When I ask you to picture the Greatest Generation’s heroes mobilized en masse to save democracy and civilization in World War II, you picture American kids in their prime, wearing their distinctive olive GI uniforms and helmets. The images of that millions-strong Band of Brothers are iconic, forever etched in our collective memory.
When we look back someday and are asked to think of today’s heroes mobilized to save us from the most far-reaching global pandemic in a century, the uniforms that should come to mind will be different, more diverse. Because in addition to heroic medical and law enforcement first responders, the heroes of this mass effort to keep us all safe (many of us ensconced snugly at home) include grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, garbage collectors, at-home care providers, bank tellers, farm workers, and food deliverers. They are frontline soldiers in this battle, deemed “essential” by New York state and other jurisdictions, exempted from their orders to the rest of us to stay at home.
Low-wage immigrants – yes, including those undocumented – are unsung and underappreciated heroes of everyday life in the United States. Our current crisis tragically reinforces the point, as immigrants (and other minorities) are disproportionately represented among those essential to the effort to contain the coronavirus without totally derailing our lives.
On a recent layover in a deserted Chicago O’Hare Airport, I overheard two of the service workers emptying trash cans speaking to each other in a blend of Colombian and Mexican-accented Spanish. I asked them if they had any reservations about coming to work every day in a public space, to clean it no less, when people are being advised to stay home. “¿Qué podemos hacer?,” Javier, the Mexican, responded, “además, siempre hay algo, solo toca trabajar duro.”
There’s always something. Working hard is the thing. That’s the immigrant’s own GI-like fatalistic gumption, and to be fair, those jobs at O’Hare are presumably stable and unionized. But I heard a similar sentiment from a day laborer moving furniture in downtown Washington, D.C. He told me he was trying to work even more hours these days, because he worried the virus will hit his town back in El Salvador even harder, and so he wants to send more money home.
There is a cruel irony in the fact that our society’s reliance on those hardworking, underpaid immigrants delivering your food, manning your gas stations, and taking care of your elderly relatives acquires a life-and-death significance at a time of such widespread anti-immigrant fervor. Even during last night’s White House update on the coronavirus (is it just me or has President Trump adopted his equivalent of Lopez Obrador’s mañaneras?) there was a telling moment when a reporter asked if undocumented workers could access testing and care for the virus, safe from any immigration enforcement concerns. The Surgeon General answered yes, full stop (somewhere Stephen Miller must have punched a wall). Trump, looking pained, agreed, but still went out of his way to call them “illegal aliens.”
In contrast, and much to his credit, the current US ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau had tweeted earlier in the day his gratitude (in Spanish) to all those working to ensure our food supply, “especially to all the MEXICANS [his caps] working in the agricultural sector of my country. The crisis makes clear those whose labor is indispensable to our well-being.”
I can recall how in the weeks and months after 9/11, the stories of dozens, then hundreds, of undocumented victims of the New York attacks emerged gradually, muffled by their invisible status. They were a representative sampling of life in NY in that most indiscriminate of attacks, though many more would fall victims of the toxic cleanup that followed.
There is nothing representative about the comparative risk we’re now being asked to assume in response to this virus; immigrants are disproportionately exposed, fighting for their, and our, American Dream, as well as for loved ones in their countries of origin.
Borders are closing, here and elsewhere. As in medieval plague days, the drawbridges are being raised, town gates closed, travel and commerce interrupted. Even the most cosmopolitan people of means have found themselves grappling with a question once anathema to their globalized sensibilities: On which side of the moat/border/wall do you want to be stuck when social distancing turns to national distancing?
But don’t be fooled. Even if we can’t cross borders for a time, we’ll remain interdependent and connected, as too many borders have already crossed over too many of us. And that’s a good thing. We’re going to need this formidable Band of Brothers.
God help us appreciate them, now and in the future.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America.Twitter: @AndresDCmtz