That said, I wonder how immigrants — and I'm focusing here on immigrants working in low-paying jobs — perceive the rest of us. I thought about this as a result of a conversation I had with a young woman, a house cleaner from Mexico, who was surprised by how nicely her employer treated her because, she said, "I didn't think the American people liked the Mexican people." That got me thinking, "How immigrant-friendly are we?"
When I taught English as a Second Language to adults — mostly minimum-wage service workers from Mexico and other parts of Latin America — I'd ask my students to make a list of what they liked and didn't like about the U.S. There were lots of likes: the opportunities, jobs, education, safety. In the negative column the most frequent entry was "racism." Further conversation revealed that what students meant was a feeling, similar to the sentiment expressed by the house cleaner, that many Americans simply don't like them.
I would argue that, in this area, this perception has a lot to do with our culture: We tend to be so focused on our quest to achieve that we rarely find time to connect with the people who enable us to lead the productive — and pleasure-filled — lifestyles we've crafted. To the people who make that lifestyle possible, our aloofness could easily be interpreted as dislike or even disdain.
Think of how many immigrants you encounter in a week — the person who cares for your garden or empties the trash in your office — and how many of those people you take the time to talk with. If you're like most of us, such conversations are few and far between.
I remember suggesting to a friend that he take a few minutes out of his day to acknowledge the employees at the company cafe where he eats lunch every day, and he looked at me as if I was suggesting he befriend the ticket-taker at the movies. It wasn't that he harbored negative feelings towards the people who refill the salad bar. He just couldn't fathom why he should interact with them.
I get that not everyone feels comfortable chatting with strangers with whom they have little in common. But the flip side is that just introducing yourself to someone you see almost every day — and then asking their name, or where they're from — can go a long way toward making an outsider feel acknowledged, and maybe even respected.
But what about the bigger issues, the ones that go well beyond the niceties of making immigrants feel welcome? Where the Bay Area, in particular, falls short is providing service workers — overwhelming immigrants — a livable wage. A recent report from Joint Venture Silicon Valley found that the income gap between the highest-earning 20 percent of households in the Bay Area and the lowest-paid 20 percent has reached $263,000 — a new record and 50 percent higher than the gap nationwide.
To its credit, the Palo Alto City Council approved an ordinance, effective Jan. 1, 2016, to increase the city's minimum wage to $11 and is investigating steps necessary to reach a $15 minimum wage by 2018. (Just so you know, an employee earning $15 an hour working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks has an annual salary of about $31,000 — not much if you're trying to raise a family here.)
In recent months, we've also made some progress towards giving service workers a slightly bigger sliver of the high-tech pie. Google, for example, recently gave pay raises to its shuttle drivers. In May, Facebook said its contractors with more than 25 employees must pay those employees at least $15 an hour and provide sick leave and vacation. These changes have been spearheaded by Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition of labor unions, faith leaders and community-based organizations working for livable wages, affordable housing and corporate responsibility.
Most high-tech companies don't hire service workers. Rather, they hire contractors who hire the service workers. If you work for a company that employs service workers, you can have an impact just by asking questions about the wages and benefits your company's contractors provide.
"To have high-tech workers standing with service workers is incredibly powerful," says Maria Noel Fernandez, Silicon Valley Rising campaign director.
When my students tell me about the challenges they face — working two jobs while taking ESL classes, paying $700 a month for a room in a house (without kitchen privileges), relying on buses because they can't afford a car — I invariably ask the obvious: Wouldn't things be easier back home? Their predominant response is that, as difficult as their lives are — and as much as they miss their families — living here is far better than returning to where they came from.
So, as the host community, we have an out: We can pat ourselves on the back for giving immigrants the opportunity to work here. Or we can take the high road: We can make immigrants feel welcome. Equally important, we can support local initiatives — free and low-cost medical care, tutoring programs for at-risk kids, scholarships for adult immigrants wanting to continue their education — that demonstrate our commitment to the health and education of immigrants and their children who now call the Bay Area home.
Palo Alto resident Elizabeth Weal is executive director of Sequoia Adult School Scholars, a nonprofit that helps adult immigrants continue their education. You can reach her at ElizabethWeal@tenaya.com.
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