Years ago, when I first learned there was a controversy in California over whether unauthorized immigrants could get driver’s licenses or send their children to public schools, I wondered how that could even be an issue. If someone is in the United States who is known to be here illegally, why is the person not deported immediately?
After a little bit of reading and thinking, the answer became obvious: Because it is to the benefit of employers to have an underclass of workers who are outside the protection of U.S. law.
David Bacon, a former union organizer and immigrant rights advocate and current photojournalist, spelled out in detail just how this works in his 2008 book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. He drew a picture of the authorized immigration situation by connecting a great many dots that usually are not connected.
He began the book by describing the labor struggles of Mexican immigrants at a luxury hotel in California and a meatpacking plant in North Carolina. He showed how employers used immigration enforcement as a means to suppress workers who asserted their rights or tried to form union. Then he went to the parts of Mexico where many of these workers came from, and described the conditions which forced them out of their homes.
Some came from Oxaca in southern Mexico, where imports of cheap mass-produced U.S. corn, and the cessation of Mexican government purchases of corn for government grocery stores, bankrupted many small farmers and turned them into migrant laborers, like the Okies and Arkies during the U.S. Great Depression. Others came from Sonora, where copper miners in Cananea went on strike against wage and benefits cuts, and were blacklisted.
Historically the Mexican government provided some protection for small farmers and union workers, but, Bacon reported, these were withdrawn under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and administrators of the North American Free Trade Agreement. They operated under the “neo-liberal” philosophy that says that benefits to farmers and working people are illegitimate because they interfere with free trade and the free market. Unemployment in Mexico and Guatemala rose to 25 percent. In order to survive, Mexicans and central Americans came to work in the United States without legal rights, at a time when U.S. workers were losing ground on wages and benefits.
Bacon described the political struggles of Mexican immigrant workers in the United States, and their sometimes successful efforts to form alliances with the African-American community and the U.S. labor movement. Mexican immigrant workers, African American workers and white Anglo workers should recognize that they’re all workers, and not allow themselves to be pitted against each other, he wrote.
He ended the book by tracing the history of Filipino immigration and labor struggles in the United States, and a report on immigrant workers’ struggles in Germany and Britain, which are similar to the U.S. conflict.
He rejected sanctions against employers as a solution to unauthorized immigration, for the reason that sanctions have not been enforced. In practice, they are used as a rationale for threatening Immigrant workers who stand up for their rights.
He said “guest worker” programs and the H-1B visa program for high-tech immigrant workers are another form of exploitation. Both programs leave immigrants at the mercy of their employers, with no right to quit their jobs. They are like the indentured laborers of colonial America, who were obligated to serve a particular employer on his terms for a specific period of time, such as seven years—the difference being that, after serving our their indentures, they were free to remain.
Do unauthorized immigrants have a right to remain in the United States in violation of U.S. law? Bacon argued that if corporate executives have a right to shift capital freely from country to country in search of profit, surely people have the same right to go from country to country in search of work.
There is a legal doctrine which, I think, is called “adverse possession.” If I allow my neighbors to use a footpath across my land for decades, and never close it off, at some point they gain a right to use it. If migrants are brought into the United States, and the laws against their being here are winked at, do they not at some point gain a right to stay here?
A friend of mine knows a man who does work abroad as an architect and subcontractor for work on U.S. embassies and consulates. He had just got back from doing work in Norway. My friend said he told him that Norway deals with its immigration situation by strict enforcement of wages and hours laws. Contractors could import workers from the Balkans or Turkey, but what would be the point if they had to pay the same wages and benefits as a Norwegian workers?
Bacon would say that is the real question. If workers in all countries could earn sufficient wages to provide for themselves and their families, immigration would not be an issue.
Click on David Bacon News for his home page.
Click on How Mississippi’s Black / Brown Strategy Beat the South’s Anti-Immigrant Wave for an article by David Bacon in The Nation about a political alliance between Mexican immigrants and African-Americans defeated anti-immigration legislation in Mississippi.