Invisible workers

Jul 11, 2012 at 5:00 am

A Sudanese refugee relays the hardships faced by Louisville’s immigrant workforce

With the presidential election approaching, immigration is once again becoming a divisive topic. America is the land of immigrants, but if you are an American whose ancestors settled here long ago — maybe your great-grandfather was born here — do you ever think about the immigrants who have come to America recently?

The economic crisis is hurting all Americans, but immigrants are especially vulnerable. I often hear about immigrants who settled here long ago, became entrepreneurs, and now “contribute” to our economy, but the media rarely reports on the migrants who toil away at warehouses, factories and after-hours cleaning services. These invisible workers are often disrespected and their contributions to the economy are ignored. The United States is certainly the land of immigrants, and in a struggling economy, it continues to be built on the backs of newcomers.

Our Statue of Liberty pronounces “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” and the immigrants who land on our shores come with bundles of hopes, dreams and aspirations for a new life. But many immigrants soon learn it is not all they had hoped; they learn that this is just another front where one has to stand firm and fight. The struggles here in America are different, though; you have to fight more humanely and intellectually than in your country of origin. In America, no one will break into your apartment and butcher you because you speak out against the government or an individual, but the fact is, both struggles are bitter in their own way.

Recently, I acquired a job with a temporary agency because I cannot find a full-time professional job, even though I graduated with a degree in general agriculture and natural resources at Berea College in 2008, the same year I earned my American citizenship. During my work at a local warehouse, I came to realize that many immigrants here in Louisville are performing manual labor every day. They are a huge part of what keeps this country running. At the warehouse where I worked, almost 95 percent of the employees are immigrants and another 60 percent are temporary employees at the facility.

During lunchtime, I would often sit on the curb outside the building, take off my shoes and breathe in the fresh air. Many immigrants from different nationalities, races and religions would sit outside and exchange their views about work and life in general. While sitting there and conversing with my fellow employees, I learned that many were not happy at all. They talked of people they knew being fired for not working fast enough. Many were terminated without warning or explanation. Because many immigrants do not speak English, the language barrier makes it difficult for them to acquire and retain jobs.

I know that many will say, “Then they should learn English!” But please consider that many immigrants are working two or more jobs to support themselves and their families here, and often multiple families in their countries of origin, especially if their home country has been devastated by war and poverty. It is not as simple as going to an English class a few nights a week.

It has never been easy for any group that migrated to this continent. But we should have learned from our history by now. We should educate our workforces and employers on how to deal with immigrant workers. We must teach our newcomers of their rights to work and civil liberties. By accommodating our newcomers and helping them realize their dreams, we would in turn create loyal citizens, making America stronger. Immigrants will probably always make up the majority of the workforce in entry-level, late-night, backbreaking jobs, and I understand the reasons for that. But they shouldn’t be invisible. We each have complex stories of why we came to America. We struggle and dream and are deserving of respect.

Peter Thiong is a Sudanese refugee who has lived in the United States for 11 years. He graduated from Berea College in 2008 and lives in Louisville.