Juan, 24″ x 40″, oil on linen

As I finished the painting of Juan, I realized that I have not come to understand the problem of illegal immigration.

A few years ago, I visited a friend of mine at Columbia hospital in Harlem, New York City.  He had a severe blockage in his intestines, and he was rushed to the emergency room.  But my friend wasn’t treated for a long time, because there were scores and scores of illegal immigrants flooding the emergency unit, pouring out the doors and onto the street.  Many of them had simple needs, but had no health plan- and so they went into the emergency unit, so as to not be denied coverage.  And yet, they do eventually receive care in the E.R., though they aren’t paying any taxes.

Another friend of mine is a surgeon in Queens.  Whenever we talk, the conversation inevitably turns towards her frustration with the way things are structured.  She routinely performs intensive surgeries on illegal immigrants, for problems that may have been easily solved, had they been diagnosed and treated months earlier.  She herself is from central America, and finds it so frustrating to watch the United States ignore the issue of illegal immigration.  She is livid that tax payers are covering the costs for these illegal residents- and yet she faults the taxpayers for the problem.  She says that the U.S. has brought this problem on itself, and that it has adopted the “head in the sand” approach.  This surgeon strongly advocates a temporary identification card, so that the workers might be fairly incorporated into society, for the duration of their stay.  In that time, they would pay taxes, receive driver’s licenses, and receive routine medical checkups.

As part of her Bachelor degree in Spanish and Education, my wife Margaret was required to teach English as a second language to a group of native Spanish speakers.  She found a center in Farmingville that provided classes of various sorts for illegal immigrants.  The class was at seven thirty at night, and ran until nine thirty.  Margaret taught the fundamentals of English to men from Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Mexico, El Salvador.  Many of them had been in the U.S. for a decade or so, and had little or no ability to speak English.  When Margaret asked them why they felt it was so difficult for them to acquire English, many of them said that nobody would bother to speak to them.  And yet, they were so eager to learn- they came to Margaret’s class after working twelve hour days.  She said they were very diligent, and worked very hard to acquire what they could of the English language.

I don’t know what to think, and that is what my painting is about.  Some of these men are treated wonderfully by their American bosses, while some of their work situations are terrible.  Some of these men huddle on the sidewalks in 12 degree weather, some have found wonderful jobs and lives here.

Juan told me that he has saved up enough money, and his financial affairs at home have been taken care of.  He will now spend the next six months working and saving, in order to pay the enormous fee for the underground transport back to Nicaragua.  His trip here took sixty days, and he estimates it will take the same amount of time to get back.  He said that it is a very dangerous trip, and that is all he would say.

With this painting, I’m not proposing the solution to all the problems.  I’m not promoting a certain political party which might solve these issues.  I’m just trying to show the humanity of one individual, caught in between a global clash of cultures, labor, money, and politics.


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