McCain understood immigrant work ethic

SAN DIEGO — In tribute to John McCain, this Labor Day weekend I’m serving up straight talk about the American work ethic.

McCain was, of course, an early champion of comprehensive immigration reform — including a path to earned citizenship for some undocumented immigrants.

The Arizona senator had a powerful ally on his side: reality. Protesters would get in his face and challenge his claim that illegal immigrants do jobs that American citizens wouldn’t take.

Fed up, McCain at one point gave an audience a personal offer. The senator told them: “I’ll offer anybody here $50 an hour if you’ll go pick lettuce in Yuma … and pick for the whole season. So, OK, sign up!” There wasn’t exactly a flood of applications.

Today, in the agricultural hub of Central California, farmers tell me they’re paying $30 per hour to pick tomatoes and $40 per hour to pick melons. On the coast, they’re paying $60 per hour to pick avocados. They still can’t find enough workers.

Is this the glorious American work ethic that we’re all celebrating this weekend?

Setting aside one day a year to honor the nation’s workers by not working — and instead engaging in leisure activities such as barbecuing and going to the beach — seems bizarre. This is especially true when there is a labor shortage and more vacant jobs than there are people who are willing and able to do them.

Remember just a few years ago when people used to say there were no jobs and that no was hiring?

Look around your town. When have you ever seen so many “Help Wanted” signs? Restaurants, dry cleaners, florists, drugstores. They all need employees.

Who’s going to do those jobs? Probably not your kid. The percentage of teenagers with summer jobs was this year at an all-time low.

Given that we’re raising another generation of children with a poor work ethic, and who often think they’re entitled to a free ride through life, I propose we change the name of the holiday to what it really signifies: “Parental Failure Day.”

When have you ever heard a politician say that? It doesn’t take guts to tell a roomful of voters that Mexico is invading the United States. What takes guts is telling people they stink at parenting.

When I hear Americans try to justify why they’re not taking this job or that one, it always boils down to money. Some jobs are just not worth our time, it seems.

A lot of people insist that employers overlook U.S. workers so they can hire foreign laborers — either low skilled or high skilled — because supposedly they’re cheaper.

Rubbish. Talk to a human resources manager, and they’ll set you straight. Not only do immigrant and foreign workers have the same cost-of-living expenses as U.S.-born workers, the former often cost the employer more money at the beginning because of the price of visas.

How many journalists go out and talk to employers to get their side of the story? I do. I hear from employers all the time — at speeches, in my inbox and at worksites.

What I hear does not speak well for American workers.

Employers tell me that American workers fail drug tests, show up to work late, rush out at quitting time, pretend to be sick when they want to ditch, refuse to do certain jobs, and generally act like they’re doing the employer a favor just by clocking in.

One small business owner told me that when she hired American workers, the first thing they asked about was salary and time off. With immigrants, all they wanted to know was how much work they could get. Who do you think she preferred to hire?

As for the critics who used to hound McCain, the senator got the last laugh.

By 2007, Jon Kyl, his fellow Arizona senator, had joined the fight for immigration reform. And before long, both of them were having their Senate offices in Phoenix picketed.

I saw a video of one memorable encounter. Clearly stung by McCain’s challenge to put up or shut up, one group showed up at his office holding heads of lettuce. “See, we can pick lettuce too,” said one of the protesters.

They were handsome heads of lettuce, too. In fact, they looked so pristine, I assumed they came from a produce aisle instead of a field.

I bet that spectacle made McCain grin. And, in his honor, it should make the rest of us think.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is