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 the United
States”) 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 to citizenship.
There are at least at least 10-20 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
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?
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
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”.
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
skeptics has an article on immigration, illegals, and cheapening labor.