Op-Ed: There’s a Ukrainian immigrant in my crawlspace, and I see him for what he is: An American

Palm trees in California
California is home to more than 105,000 Ukrainian immigrants. Several of them have worked on the author’s house in East Sacramento.
(Los Angeles Times)

As I write these words, there’s an immigrant in the crawlspace under the floor where I sit, a young Ukrainian guy who hasn’t been here long enough to understand what I say to him. He’s with another young Ukrainian who has been here long enough to get my joke about which one of them would have to crawl to where the plumbing problem is. He’s the foreman on this little job, so the younger and more newly arrived Ukrainian is the one batting away the cobwebs and bumping his head.

Coincidentally, I am listening to Willie Nelson sing “Immigrant Eyes,” a song about Ellis Island. It’s a fine song, one that bears listening to while thinking about President Trump’s policy of gratuitous cruelty at the border, the callous treatment of children, and the betrayal of the words found at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor — “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses … ” Trump has trashed so much, redefining us just as Italian dictator Benito Mussolini “redefined” the Italian character before they shot and then hung him and his mistress by their heels in a public square.

I’ve met several Ukrainians since we bought this house in East Sacramento nearly six months ago, an older place that needed work. I had also joked with the two young plumbers about how so much of the essential work in California is being done either by Mexicans or Slavic immigrants. The guy with better English makes mention of how many Slavs make California their home. I look up the numbers: More than 105,000 live in the state.


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Feb. 23, 2020

Russians came to California in droves after the Soviet Union began breaking into pieces in the late 1980s. Many Ukrainians came more recently, some fleeing the one-third of Ukraine the Russians invaded and occupied six years ago. Some 13,000 Ukrainians have died at the hands of Russians since 2014. The Russians have a long history of depredations against Ukrainians. Under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, millions of them were intentionally starved to death.

The Ukrainian refugees and the Russian refugees before them had an easier time getting into this country than our more immediate neighbors to the south. Racism is one of the reasons. Of that there can be little doubt. The Ukrainian plumbers look a lot like me, if I were much younger. The plumber who showed up before them to do some earlier work was Mexican, and though we had the same first name, he didn’t look nearly so much like me. What that has cost him is beyond easy calculation.

But, given the difference in skin color and country of origin, far too many Americans who look like me seem to think it is perfectly OK to snatch Mexican kids from their mothers, though the California soil on which the young Ukrainian is now crawling once belonged to Mexico. The Ukrainian plumber is now getting dirt under his fingernails that was once Mexican dirt. It is much the same dirt that grows the crops Mexicans have been coming here to harvest for a very long time. They’re buried in it.

Their names are on the land, from San Diego to the Oregon border, names in a language they have been too frequently told they should abandon if they want to live here. More frequently and more ardently, however, they are told — in word and deed — to go back to where they came from, to those places made so dangerous, in large part, because of American guns and the ravenous appetite the U.S. has for drugs.

The young plumber’s name is Vitaly, but he tells me he goes by Adam. Immigrants assimilate, often as fast as they can. Adam has been in this country since he was 7 years old. His English is perfect. If you saw him on the street and stopped to talk with him for a few moments, you’d think he was American through and through. And he is. So are the Mexican gardeners who have shown up to cut the neighbor’s lawn across the street as I’ve been writing, though it may yet be awhile before they feel as comfortable here as Vitaly.


Vitaly tells me he’s getting married in March. I ask the date, thinking his wedding day might fall on my wife’s birthday. It does. No big surprise. After all, it’s a small world. Isn’t it?

Jaime O’Neill is a retired community college teacher and a freelance writer.