I deliberated long and hard about this post. Would I sound racist? Intolerant? Can I even use the term “illegal immigrants”? Then I began to internally rail against a stifling political climate, where it’s difficult to utter one word about racial issues or immigrancy for fear of cold shoulder repercussions and self-righteous indignation.
And this isn’t an unfounded fear. Whenever I spoke to someone about my Mexican neighbors and their legality, people shut down almost immediately. This included public officials and the owner of the house.
But let me back up. Three years ago, a family of Mexican descent moved into the 2-bedroom/1-bath house next door. They were not on the lease. As is often the case here at the Jersey shore, a business owner signed the lease, so one (or many) of his or her employees could live here and still work in that business.
When my brother first told me, I was surprised at my initial thoughts. Would they pack the house with people? Would it be noisy? I knew I was stereotyping…but unfortunately my concerns quickly came to fruition.
The first week, dozens of people came and went, lining the driveway and street with cars. The new renters parked a car on the front lawn that hasn’t budged since. It became noisy. This wasn’t a party-loving family per se, but there were a lot of adults and children in and out.
After a few weeks, the guests died down. But as I’ve come to realize, one problem quickly replaces another. Soon noisy cars were idling outside of my bedroom window as early as 5 am. People moved in during the middle of the night (into the front porch, which the census began calling “Apartment B”!). Cars beeped aggressively throughout the day.
When I asked the woman of the house if she could tell her children to play in their backyard and not next to my window (I work from my home, right next to their driveway, where they congregate), I was treated to one of many mean looks.
I could relay more “horror stories”: The loud music, the men who checked me out when I left the house in the morning, the daycare “business” they tried to pull off. But after about a year, I put the kibosh on most of it. I called the realtor and the owner of the house. I called the police. I even wrote the mayor about the problem of third party leasing, where people live in a house for years and aren’t required to have their names on the lease. I was successful, for the most part. The car horns stopped, the strangers living there for short periods of time, the car idling, the music playing…all stopped.
I wish I could say it’s fine now. It’s not. The tension continues. Because, for me, the bigger issue is their possible illegality in this country.
And this is when everyone fidgets and grumbles. People will often ask, “How do you know they’re illegal?” To which I respond, “How do you know I’m legal?” Fortunately or not, you generally don’t have the right to ask someone about citizenship status. But telltale signs arise: the lack of a driver’s license, under-the-table jobs, questionable license plates on permanently parked cars, moving in the middle of the night, house-stuffing…all signs.
The husband works at a restaurant here. I’m guessing he has some sort of extended work visa. The wife, I’ve surmised, does not. Their children are matriculated into the school system and are picked up in front of their house on a daily basis by a school bus.
The political climate tends to be polarized on this issue. Republicans want stricter reform when it comes to citizenship and deportation. Democrats want more integration and allowance. For the first time in my life, I stand warily by the side of the Republicans.
Many people will say, “But they are good people. I have an illegal clean my house and she’s a real sweetheart.” Or “Nobody wants those low-paying jobs anyway. We benefit from it because we pay 10 cents less for lettuce.” I’ve heard it all. Generally I’ve never heard these statements from someone who lives next door to a family of questionable legal status. Because niceness and a strong work ethic have nothing to do with it.
It’s not that different from living next door to a drug dealer. Covert activity, disruptive behavior, a bucking of local laws and ordinances for their own personal gain, a sense of entitlement.
Yes, a sense of entitlement. And perhaps that’s the most aggravating aspect. My neighbors actively dislike me because I had the audacity to enforce my rights and make them conform to local laws. These changes weren’t made to be neighborly or considerate of me; they were forced to make these changes.
I try to imagine what it would be like if I moved to another country with the goal of staying there permanently and integrating the entirety of my family there. I’d know I was doing something illegal and I would live my life in fear. I’d stay under the radar and adhere to local protocol at all costs. I’d learn the language as soon as possible. Actually, it’s hard for me to imagine it; I wouldn’t do it. But people are doing it, by the millions. A certain shoulder shrugging goes on that I wish applied to me when I broke a law.
One woman said to me, “Well I guess you don’t know what it’s like to go hungry.” No one should ever assume because I’m an American that I’ve never gone hungry. But more than that, her statement highlights a genuine lack of knowledge about this topic.
When it comes to Mexico specifically, most aren’t crawling to the border, starving and homeless, desperate for a good meal. They are moving here because they make more money here. And they can send it back home by the billions to their relatives, where that money is worth more. There are tax loopholes that they can take advantage of, a system to exploit. They move here by strategy and choice, not out of desperation.
Of course, this problem is multi-layered in its complicity. The hiring businesses, the realtors, the owner of the house who lives several states away and mindlessly deposits a check every month, the IRS, consumers, the politicians who enact laws to protect the hiring businesses–and, of course, the families themselves–are all responsible.
During an economy that most certainly affects me, it’s hard not to wonder about the repercussions of millions of people living here illegally and the impact they have. It seems to be more of a land of opportunity for them, not me. Not just these neighbors but the entire (growing) community of newcomers here seem to be doing pretty darn well: nice cars, latest iPhones and gadgets, new clothes.They appear to be the middle class I once was. Still, some will argue that they have very little impact or actually contribute to the economy. I can’t imagine that to be entirely true.
Regardless, it doesn’t justify millions of people living here illegally simply because they contribute to the economy. (Didn’t the drug dealer?) Whether it’s the Mexican family next door or the Pope or a Lilliputian, if you’re here illegally, you’re committing a crime. That’s not to be downplayed for the sake of cheaper lettuce or a spotless home.
So I continue to receive the dirty looks from the family next door. And their friends. (Their community outnumbers mine at this point.) My belief system includes the importance of “loving your neighbor” and I'm not even close, unfortunately.
And yes, I know. Bad neighbors are bad neighbors, regardless of their origin. But to deny the illegality aspect is missing a critical piece of the problem. And if they are legal, then I’d like to believe that newcomers would be more than willing to adapt to the ways of the host country.
After one episode a while back, where many people were visiting and kids screaming and running in and out of the house into the evening, I asked them, again, to keep it down. (Now I no longer ask; I simply call the cops.) The man of the house, a nice man for whatever that's worth, responded to me: “But this is my way. This is my way.”
And I said, “Yes and that very attitude is the problem.”
He didn't understand me.