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ISR Issue 50, November–December 2006


Scapegoating immigrants

Ideology trumps economics in the racist attack on undocumented workers

OVER THE past year, so-called immigration reform has become a major issue in U.S. politics. In Congress, the debate has essentially become one between the Right and the even-further Right. At one extreme are nativist, anti-immigrant bigots who would like to criminalize and/or deport the up to twelve million undocumented immigrants currently estimated to be in the United States. It was these forces that passed HR 4437-the infamous House bill sponsored by James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) that would make it a felony to be in the country without legal papers-last December. It was the Sensenbrenner bill that sparked magnificent immigrant rights demonstrations by millions of people across the country in March, April, and May, which raised the call for amnesty for undocumented workers and played a crucial role in stopping HR 4437 from becoming law.

There is a clear precedent for amnesty, which was granted to almost three million people in 1986 under Ronald Reagan. But on the spectrum of today's debate, Reagan would be an ultra-liberal. Not one single member of Congress has supported amnesty and legislative proposals that have been under consideration in the Senate look good only in comparison to the draconian Sensenbrenner bill.

The main Senate proposals, backed by most Democrats and more moderate Republicans, offer some mixture of a tortuous path to legalization for a minority of undocumented workers, mass deportations for those who have been in the country for less than two years, second-class “guest-worker” status for most of the rest, and increased security on the U.S.-Mexico border. Tighter borders would make it more difficult to enter the country and only increase the number of people who die crossing the border, adding to the death toll of more than 3,000 during the past decade.

Guest-worker programs are backed by major corporate players in agriculture, construction, and other sectors of the economy, who are well aware that immigrant workers are vital to their industries, and who are eager to ensure a supply of easily exploitable cheap labor that can be discarded when it is no longer needed. Since these programs would tie residency to employment, bosses would have enormous control over their workforces, making it almost impossible to organize for better wages or conditions.

But even this is too much for the far Right, for whom any kind of legal status for the previously undocumented is anathema. The only thing that the House and Senate have been able to agree on is spending billions of dollars to build a 700-mile fence on the Mexican border, where the Bush administration has already deployed 6,000 National Guard troops. The fence is an absurdity, but voting for it gave politicians of both parties the opportunity to grandstand as “tough on immigration” before the November elections, while simultaneously pretending that they were protecting the country from terrorist attacks.

But a crackdown at the border, combined with a dramatic expansion in the number of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE-the successor to the Immigration and Naturalization Service) to detain and deport undocumented workers, have only served to emphasize that immigrant labor is absolutely vital to the U.S. economy. In Georgia-where Republican Governor Sonny Perdue has made denunciation of illegal immigration a prominent part of his re-election campaign-ICE arrested over 120 undocumented workers in the town of Stillmore, forcing the local poultry plant to cut production, sending the economy into a tailspin, and creating a “ghost town,” according to an Associated Press report. Other ICE raids in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and other states have had similar consequences.

In Northern California, for example, pears are rotting on the trees, because the ICE raids have exacerbated a farmworker shortage. According to one estimate, 30 percent of the pears in Lake County, worth $2.5 million, had already been lost by mid-September. Half the county's white wine grape crop was also lost because of too few workers. Apple growers in Washington and New York have faced similar problems.

“This year's [labor] shortages,” reported the New York Times, “are compounding a flight from the fields by Mexican workers already in the United States. As it has become harder to get into this country, many illegal immigrants have been reluctant to return to Mexico in the off-season. Remaining here year-round, they have gravitated toward more stable jobs.” That has resulted in a shortfall of 70,000 farmworkers in California, where the agricultural workforce needs to be at least 450,000. One labor contractor told the Times that “about one-third of his regular workers stayed home in Mexico this year, while others were caught by the Border Patrol trying to enter the United States.”

By mid-September, the situation was bad enough that hundreds of growers from every important agricultural state demonstrated outside the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to demand action from Congress. The guest-worker program they were calling for would solve the labor shortage, but would not be a step forward for undocumented immigrants, who make up over 90 percent of the agricultural workforce in California. Nevertheless, what is striking is the fact that many politicians appear willing to sacrifice the immediate economic interests of some of their most powerful supporters in order to whip up anti-immigrant hysteria. Ideology, for the time being, seems to have trumped economics.

In San Diego County, according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the “illegal work force is significant-possibly more than one-tenth of the total working population -and it fills jobs that have been vital to the region's growth over the past five years.” The report found that the largest groups of undocumented workers are in construction and service jobs, which according to University of San Diego economist Alan Gin, are the areas “responsible for much of the region's job growth.”

According to another report in the Union-Tribune, “in a tight labor market like San Diego County, where the unemployment rate of 4.3 percent is below the 4.8 percent national average, some employers would find it difficult to fill the vacuum left by the illegal immigrants even if wages went up. That's particularly true for the tedious, back-straining labor that many workers handle in assembly lines, construction sites and farm fields.” Wayne Cornelius, a professor of U.S.-Mexican relations at the University of California San Diego, told the paper: “To suggest that we can do away with immigrant laborers and hire native workers to pick broccoli by paying them more money is based on the childlike view of people who have no idea of how hard it is to pick broccoli.”

Because employers pay undocumented workers less, wages for all low-paid workers are pulled down. But there is a simple solution-grant undocumented worker permanent resident status and increase the minimum wage. In the five years following the 1986 amnesty, wages for the previously undocumented (which up to then had been declining) rose 15 percent in real terms. Legalization would also increase wages for documented workers. A UCLA study conducted a few years ago concluded that if undocumented workers were given legal status, wages for all workers would immediately increase by approximately 5 percent in agriculture, 2.75 percent in services, and 2.5 percent in manufacturing.

Immigrant bashers also frequently blame undocumented workers for putting a strain on local services, including health and education, even though they pay much more in federal taxes than they get in return. “There's no doubt that communities with lots of poor people don't pay enough in [state and local] taxes to cover the cost of public services,” Stephen Levy, director of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, told the Union-Tribune. “But that's about poverty, not about immigration status or where you were born. If you want to fix it, you have to look at the wage structure rather than deporting people.” And if undocumented immigrants were legalized, many would be eligible for Medicaid and Medicare, which would alleviate the burden on local emergency rooms.

While some of the current round of immigrant bashing is tied to the November election, the underlying motivations run much deeper. Capitalism is a system in which a tiny minority of the population exploits the majority and controls most of the wealth. The minority can only continue to do this over long periods of time by preventing the majority from uniting against it. The strategy of divide and conquer-pitting one section of the working class against another-is designed to do just this. U.S. politicians encourage native-born workers to blame Mexican immigrants for their problems.

Karl Marx analyzed the same process in nineteenth-century Britain, where the principal victims were immigrants from Ireland.

Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

Marx also pointed out the ways in which this rivalry was consciously encouraged by the country's political and economic elites.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

Today, U.S. politicians rely on talk radio, cable TV, one-sided congressional hearings, and other means, but the goal remains the same-not just to win the next election, but to make it more difficult for workers to organize to protect their interests, and to misdirect the anger of people suffering from falling wages, rising health costs, and deteriorating services, so that they will blame immigrants rather than the economic system that is the real cause.

Right-wingers are also attempting to increase tensions between members of different oppressed groups, by trying to win African American support for anti-immigration policies. Even groups like the vigilante Minuteman Project, that patrols the U.S.-Mexican border with guns, are attempting to win Black recruits-even though the former have ties to white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations.

Black unemployment is twice the national average and Black youth unemployment is nearly 40 percent. But to blame this on undocumented workers, rather than plain old-fashioned racism, is ludicrous. One study found, for example, that Chicago-area employers were reluctant to hire Blacks, whom they described as “uneducated,” “illiterate,” “dishonest,” “lacking initiative,” “unmotivated,” and “involved with gangs and drugs.” Another study found that whites with criminal records were more likely to be offered jobs than Blacks without one. Black and immigrant workers need to make common cause to fight racism in all its forms.

This is why the huge immigrant rights demonstrations earlier this year, and the continuing efforts to build and sustain a grassroots immigrant rights movement, are so important. They are a crucial part not just of the struggle to defend the rights of immigrants, but more broadly of the fight to defend the interests of all workers. whatever their race or immigration status.

Phil Gasper teaches at Notre Dame de Namur University in California. He is editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Roadmap to History's Most Important Political Document (Haymarket Books, 2005), a contributor to The Struggle for Palestine (Haymarket Books, 2002), and The Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Lynne Reinner, forthcoming).

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