The immigration debate is exposing deep social, racial and class divisions within US society. They are sharp, furious and divide many families — immigrant as well as native
born. There has been an oversimplification of the issue. Not everyone who is
in favour of more border patrols, English-only (in May the US Senate voted to make English the “national language of
and deportation of “illegal aliens” are racists. The anti-immigrant vigilantes Minutemen are, but most of our
co-workers aren’t. Confusion and anger is common when the issue becomes personal.
The mass immigrants’ rights mobilisations seemed to appear from nowhere in city after city. They were primarily
organised through radio stations listened to, and newspapers read by, immigrants. They were led by the immigrants themselves
— documented and undocumented. The demands were simple: respect, legalisation and citizenship rights. The protests have
helped to clarify and sharpen the debate. Undocumented immigrants are workers and families people born in the US. They are our neighbours, co-workers and friends.
The issue is not, as most media pundits and conservative politicians assert, about “national security”,
patriotism or terrorism. It is an issue of human rights and social and class solidarity.
It is necessary to step back and see two related subjects separately — legal rights for immigrants and the path
There are at least at least 10-20 million undocumented immigrants in the
People from all over the world come to the country primarily for one purpose — to work and earn a better living than
is possible in their home countries. This is true for the lowest-paid worker from
Mexico to the highly-paid skilled worker from India employed
in Silicon Valley. The driver is economics. The class issue is also the main motivator for the
employers — agribusiness, commuter tech giants, meat packers in the Midwest and other
industries seek cheap labour. The
bosses know “illegals” will work harder because they have few legal protections.
The employers are not the groups promoting criminalisation. The demagogues
in Congress and elsewhere are using the immigration issue for political gain — tapping fears among US-born working
people about future jobs and “national security”.
Stopping immigration is not the objective — controlling the flow of immigration is. Employers support an “underground” work force,
because a free flow of cheap labour across borders, where everyone is legal, would raise their labour costs. The exception is in high technology, where the expansion
of legal visas provides a more reliable and stable work force. Another way to look at the immigration debate is to see it
as the flip side of outsourcing.
Both allow employers to get the skills they desire at the lowest cost — outside the borders and domestically. Those industries that
can’t send the work abroad must rely on importation of documented and undocumented immigrants to drive down costs.
A case in point is the home-building industry. It is heavily populated by immigrants. According to the National Association
of Home Builders, immigrants’ work is vital to the industry. The association states that some 20% of construction workers
— about 2.4 million people — are foreign born. Of those, 50% or more are undocumented according to the May 28
San Francisco Chronicle. California has the largest share of construction workers. Nearly one-third of the
work force is from the Americas, mainly Mexico. The Chronicle article explained that nationally, “one-third of all construction laborers and 22 percent
of all carpenters are immigrants”. The Pew Hispanic Center notes that the construction industry employs the largest share of the country’s estimated
7.2 million undocumented workers.
Americans divided on issue
The jobs issue is behind some divided views among African Americans. Black youth unemployment is extremely high. In
many urban areas, such as Los Angeles,
many labourer jobs going to
immigrants used to go to Blacks. Some
Black workers support tighter immigration controls, hoping for more job opportunities. Johnny
Blair Vaughn, an African-American construction worker, is quoted in the May 25 Christian Science Monitor in an article
headlined “Rising Black-Latino clash on jobs”: “'If you drive across this city, you will see 99 percent
of all construction is being done by Hispanics ... You will see no African-American
males on these sites, and that is a big change,’ says Vaughn, who has been in construction for two decades. His
two oldest boys, in their early 20s, have been turned down so many times for jobs — as framers, roofers, cement layers
— that they no longer apply, he says.”
Is this simply anecdotal or real? Perception is reality when an employer, quoted in the May 28 San Francisco Chronicle, explains his desire for immigrant labour as, “These people have a very
strong work ethnic. They will bust their butts off all day, 10 to 12 hours a day, if you ask them to. And they’ll do
it with smiles on their faces. They have that much of a desire to get ahead.”
Is it a surprise that the Senate in a bipartisan vote seeks a path to legalisation as opposed to mass deportations?
President Bush’s stance
is entirely in line with the view of large employers. They reject legalisation but also reject the pure law and order and vigilante approach advocated by the hard right
The issue of citizenship is different, and there is no serious division within the ruling class. Citizenship is seen
as a “privilege” and reserved for immigrants who pledge loyalty to the US. None of the debate is really about changing citizenship requirements.
The most important issue is legalisation of immigrant labor. If all workers arriving
in the US are allowed to apply for jobs and work, the issue
of citizenship would be about time limits and process. Should it take five years? Should it include economic requirements
as some countries have?
Organised labour is generally either silent or straddling the fence on
these issues. Those with high-immigrant
work groups like the construction trades and service sector, tend to be sympathetic to more favourable immigration laws. Unions
in industries less dominated by new immigrants take a more “native-born-first” approach.
Civil rights leaders are also careful but more supportive. They know how racism has been used by white conservatives
and liberals to deny African-American rights in the past. Figures such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have spoken at and
joined the mass actions. Their sympathy is for the super-exploited immigrants.
The divided views among Blacks and among immigrants themselves are a reflection of family history in many cases. As
someone from a “mixed” family whose father was an “illegal” immigrant from British India after World War II and whose mother was a Black American from Detroit, I have the “advantage” of seeing the conflicts of emotions
close up over decades.
My father came here illegally, but not by plan. Like many male immigrants he worked commercial ships crossing the
Pacific. He had been a union organiser and faced being black listed for his activism. He debarked in California and worked briefly in the fields before being picked up by immigration.
Because of a shortage of labour, immigration officials gave my father a choice — deportation or stay as a legal resident.
(Once again showing how labour supply and demand affects the immigration needs.) My
father then used his legal status to begin the process of brining his brother and other relatives to the United States. It took two decades (all came legally). Most of my
Bangladeshi family now lives in the US. My father’s story is typical of many immigrants who came from
Asia, Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world — illegal then
legal. He stayed because life was better and he brought his other relatives here via the legal system. On my mother’s side of the family, the issue was not about immigration. If they thought about it at
all, it was about competition for jobs. Most immigrants have been welcomed in the Black community, especially those of darker
complexion. New immigrants to Detroit,
like Blacks, sought the better paying jobs in the auto industry.
Polls show that a majority of Blacks are sympathetic to undocumented workers’ plight, but believe more job opportunities
may exist if fewer “illegals” were here. Many Asian American workers
see the issue in this conflicted way too. Those who came legally see it differently than those with relatives who may have
come to the US illegally. Where
I work, at United Airlines, I have had many discussions with Black and Asian co-workers who are not racist but who support
border patrols and a fence on the US-Mexico border. They tend to be progressive on other union issues. Some white co-workers
have similar views — pro-labour, anti-“illegals”.
The supply and demand of jobs, the loss of pensions and roll back of
other gains weighs heavily on all workers. Any advantage by class, legality or ethnicity is sought after. It is true for minority communities too. It is one reason why I cringe when a progressive minded unionist or Black co-worker lump together all opponents
of undocumented workers rights as “racist”. It is an oversimplification of the issue.
What stance should labour and progressives take on the issue of undocumented workers? First,
all immigrants should have the right to work anywhere to earn a living and feed their family. Open the borders. To say so
is not Pollyannaish. Regulations of course will exist. Equal labour rights may or may not be a path to citizenship. Labour
must have the right to cross the northern and southern borders (as well as the eastern and western borders by air and sea)
to work in the United States in a similar manner that labour can freely travel through the European Union. Once workers are able to migrate freely
and follow national labour laws, it gives workers an advantage they don’t have today. It is up to unions to organise
them as they should seek to organise all unorganised workers. Second, how an
immigrant becomes a citizen is a separate issue. The US is one of only a few countries that automatically grants citizenship to all babies born on US soil — whether by citizens, legal or illegal immigrants. Those
route to citizenship for those not born here needs to be easy if they wish to take it. It is discussion worth having but it
has nothing to do with illegality. The issue of free labour is key to resolving the issue of illegal immigration. Only a focussed
strategy based on support for open borders for immigrant workers can begin to shift the debate and aid the fight for full
equality and human rights for all immigrant and US-born workers.
California skeptics has an article on immigration, illegals, and cheapening labor.