The next morning after speaking with Tiffany, I met Jodie at a café. I was still in listening mode. I was two giant ears sipping a cappuccino.
Jodie recently moved to this part of the country to live closer to her sister. She rents a small cabin with basic furnishings. Born in 1961, she considers herself a member of the working poor. She is a pharmacy technician. She is legally married, though her husband is a fugitive in his home country of Mexico.
Growing up in the Midwest, Jodie’s mother was active in politics, volunteering for Democratic nominees in local and regional campaigns. Jodie left home considering herself a Democrat and, in many ways, this fit her liberal views on most issues. She voted for Obama the first time and for the Green Party candidate after that.
But in this election, she voted for Trump—a decision primarily based on what she believes will be his tough stance on immigration, particularly as it pertains to our southern border. Her interest in this issue has everything to do with her experiences over the last decade or so.
Most of her adult life Jodie lived in a Chicago-area neighborhood chock full of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Her future husband was among them and when they met and fell in love she became privy to the subculture to which he belonged.
The pattern was for young men to travel north, work 5 or 6 years, and then go home. Most had no intention of becoming citizens, though her husband was different. There might as well have been an underground tunnel connecting Chicago to the interior of Mexico with how consistently the men showed up.
A fairly sophisticated network helped newcomers get established. Available identities were garnered by monitoring the obituaries. State-issued identification was then obtained using the recently-deceased’s name, the immigrant’s photo, and a fake address. Now the new person could use the dead person’s social security number to obtain a job.
Jodie shopped garage sales to find furniture for the group apartments new immigrants set up. She visited the village where her husband came from and saw the conditions in which he grew up—11 siblings sleeping on a dirt floor. She felt overwhelming compassion, she understood their motivation.
However, her place of employment was located in inner-city of Chicago. She saw people with real social security numbers who didn’t work, subsisting on government assistance. Many of the illegal immigrants had decent-paying jobs. Her husband, for example, earned $30 an hour fabricating bronze sculptures. She knew something was wrong with this picture, but it took years—and a horrifying falling out with her husband in which he beat and left her in the Mexican countryside—to get honest about it.
She does not take her change of heart lightly. How could she? Tears well in her eyes as she tells me the story. I feel close to tears myself. I’m hurting for the image I have of her, bloodied and crawling from the woods to a road, for the police car that just happened to pass, for her many injuries, both physical and emotional; for all she has gone through—and she does not strike me as an easy victim but, rather, as street smart and tough; for the unlikely chance that the one illegal immigrant with whom she fell in love could be so cruel.
But I have pain to spare for all the immigrants and would-be immigrants. They have the same desire we all have to survive and improve their lives. Only they’re in such dire circumstances that they must risk their lives first. The vast majority are responding to socio-economic forces the likes of which most in this country are fortunate enough not to experience first-hand. In economic terms, they are answering to a free market. They are answering to the demand. Constructing a physical barrier does not address the root of the problem; it’s a Band-Aid on a broken arm. In the history of civilization, walls are symbols that never fail to become obsolete.
For her part, Jodie doesn’t necessarily think a real wall needs to be built. She’s more interested in policy adjustments like fixing information systems whose gaps allow for social security numbers to be misused or a tightening of the rules around state-issued identification cards.
“But what about desperately poor people in Mexico?” I ask, a bit frantically. “What becomes of them? Do you feel bad about that?”
Jodie had thought this through. “No,” she replied, firm but weary. “They are highly capable. A better solution will take its place, something healthier for them and for us.”
What right did I have to pass judgement on Jodie’s hard-earned opinion, one that had come by way of difficult first-hand experience?
If this were love, hers has been battered by the trials of real life. Mine has hardly been kissed.