A View from Manhattan

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on January 4, 2011

During a visit to New York last week, I had the opportunity to speak with a few of the Mexican immigrants who are ubiquitous workers in Manhattan's countless restaurants, delis, cafes, corner markets, pizzerias, bagel shops, and hotels.

One told me that he had been arrested seven times by the Border Patrol before making it across successfully into southeastern Arizona. The most interesting conversation was the only one that lasted more than a minute or two. It was with a 27-year-old woman from the tiny village of Huaquechula, in the countryside of the state of Puebla, about 60 miles southeast of Mexico City.

I will call her Teresa

Teresa also came across the border in southeastern Arizona. Her group used the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta as the jumping-off point for a one-day hike through the high desert to a rendezvous with a vehicle.

Teresa, who completed the six years of Mexican primary school, earns $8.25 per hour as a housekeeper at a Midtown hotel where the nightly room rate is close to $200.

Did she receive many tips, I asked. Not often, she responded. She had cleaned six rooms so far that day, and no one had left a tip. She said she usually worked between 6.5 and 8 hours a day, depending on the work that needed to be done. How convenient for the hotel, I thought.

Teresa said her husband, who left school after ninth grade, works at a deli. There he earns $470 for his six-day, 48-hour work week.

The couple, who have a three-year-old U.S-born child, have been saving to bring their 11-year-old daughter, who is living with relatives in Mexico, to the U.S. They have made arrangements with a Mexican-born woman who has U.S. papers. (I failed to ask if the woman, a teacher, was a citizen or a green card holder). The woman says she will drive the 11-year-old across the border in her car, presenting her to U.S. authorities as a member of her family.

I thought about the many elements of this situation. The joy that Teresa and her husband would feel in being reunited with a daughter they had not seen in eight years. The many beds she would make and sandwiches he would prepare to save the money they would pay the smuggler. The anxiety their 11-year-old would feel as she crossed the border, drove across the country, and met these strangers who were her parents. The shock of a child's transition from her home in the Mexican countryside to her parents' apartment in Brooklyn.

I thought about the challenges the daughter would face in her new school, and the costs her new school would absorb in attempting to meet her needs. I thought that this is a system that works well for just one party – the hotel. The hotel gets to pretend to believe that it has a legal workforce, while it offers miserable wages to workers that hotel industry representatives describe as "essential" as they ask Congress to pass immigration reform laws that will ensure them an inexhaustible supply.