When I was growing up, my family celebrated our Mexican heritage primarily within the four walls of our home or in the homes of others with similar food and language values. During the week, we were pushed to be more like the people who lived around us so we would not appear different in the street. As only one of a few Hispanic families in our neighborhood, having a different cultural heritage wasn’t something we could flaunt. It took a long time for me to realize that our Latino community and its diversity are incredible assets.
Today, I’m a proud second-generation Mexican American and the president and CEO of El Centro, a Kansas City for-purpose organization that helps Latinos access educational, social and economic opportunities. I see every day the tremendous strides that immigrants and people of color make when they feel welcomed and supported. But until Congress creates a legal pathway for essential undocumented workers, nearly 70,000 Kansans will lack basic protections and our state’s business community will continue to struggle.
A hallmark of immigrant communities is hard work — something that all believers in the American dream can understand. That’s especially important now, as employers struggle to hire. Immigrant workers are already a significant part of our meat packing plants, construction and food service industries. Business owners frequently tell us what great workers come from our community. It’s true. But many employers won’t hire clients without legal status, even if they’d like to do so. As a result, businesses come up short, and our clients are forced to work for businesses that will pay them under the table, often without basic protections.
Legal documentation would help everyone. It would give employers access to solid workers and guarantee our clients humane treatment. Without the fear of deportation, thousands of Kansans could earn a living wage and feel confident in their OSHA protections. They could also secure better-paying jobs and generally improve their lives, moving our families forward. Already, our undocumented Kansas families make substantial tax payments and hold $1.2 billion in spending power, according to the research and advocacy nonprofit New American Economy. Legal status would significantly increase both.
I know the privileges of growing up in a documented household. My parents are both native-born first-generation Kansans. My grandparents were from Tangancicuaro and Leon Guanajuato, Mexico. My dad was born in Ellsworth, Kansas, and spent 40 years as a car man for the railroad. My mom is from Kansas City and ran the household. They raised nine children, who went on to achieve a variety of educational and professional accomplishments. This isn’t exceptional — it’s possible because of having legal status.
Today, I try to provide opportunities for clients who live with less security than my family. One of our programs teaches children of immigrants to be truly bilingual, helping them acclimate to American society while retaining their cultural heritage. It also sets them up with assets for important careers: In 2010, there were roughly 240,000 job postings aimed at bilingual workers; by 2015, that figure had ballooned to approximately 630,000, according to New American Economy.
El Centro also teaches financial literacy, so that parents can save for mortgages and set up college funds. It’s much harder to save and invest when you lack legal status, but our clients are determined to be self-sufficient. They want to raise kids who value hard work as much as they do. And they will pursue these goals even under the shadow of deportation. The fact is, too many Kansans are vital to our economy and society but aren’t recognized as such. Too many Kansas businesses want to hire workers but can’t. Congress can solve both problems by providing hardworking and essential undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. Nobody wants to cut corners. Give people a line and they will happily step into it.
Irene Caudillo is president and CEO of El Centro, Inc., a 501(c)(3)nonprofit based in Wyandotte County.