host discussions about local anti-immigrant policies such as Secure Communities

-start a letter-writing campaign to support the DREAM Act (the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), and demand that it include alternatives to military service

-talk to your children about immigration and raise a generation of immigrant advocates

 

{Earlier version appeared in GEEZ Magazine, Summer 2012}

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