Arizona's stringent new anti-immigration law has finally stirred calls to fix a broken system and give hard-striving undocumented workers their due. If the controversy turns into action, a measure of thanks goes to Los Angeles' Cardinal Roger Mahony, who spoke out quickly and forcefully against Arizona's actions.
That's not surprising -- Mahony knows the same thing my father noticed when he first visited me here in Southern California.
My parents were the children of immigrants themselves, Italians who settled in the New York City and rarely ventured outside of their neighborhoods, let alone the city borders. They came to visit me when I moved out to Los Angeles a little more than twenty years ago -- and my Dad observed everything very closely. Chinatown, the beaches, Dodger Stadium, Beverly Hills. He noticed everyone we came into contact with and as I watched him, I wondered what he was thinking.
Finally, after being served a cup of coffee at a cafe on Venice Beach, he turned to me and said: "The Mexicans do all the work around here, don't they?" I nodded. That's what he had taken in: the busboy in the Chinese restaurant, the gardner outside the Beverly Hills mansion, the kid sweeping up the seats after a baseball game. They were all immigrants from Latin America.
The place couldn't function without them, my father told me -- and he was right. The food at fine L.A. restaurants, and the services people paid for at home and work, were all substantially less expensive than in New York -- mostly because of the cheap back-breaking labor delivered by a steady stream of Latino immigrants, legal or not. If Southern California was an American dreamscape, it was made of puffy little clouds built by undocumented workers.
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That image never left my father -- every time he came out to visit, he would take notice. He always said hello to the young man who bussed our table at lunch, or helped deliver something to our door. He shook his head at the enormous supermarkets filled with fresh cheap produce hand-picked only a few miles away by those same immigrants.
Roger Mahony knows them, too. He grew up in Los Angeles, and spent his life as priest in California. He knows these immigrants are part of the fabric of our economy, the economy of the entire Southwest. He's always been a compelling voice in their defense.
My father would have approved.