I can’t remember how old I was before I knew my father was undocumented. By the time I was 5 or 6, my father’s long and arduous journey from Michoacán, Mexico, to our small American town of Redwood City, Calif., had already become part of our family lore. I heard how hard and exhausting it was for him, as a young boy and then a teen, to have to work every day picking cotton, strawberries and grapes in 100-degree heat. His stories captured my imagination when I considered how hard he worked and how far he had come to make a better life for himself.
As part of the U.S. Bracero Program in the 1950s and ’60s, my father’s story is similar to that of those who still come to the U.S. for a better life: a life of working in the fields of California, of sleeping outside or in a rundown shack that passed for “migrant housing,” of always being afraid of being hunted down and captured, and of never being certain of getting enough work to live on or of getting paid. He told me stories of the kind of exploitation an undocumented workforce faces: use of the dreaded short-handled hoe, which damaged your back and shoulders; being sprayed with chemicals and pesticides in the fields without any protection or safety measures; bosses who called immigration enforcement on their own farm workers after the job was finished and before the workers were paid. My father always spoke about one particular Immigration and Naturalization Service officer who marched him and his co-workers up to the boss’s house before deporting them and told the farmer, “I’m taking these guys but not until you pay them the wages they worked for.” My father said the farmer hemmed and hawed, but they got their wages that day. Exploitation, the daily reality of an undocumented workforce.
It wasn’t until my father met my mother, became a citizen and joined the Laborers (LIUNA) Local 339 and then the Teamsters (IBT) Local 216 that his life—and the lives of everyone in our family—really improved. Because of the union, we got health care for the first time, and my brother and I got our Kaiser Permanente cards and had our first physicals. My father worked construction, made decent wages with benefits and had a modest retirement. With his union job and my mom’s union salary as a kindergarten teacher, our family moved into the middle class. My parents bought a house, paid their taxes, voted in every election, and sent my brother and me to college. They also saved enough money to have a dignified but modest retirement. We were raised with blue-collar values that included a strong support of unions, of which my dad was a stalwart member. On car trips, he loved pointing out the jobs he had worked on: San Francisco Airport, the 280 Freeway, the BART Tunnel, telling us, “Kids, I helped build that.”
My father never missed picket-line duty, and he never missed a chance to urge family and friends to join a union and learn a skilled trade. He told them their labor would be rewarded, and most importantly, they would have rights on the job and would not be afraid to speak up like he was as an undocumented worker. I suppose that’s why I’m so proud and happy to work for the AFL-CIO today. I saw how the labor movement gave my family a ticket to the middle class, and I believe that every family deserves the same opportunity. Immigrants have been the backbone of the labor movement and the American way of life, and they are the future of the labor movement.
I keep a picture of my father when he was a farm worker in my office at the labor council, right next to my law school diploma and my admission to the California State Bar, to remind myself of how far my parents' hard work and union membership helped bring our family—and to remind me of all those hard workers waiting to improve their lives and the lives of their children, the way my dad did.
This is why we need to come together and support a common-sense immigration process with a road map to citizenship. Immigrant rights are workers’ rights. We cannot allow an entire workforce to live in the shadows and be cut off from the right to form a union and have a voice on the job. I know my dad is with me on this one.