"Undocumented." "Illegal." "Alien."
These are very harsh words to describe a large sector of our California population. But, when taken as individuals, you will find them to be a very genial, productive and law-abiding group of people.
I should know. My wife was one of those described above when she came to this country 33 years ago. Today she is a citizen, owns and operates her own successful business, pays her taxes, is president of the Salvation Army Women's Auxiliary and is a delight to all who know her.
Why did she brave the very real danger of crossing the border to "invade" this country? Simply stated, it was a matter of survival. Her father died when she was 14, leaving 14 kids to run a ranch in the remote mountains above Puerto Vallarta. After a few years of hard struggle, they finally gave in to the temptation of finding a better life, and one by one they crossed over into San Diego County and began to make lives for themselves.
Or, take another example. Thirty years ago, our family brought four boys to Modesto from an orphanage near Ensenada. We raised them in our home, and they became a part of our family. Again, at some point each boy lost his U.S. legal status, yet through lots of effort, hard work and plenty of tears they have all gained citizenship, all have excellent jobs and families, and they all pay their taxes and have never accepted public assistance.
One of my boys is an Alameda County sheriff's deputy, and he is much admired for his straightforward approach to the job, and his fluency in two languages.
Another of my sons has an excellent job in Anaheim as a sales rep for a packaging company. But, far more important, he and his sister (who was also once one of those "illegals") have formed a foundation and they raise large amounts of money to help support 14 orphanages and children's homes in Baja California.
Am I proud of these kids and how far they have come? You bet!
Drive through any building project or subdivision in our valley and note the workers in the various construction crafts. Virtually without exception you will see Latino workers, many of whom no doubt have come through the ranks of getting legal, just like my family had to do. I have an office at a large wholesale nursery, and I can guarantee you that 3 million trees per year would not be produced without this loyal work force.
Perhaps the most perplexing part of all this puzzle, for me, is the fact that nearly all of us can trace our family origins back to ancestors who came here, without visas and without invitations, simply to find a better life for themselves and their families. Unless, of course, you are a Native American.
And don't forget who owned this great state of ours just 160 years ago, prior to the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
A T-shirt belonging to one of my Latino friends says it well: "We did not cross the border, the border crossed us."
Hagerty is an Oakdale real estate developer active in community nonprofits. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.