If You Enjoyed Your ChristmasTree, Thank an Immigrant


I hope this month's cover story retroactively ruins–or at least greatly complicates–your holiday joy. Especially if you bought a Christmas tree as part of your celebration.

"America's Criminal Immigration Policy: How U.S. Law Punishes Hard Work and Fractures Families" (page 24) tells the tale of Buca, a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant who busts his hump every year bringing Christmas trees to market. It is grueling, back-breaking work–the sort that most of us born in the United States would never do for any amount of money.

Buca (we've omitted his last name to protect his family's identity) lives most of the year in North Carolina, where 20 percent of the nation's Christmas trees are grown. But for about two months, he has to leave the country–and his wife and two daughters–to comply with federal law regarding his guest worker visa. His wife, Amanda, who works as a nanny for a church leader, is an illegal immigrant, so the family splits up every year around Christmas rather than risk not being able to get back into the U.S. Under current law, Buca and Amanda have no shot at green cards, despite their long history of employment here and even though their two daughters are U.S. citizens.

Buca's plight–shared by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other American workers–reminds me of my maternal grandfather's story. Nicola Guida emigrated from Southern Italy in 1913. After being processed at Ellis Island, he was taken by a padrone, or Italian job broker, to a quarry somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania (no one in the family knows its precise location) where he worked for a year chiseling rock by hand. At night, the men were so exhausted that they pissed and shit themselves in their cots, unable to get up to use the outhouses. My grandfather graduated to hauling toxic chemicals in Delaware and, during the Depression, dug basements with a pick axe and shovel. He ended up with a series of relatively soft factory jobs in Connecticut.

What is most striking about my grandfather's story is not how unusual it is but how common. All of us can tell similar stories about casually Herculean work efforts by relatives who moved from Europe or Latin America or Asia or Africa–or various parts of the U.S.–and helped build this country.

My grandfather, despite coming here at a time when Southern Italians were considered subhuman, had one advantage Buca doesn't. He entered the Land of Opportunity before racist immigration restrictions were passed in the 1920s. While the rationale for U.S. policy has changed since then, there's no question that hard-working immigrants, whether legal or undocumented, face insuperable barriers. There is something immoral about a policy that treats Buca and his family so shabbily. It not only causes hardship; it dishonors all those workers who came before.

Immigration reform is shaping up as a key battle this legislative season. Let's make sure that President Bush and Congress know who grows their Christmas trees. And that they create a policy that welcomes all hard-working Americans, regardless of their country of origin.