My Sewer Bill Solution

Two problems. One solution.

by Cherri Ellis

I recently was able to take my daughter on a mother/daughter trip to New York City.  For three nights, we shopped and laughed and napped and ate in cool restaurants of all varieties.  We bought black/black gel mac eyeliner and walked everywhere, guided by her ever-present iPhone, of course. One night she talked me into wearing her low-cut skinny jeans out to dinner. If you ever see us out, you will instantly know why that’s funny.  She is 5 foot 9 and can wear a size 6; I am five foot 4 and can’t…or at least shouldn’t. (I’ll take “Things I’ll Only Do Out of Town for $200,” Alex.)

As we zipped around the city, we were frequently asked where we were from.  Several times, the moment we cheerfully responded “Birmingham, Alabama,” we were questioned about our state’s new immigration law. One perfectly charming Italian cab driver went into a verbal tirade about how much a pound of tomatoes is going to cost now that the farmers have lost so much labor that they can’t get the product in from the fields. The owner of a highly lauded Mexican restaurant talked about it so long that he felt bad and sent us over a free flan.  (Okay, that time it was worth it.)

It was painful to see that the reputation of our amazing state has been so affected.  We were just getting over the constant dredging up of the dogs-and-hoses pictures when we came up with HB 56. The late-night talk hosts are having a field day, as well they should.  There is a lot of comedic material to be found in Representative Scott Beason’s hair alone.

The experience made me want to learn more about HB 56. Through a friend of a friend, I was able to arrange an interview with a real, live, illegal immigrant.   The fact that he requested to not be identified made it feel a touch dangerous, but when I opened the door to find “Carlos,” he was just an attractive, conservative-looking man in a sport coat.

He came to chase the American Dream from Peru, where he was educated in business administration and his wife was a social worker. When the Peruvian economy tanked and he was out of work for over a year, he used the family car as a taxicab, basically popping a sign in the window and declaring himself as such.  Local conditions worsened to the point that there were no more jobs, and the ensuing desperation made crime skyrocket. Wanting a better life for themselves and their seven-year-old daughter, they scraped up enough money to give to a man he met on a fare who then made arrangements for him to get papers that would allow entry into the United States.  The man turned out to be less legitimate than he had claimed, but he was able to get Carlos as far as Miami on a travel visa. Miami is a tough and dangerous landscape to navigate for anyone, much less a family man without a word of English. He worked odd jobs until he was able to get the money to bring his wife and daughter over, reuniting the family but hardly solving their problems.

A connection through a friend led to a job for them both in Birmingham. They were the only Hispanic employees for this particular business, and they were grateful for the mostly manual labor they were given. They taught themselves English two ways: through closed-caption television and through a tutoring program at a church.  He laughed as he told me how thrilled he was that nobody else showed up for the class except them, because he knew the value of private instruction. They have worked hard as a couple, securing better jobs and better housing, moving from the inner city to Homewood to Trussville, where they now own a home.

It has been 11 years now.  They have a son, the only legal resident in their family of four.  They have tried to obtain citizenship a variety of ways, using every type of visa they qualified for and spending as much as they could afford on immigration lawyers, but they have been unsuccessful.  They pay their bills and their mortgage and their taxes, and they teach their kids that education is the key to getting ahead, but they live scared. They do not let their eight-year-old boy watch the news because they do not want him to feel discriminated against.

Carlos might be an illegal immigrant, but he is a business-owning, home-owning, tax-paying, church-going, school-volunteering one.

I completely get the need for immigration reform. I understand that homeland security is paramount to the safety of our citizens.  If you want to come to this country to live, you had better be ready to learn our language, pay our taxes and follow our laws, including those that are flawed. Were I to travel or live in another country, I would be expected to have ID on me. Actually, I believe I am expected to have an ID in this country.  But to pass a law that will cost our cash-strapped residents this much money is at best, ill thought out, and at worst, a nightmare.  Look at the math:

4.2 percent of our work force is unauthorized.  Last year, those unauthorized immigrants paid $130.3 million dollars in state and local taxes. One in five jobs in Alabama is connected to farming.  When crops rot in the field, we’re the ones who are going to pay more at the grocery store. Who is going to pay the legal fees for the government to fight the lawsuits this rash decision has generated?  We are.  Training and man hours for the police force?  That’s on us too.  According to Professor Samuel Addy at the University of Alabama Center for Business and Economic Research, this law is going to reduce the state’s economy by 40 million dollars.

I have an idea that I humbly consider to be the perfect solution. I propose that we repeal HB 56 and offer work visas to qualified illegal immigrants, and in doing so charge them a fee that will go toward the Jefferson County sewer bill.  It would be like a hostess gift, like bringing wine or nice tea towels to a dinner party.  As a show of appreciation for their lovely invite to legally live in our communities, they throw in a little cash on the other situation in Alabama that has provided national late-night punch lines.

Get me Tony Petelos on the phone, stat

One Response to “My Sewer Bill Solution”

  1. Robin Mangino says:

    I agree 100% with your proposed solution. Beautifully written.

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