Sometimes the solution is in the middle

by Ogi Overman

One of the things I learned early on in the column-writing game is to pick your battles carefully. Of the luxuries a columnist has, among the most cherished is that you don’t have to weigh in on every single issue. You choose the ones about which you have strong opinions, some knowledge and/or a great deal of passion and let ‘er rip, leaving the rest of the world’s problems for the next guy. In short, you play to your strengths.

While that credo has served me well over the years, every now and then circumstances dictate that you tackle a subject before your opinion has fully coalesced. Occasionally an issue becomes so much a part of the public debate that to avoid it seems almost cowardly, even if you’re not 100 percent sure that your belief is on target.

That was the case during the Great Major League Baseball Debate of ’97, inter-league play, when I initially came out opposed to the idea and switched horses in mid-stream. (It’s a good thing Rove was still in Texas back then, otherwise I’d have been the original flip-flopper.) And it may be the case again here, but I feel compelled to at least get my thoughts on paper on this matter. One reason is that I suspect a lot of other folks are in the same boat. Yes, there is hysteria on both ends of the spectrum, but I’d bet the vast majority of folk are caught in the middle, wanting to do the right thing, but not exactly sure what the right thing is.

That issue, if you haven’t guessed by now, is immigration.

Ground zero for the influx of Mexican laborers in North Carolina was Siler City in the late-’80s, and it so happened I was there. From 1990 to’95 I was the sports editor of The Chatham News, which was within walking distance of Tyson Foods, the chicken processing plant that relied on immigrant labor to do the work that Americans eschewed. Every Friday I would see the Hispanic workers, still in their white coveralls, boots and hair nets, lining up at the banks to cash their checks and then walking to the post office to buy money orders and mail them back home. While there was clearly some resentment among the native Siler Citians, by and large the attitude seemed to be one of live and let live. Segregated though it was, at least it was a peaceful coexistence.

In the ensuing decade, however, the situation has changed dramatically, not only in Siler City but everywhere. Today most of the downtown shops in that still-bucolic community bear Spanish names and nationwide the labor pool is increasingly Hispanic and increasingly skilled. They are not merely doing the menial chicken-processing jobs but rather have come to dominate, in many areas, most skilled construction labor.

And this is where it gets touchy. When Mexicans were doing the dirty work that nobody else would do, nobody complained. But now that they are taking skilled, i.e. good-paying, jobs from Americans, it’s a major issue. On the one hand they are driving down wages for the workers, but on the other are driving up profits for the owners. It’s a double-edged sword any way you cut it.

Which is precisely why I can’t seem to get my arms wrapped around it. For every argument that says they are helping the economy, there is another one that claims they are a detriment. Every time I tell myself we are a nation of immigrants, I realize that the illegal-alien situation is completely out of control. Just when I see them as productive citizens – which almost all of them are – the rotten apples will get popped running a drug ring. And just when I opine that the government needs to do something about it, the truth rears its head that the government is just as conflicted and confused as I am.

Although I may not have the answer, I do know what it’s not. It lies somewhere between the extremes, somewhere between those who would lock up all the aliens and sort out the illegals later and those who would grant them all amnesty and start over. Somewhere between the Minutemen who want to round them all up and the business owners who knowingly hire illegals. Somewhere between those who would build a fence along the US-Mexican border and those who would run the Mexican flag up the pole and demand instant citizenship.

If and when the solution is found, it will be because those extremes on both sides will have been exposed as’… well, extremists. This is one situation where a centrist position offers the only logical answer. Rational dialogue rather than hysterical rhetoric gives us a chance at some resolution.

And I do know this: The last thing we need around here is some Minuteman militia pouring kerosene on an already volatile situation. Unless, of course, it’s the Mayberry Minutemen.

Ogi can be reached at