So, I’m just gonna write for a while about this former workplace and the people who worked there. This will circle back to immigration at some point, but it’s gonna be a while. If you’re a TL;DR type of person, this will not be for you.

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So, first, some background: I had this job once, basically a desk job—writing repair estimates in a State Farm DRP auto body shop, and then ushering those vehicles through the repair process. This was back in the mid-aughts. It was a small shop in a fairly upscale area, with a staff that never grew larger than 10 during my years there. The staff was broken up into a few groups:

  • Office staff, who dealt with customers and State Farm and other insurers
  • Skilled staff, who did the actual repairs and paintwork
  • Hector, who did everything else

There were never more than three people working in the office. To my left was Gary, the office manager—white, bald, a hundred pounds overweight, with a big personality. Gary was also openly gay, an occasional drag queen, woefully undereducated, and the most openly racist person I have ever known.

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To his left, for my first year there, was John, a middle-aged white guy in failing health who strongly associated with the Italian half of his family. John was the most useless person who worked there during my tenure—he moved like a snail, was hostile to any workplace standards that happened to apply to him in any way, and was also openly and virulently racist. I once listened to him spend an entire day calling then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama a monkey and a n___ until I finally blew my top and got into a wild shouting match with him that eventually made its way out into the parking lot, for the whole world to see.

John’s uselessness eventually caught up to him, and he was replaced by Kevin, a tattooed steakhead who would put on a football jersey the very minute he clocked out because he just liked wearing them so damn much. Kevin hated women and would only date strippers, and was, in his own way, completely horrible to be around.

OK, so, that was the office.

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The shop had Big Dave, from West Virginia, who, honestly, could be a real sweetheart when he wasn’t saying incredibly horrible things about non-white racial groups. Big Dave—so-nicknamed because he was enormously fat—was the sort of guy who would stop saying that black people were completely worthless mid-sentence when his former colleague would stop by for a visit, because this former colleague was black, and Big Dave was pretty fond of him. He “had black friends,” is what I’m saying. Big Dave was a wholly dysfunctional deadbeat dad whose adolescent children were morbidly obese, and the younger of the two had to be homeschooled because he simply refused to go to school. Homeschooling, in this instance, meant Big Dave’s ex-wife supervising the poor kid while he played video games all day. Big Dave barely gave a shit about this at all.

In the bay adjacent to Big Dave was Hyun, a Korean who’d immigrated to the U.S. with his wife and kids and made a fabulous living as a body tech, at least in part because he eagerly caught all the overflow work that Big Dave—the more skilled tech—couldn’t get to, because Big Dave was just physically a wreck. Hyun had a helper whose name eludes me—he was a more recent Korean immigrant, spoke no English, and his pay was cut directly from Hyun’s commission. Hyun took on the helper so that he could catch more work, so whenever work slowed down, the helper would disappear for a while. I liked Hyun very much, but he did not get along very well with anyone else in the shop, who saw his soaking up of tons of work as somehow greedy, even while that work was virtually paying the shop’s office staff’s salary.

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Behind the work bays was the paint shop, run by the head painter, also named Dave, who we called Little Dave. Little Dave was also from West Virginia. He was enormously skilled and professional in his work and took it very seriously. He also carried a pistol on his person at all times, except when he was physically inside the paint booth. Little Dave also had a helper, named Teddy, who was also paid out of Little Dave’s commission. Teddy had a quiet swagger and was aloof, but was easy enough to like if you put up with that long enough to get to know him a little. He had a very bad habit of getting blindingly drunk with his buddies at local bars and then getting into wild melees with other men, and so Teddy would sometimes miss work while he was in jail or in court.

Then there was Hector. Hector was the first person to the shop every day, and it was Hector’s job to keep the place from devolving into chaos. He donned a surgical mask and swept mountains of Bondo dust from the body shop. He man-hauled and disposed of whole tons of ruined car parts. He helped Big Dave tear down and reassemble vehicles. He thoroughly washed, inside and out, every repaired vehicle, in a tent behind the shop, in all weather conditions. He unpacked and organized incoming parts. He cleaned the office and the bathroom. He landscaped. He transported parts, test drove cars, and kept the shop remotely compliant with safety and disposal laws. He translated. He was, without fail, the very last person to leave the shop, every day.

This was a hard job, but it was vital, and it had some autonomy, and Hector was paid fairly well to do it, along with collecting health benefits and paid time off. I know it was a hard job because, as a teenager, I spent a summer doing that exact job (alongside Albert Burneko, no less), only I couldn’t come close to keeping up, hated every minute of it, and swore I would never, ever do it again. The person who is best at it is a completely invisible mechanical part of the repair process who you only notice—invariably with the force of an explosion of dynamite—when that person is gone. Hector was never gone—he worked the day after he had a laparoscopic appendectomy, and he worked the same day that he had his wisdom teeth removed.

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Hector’s english was heavily accented and imperfect, and that meant that no one else who worked there put a whole lot of effort into getting to know the guy. He had worked alongside some of those people for five years by the time I got there, and some of them still thought he was Mexican. Hector was not Mexican. He was Bolivian. Most of them thought he was in his early thirties. He was in his mid-forties. Most of them thought of him as just another poor, desperate, uneducated immigrant pack-mule, suited only to the kind of backbreaking work that men like him do in this country. He was, of course, none of those things.

In Bolivia, Hector had received a college education after serving as a paratrooper in the Bolivian Army. He had toured vast areas of South America and become something of an expert on the different cultures and cuisines. Before coming to the U.S., he’d married the love of his life and had two children. He was hugely in love with rock-and-roll from the ‘60s and ‘70s and had developed a taste for heavy metal. His dream was to one day open a bar with the kind of kitschy, memorabilia-covered aesthetic of many American bars, only all the memorabilia would be related to his favorite music—Led Zeppelin t-shirts and replicas of famous guitars and shit.

Bolivia’s economy went into the tank in the early ’80s, at least in part because the international price of tin fell sharply and devastated Bolivia’s mining industry and export income. Strife and government corruption have had a hand in preventing its recovery, but the globalization of the world’s economies has also played a role, as it has throughout South and Central America. Driving the price of a good downward is great for a consumer nation with vast natural resources and many healthy industries, but small economies powered by the value and export of their geography’s most abundant and valuable resources get absolutely crushed. Bolivia has had a hell of a time adjusting to a world that no longer pays much for what it sells, and has played on and off with the kinds of policies and reforms that are designed to contain commerce inside its borders. The Index of Economic Freedom, which endeavors to rank nations by how free their citizens are to make and control their own wealth, ranks Bolivia 163rd, near the bottom, in the range of desperately poor central African nations.

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It was against that backdrop that Hector made the difficult decision in the mid-’90s to leave Bolivia—where the opportunities to make a good living are hampered by rule and by forces completely beyond his control—and travel north in search of a place where he could make enough money to support his family, who stayed behind in Bolivia. He made his way eventually to Mexico, where a coyote helped smuggle him into the United States. He was filthy and exhausted and completely broke, and in this new place he was immediately employable in a vast churning economy absolutely bursting with openings in jobs for people who are willing to do the kind of work the rest of us do our best to avoid. He was the supply, and there was plenty of demand.

He made his way eventually to the D.C. suburbs and found his way into an opening at a small auto body shop. The pay was low, at first (by American standards), but it was something—enough to buy and maintain a vehicle, keep a roof over his head, feed himself, and have enough to wire home to his wife. Hector was eventually given a green card, which had, by the time I met him, become resident alien status. His pay was above the table, he paid income taxes, and, because he has no dependents in this country, he used virtually none of the social services those taxes help support. And, besides, that’s not why he’s here. He came here, and he’s here today, because there is outrageous demand for something he can do and get paid for doing.

America’s economy is an abomination by any reasonable standard. So much of its wealth—enough that it is not unfair to say all of it—is controlled by an infinitesimally small number of people, and the huge dollars are made by people whose only enterprise is strategically moving money around so as to take advantage of market inefficiencies. The things that you think you will do to make yourself rich—open a business, invent something, become very talented in something you are passionate about, play sports at the highest level, buy and sell real estate—can, indeed, make you rich, but they will not bring you within shouting distance of the real movers and shakers. The rest of the way there will be determined by whether you can slide giant sums of money around in sync with spasming holes in America’s capitalism. In order to make the huge money, you have to first have the money to ante up. None of us—so few of us that it’s fair, anyway, to say none of us—will ever have any chance of getting there.

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Down here on the ground, there’s a real problem. Globalization and—it’s true—upwardly-mobile liberal disdain have not just decimated America’s working class, they’ve changed the very idea of being a laborer in this country from a point of pride into a great shame, such that the all-purpose beast position occupied expertly by Hector could be open for a decade and there might be one smart, capable, hard-working non-immigrant who would seek it or take it. Towns along the rust-belt used to proudly identify with their blue collar way of life, and America was proud to have them, and the union workers in those and other towns had stature in their communities and buying power that made them important to the outer world. Now those jobs barely exist at all, and, anyway, decades of dismissal and outright pandering have turned those communities into the depressed and bitter husks they’ve now become. No one wants those jobs. No one wants to be there. Smart kids are told by every signal in American society to get as far away from those places and those industries as they can, into college and white-collar jobs.

That doesn’t mean America’s need for laborers has completely dried up. Wealthy Americans hire maids and landscapers, farmers need farmhands, contractors need sturdy backs, kitchens need cooks, auto body shops need helpers. But there exists a gap between the quality-of-life Americans (and all people) are entitled to and what those jobs will pay, and there exists an even bigger gap between the dreams Americans have for themselves and their children and the current trajectory of blue collar work in this country.

A seemingly obvious reason for this gap in pay and prestige is that those jobs aren’t worth very much, but that’s observably not true. Hector is a handy example: he was paid less than the other people there because his job required neither the office skills nor the technical skills of the other people who work there, and there was the sense, wholly based upon the low level of prestige placed upon the job itself, that anyone could do it. This in theory made Hector more replaceable than the other staff, but that was manifestly not the case. Hector was at least as vital as any other person in the shop, and was at least as good at his work and at least as dependable an employee as anyone. That job should have been worth more, because, in reality, no one would or could do the job as well as Hector did it.

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The shop’s owner would probably say he couldn’t hire a white guy for the job because he couldn’t afford to pay what a white guy would ask for before he’d do the job, but that’s also false. The owner had three enormous homes and made income off real-estate, other business ventures, and other investments. I drove past his new 200-acre winery last weekend. The owner was loaded, and took $300,000 a year in salary from the shop, in addition to whatever he took in shareholder profit. He could have easily doubled the pay of Hector’s position without any significant dent in his own wealth. It wasn’t that he couldn’t pay some raring-to-go college-educated white guy to do it, it was that he was happier paying as little as he could get away with, and isn’t it convenient that there’s half a hemisphere of impoverished workers just beyond our southern borders.

The office guys—none of whom had any college education—threw all their shit work at Hector. Big Dave called him a “beaner” and made jokes about him liking chicken (which Big Dave called “yard bird”). They would have defended Hector in a fight, but they weren’t shaking his hand. I have to confess, I may not have made any specific assumptions about Hector when I first met him, but neither was I curious about his background, and somewhere in my dumb white American brain I slotted him in as Anonymous Latino Pack Animal and took all his hard work for granted. Later, when I finally did become curious, I was impressed and ashamed to learn that Hector was more educated and worldly than anyone else in the shop, certainly more so than the complacent racist shitheads breathing up all the air in the office. Had been the whole time.

Hector’s education meant jack shit in his job, but that’s a little less troubling than this: his education and experience of the world and easy relatability, all of the stuff that made him a human and not a disposable automaton, meant jack shit to his dumb American coworkers, who saw just another Latino grunt worker. In him they saw what they wanted to see. To the world around him, Hector was nothing.

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Here’s the thing about immigration in a world with borders: those lines are imaginary. Hector is just a human who happened to be born south of one imaginary line imbued with wholly artificial significance. He is here now because he covered some land. His journey across thousands of miles of diverse terrain to eventually cross a thin, shallow river makes him a migrant. That that river has been given artificial significance makes him an immigrant. That America has decided to allow a very tiny group of oligarchs to profit off of the exploitation of international workers, and has managed to seduce the rest of us into securing artificial borders around their wonderland, made him an “illegal.”

American myth-makers love to draw a line from the freedoms articulated in our founding documents to our wealth and prosperity, as if the former led to the latter, but that’s not true, and you ought to know it’s not true. America’s wealth has always been the product of two things: exploitation of labor, and military might. To the extent that America’s wealth persists to this day, it does so by the same exploitation of labor. Globalization has given America a broader labor pool, and that exploitation has redirected some members of that labor force, like magnetism, to back within our borders, where the remaining blue-collar jobs are now practically the exclusive domain of a reviled and dehumanized class of disposable workers.

If you think I’m wrong, I invite you to open a small labor-oriented business. You will learn this right away: only the poor and undereducated will apply for your labor positions, unless you pay enough money for those jobs that you, yourself, are disallowed from gaining entry into the upper levels of the American economy.

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That’s how this works. And that’s how we’ve wound up in a situation where whole vast parts of our economy are propped up on the backs of people we’ve made poor and desperate enough to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to do the work for less than we know it’s worth.

So, Hector is now a legal resident of the United States. He is smarter, harder-working, more dedicated, more worldly, and more valuable to this fucked up American economy than you are. If you think the big huge problem is that he was able to cross an imaginary line to get here, you’re fucking crazy.

OK! Back to work. Thanks for reading.