The question of immigration is returning to the center stage of U.S. politics. While President Obama’s proposed reform legislation seems dead in the water at the moment and the Republicans have no central counter-proposal, it seems likely that some sort of action will be taken on this issue, most likely after this year’s gubernatorial elections.
The question is: who stands to benefit from immigration reform? Without full legalization and citizenship rights for undocumented immigrants, the answer is: not us.
An unspoken assumption in the national debate, at least as far as the two major parties are concerned, is that immigrants and native-born workers are in competition with each other for jobs. Conservatives often use this point as justification for supporting harsh deportation measures, a policy which President Obama – with almost two million deportations under his belt, more than Bush accomplished in eight years – has complied with in practice. Liberals often concede this point too, focusing on how best to mitigate the tensions of this competition. But facts are stubborn things: not only do immigrant workers not take American jobs, history shows that the best way to create more jobs is to support immigration.
Roots of Immigration
Before looking at the current status, and potential futures, of immigrant workers in the U.S., it would be helpful to consider the historical causes and effects of migration. In order to do that, we have to step back in time and observe the first mass wave of migration into what is now the United States – the European colonization of North America. Any U.S. citizen who has ever commented that so-called “illegal” immigrants should be expelled from “their” country should try stating this position in the company of a Native American; the results would certainly be amusing, if not enlightening. French traders and Spanish conquerers made their voyages to the New World in search of exotic furs and gold, respectively. English colonists came not primarily in the name of religious freedom but rather in the hopes of great riches waiting for them across the Atlantic. The reigning economic system of the day – feudalism – was at an impasse and had reached its historical limits, thus creating a tendency toward migration.
Today the capitalist system is at a similar impasse. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully examine this question, the neoliberal policies enacted by the United States and allied governments in the Americas over the past several decades are the main driving force behind mass immigration. Consider the case of Mexico, the largest source of immigrants both legal and undocumented. The Mexican economy, in decline throughout the 1980s, had the floor pulled out from under it with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed by Mexico, Canada and the United States.
Since NAFTA was enacted in 1993, the number of undocumented workers in the U.S. has risen from around 8 million to roughly 12 million. The removal of state subsidies from Mexican agriculture met with the flooding of the market with still-subsidized U.S agriculture, leading to mass layoffs when domestic agriculture – largely small family farms – found itself unable to compete. The price of corn-based tortilla, a staple food in the national diet, has risen by 15%; corn tortilla is a bell-weather for food prices in general. Further, the growth of Wal-Mart in Mexico has had an even more drastic effect there than in the U.S., with wages dropping on average by 25%. Add to this the government’s intensified anti-union crackdowns and not only is it easy to see how sweatshop workers along the border toil away for 60 cents to a dollar per hour, it’s also obvious why so many millions have crossed that border to eke out a living for themselves and their families.1
Of course, the knowledge that undocumented immigrants cross the Rio Grande under severe economic pressure only strengthens a moral argument for immigration. It counters those on the Right who castigate the undocumented for their failure to be “law abiding”, as though the law of the state weighed heavier than the law of survival. It does not, by itself, provide an economic and political argument. There are numerous distortions and outright lies spread about the effect undocumented immigrants have on the U.S. economy. An article in Socialist Alternative’s newspaper Justice will help dispense this obfuscation and getting to the plain reality of the issue.2
The first myth to be dispelled is that undocumented workers increase unemployment. The official unemployment rate today stands at seven percent, although this is calculated to exclude workers who are underemployed and those who have given up on trying to find employment. In 2007, the unemployment rate was a mere four percent even amidst surge in the number of undocumented workers entering the country. That 2007 was one year before the Great Recession began is no coincidence: since 2008, illegal immigration has steadily fallen. Last year, the United States actually experienced a net decrease in population, with more people leaving the country than entering.
Another myth is that undocumented immigrants constitute a tax burden for the rest of us. Again, facts prove themselves to be stubborn things. In 2009 alone, the payroll taxes pulled from undocumented workers’ paychecks created a $13.8 billion surplus for Medicare – it has been argued that any attempt at mass expulsion would threaten the solvency of this most cherished social welfare program. Between 1996 and 2003, undocumented immigrants paid nearly $50 billion in federal income taxes. Unlike taxpayers with American citizenship, they are not eligible to access the programs to which their money contributes. Anti-immigration rhetoric based on the tax argument ignores the elephant in the room – the real tax sink is corporate welfare, amounting to $93 billion at the federal level in 2013 alone!
Then, of course, there is the argument that immigration drives down the wages of native-born workers. Shamefully, this argument is parroted not only by the Right but even by some of the more short-sighted elements of the labor movement. It is true that the presence of undocumented workers can exert a downward pressure on unskilled jobs, but this is no fault of the undocumented themselves. Employers abuse the illegal status of undocumented workers, using the threat of deportation to deny them living wages. The same tactic is then turned around on native-born workers, with the implicit threat that they will be replaced if they don’t agree to work for less.
This is an age-old strategy: Black versus White, female versus male, immigrant versus citizen. Historically, the labor movement has risen to the challenge by organizing workers on an industrial basis and fighting for better conditions for all workers. This was how the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) carried out successful strikes that raised wages and improved shop-floor conditions for the women workers it organized, both native-born New Yorkers and immigrants from Eastern Europe. This was how the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) rallied millions of workers behind its banner regardless of race, sex or national origin, part of the social movements that won reforms such as the 40 hour week and Social Security. This was how the 1937 autoworkers’ sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan helped to turn a generation of low wage jobs into living wage careers.3
Piecemeal reforms such as guest worker programs and decade-long “pathways to citizenship” are morally offensive because they cement a second-class system for human beings whose only crime is trying to survive in a harsh economic climate not of their own making. They’re politically inadmissible because they throw up barriers against collective organization and solidarity. For working people, the only immigration reform worth fighting for is one that recognizes citizenship for everyone trying to make ends meet between the Great Lakes and the Rio Grande.
- Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter, “Immigration Flood Unleashed by NAFTA’s Disastrous Impact on Mexican Economy.” Common Dreams. http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0425-30.htm
- Sarah White, “Why All Working People Should Support Full Rights for Immigrants.” Justice. http://www.socialistalternative.org/2013/06/26/working-people-support-full-rights-immigrants/
- Martha Grevatt, “The Occupy That Won the Union.” Workers World. http://www.workers.org/2012/us/flint_0223/
Originally published in The Red Vine, issue No. 1.