Editor’s Note: Dan Petegorsky is executive director of Oregon’s Western States Center, which aims to build a progressive movement for social, economic, racial and environmental justice in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Alaska. Sightline asked him to reflect on the roots of current immigration debates.
Why has immigration across our southern border become such a lightning rod issue?
To understand the causes, we need to step aside from the inflammatory rhetoric of the current policy debates.
I’m increasingly convinced that above all else, focusing public attention on Latino workers has two fundamental purposes and they’re both political. First, focusing attention on undocumented immigrants polarizes debate, which benefits electoral candidates of the far right. Second, it divides low-income workers who have similar economic and social interests, preventing cross-racial solidarity and the emergence of a viable low-income political coalition.
This scape-goating is a political tactic as old as the hills. In the past, industrialist union busters pitted workers against one another by using charged racist propaganda, targeting ethnic and religious minorities as well. In the crude words of one of the bosses’ paid thugs, “You ties in the niggers with the Jews, den you call the Jews Communists. That gets ’em.” [from Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama). In the West, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 targeted workers whose labor was essential in the enormous expansion during the Gold Rush and in construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
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These days Mexicans have replaced the Irish, the Chinese and the Jews, while terrorism has replaced Communism. But the political strategy is the same: Take those at the bottom of the economic ladder (the most vulnerable), and focus their discontent on others along the same rung. This divide-and-conquer tactic ensures that low-income workers don’t organize effectively against their employers instead.
Recently, immigrants have been blamed for—among other trends—the stagnation of real wages among US workers. But that trend is decades old and is a product of many causes. High among them are a dramatic decline in the percentage of unionized workers, alongside changes in tax policies that have facilitated the most inequitable distribution of wealth the United States has seen. Just last week, The New York Times ran a feature called “Cost of Illegal Immigration May Be Less Than Meets the Eye” (reprinted here) contrasting wage trends in California with Ohio:
The wages of high school dropouts in California fell 17 percent from 1980 to 2004. But before concluding that immigrants are undercutting the wages of the least fortunate Americans, perhaps one should consider Ohio. Unlike California, Ohio remains mostly free of illegal immigrants. And what happened to the wages of Ohio’s high school dropouts from 1980 to 2004? They fell 31 percent.
In some cases, notes the Times, the availability of immigrant workers may spur economic growth.
For instance, the availability of foreign workers at low wages in the Nebraska poultry industry made companies realize that they had the personnel to expand. So they invested in new equipment, generating jobs that would not otherwise be there. In California’s strawberry patches, illegal immigrants are not competing against native workers; they are competing against pickers in MichoacÃ¡n, Mexico. If the immigrant pickers did not come north across the border, the strawberries would.
Immigrant workers didn’t write the changes in labor law or tax law that have placed workers and union organizers in such a precarious position (the many notable examples include the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act): legislators did, spurred on by a corrupt campaign finance system that’s put government and public institutions into the hands of private interests on an almost unprecedented scale. And that’s how things will stay, as long as we fight with each other instead of working together to change those systems.
P.S. – For a useful examination at the two competing federal immigration bills, see this article from the Population Reference Bureau.
Why is the United Farm Worker’s Union now a fund raising and real estate organization instead of a real union?–Illegal aliens.Why is the meat packing industry no longer unionized—illegal aliens. The negative impact of large-scale immigration on wages is right out of econ 101. You can look it up in Samuelson’s textbook. The law of supply and demand is a natural law and can’t be repealed. The Ohio data is comparing apples and oranges. In the first place, Ohio was formerly a manufacturing center, and is now largely rust belt. California was never heavily unionized and has had a more balanced economy. Second, the cost of living in Ohio is 95% of the national average, whereas it is 150% of the national average in California. Average wages for high school dropouts are $8.71 in California versus $8.37 in Ohio. However, when adjusted for cost of living, the wages are $5.78 in California vs. $8.77 in Ohio. (http://isteve.blogspot.com/2006/04/does-illegal-immigration-lower-wages.html)The trade union movement had its greatest successes after the immigration restriction bill of 1925. This was also the time when African Americans began to get factory jobs in the north and advance economically. Unions remained very strong after the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in l947. The timeline of their decline correllates better with the immigration act of l965. Protecting the wages of the working class should be a core Democratic Party value. We should be hearing these arguments from the Gephardt wing of the Democratic Party, instead of from the otherwise odious Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
Fair and living wages are indeed a core progressive value; I hope we all agree on that. But I don’t think I fully underatnd the arguments that “sf” makes above.The point of the Ohio parallel is that one of the most imporant causes of wage stagnation over the past decades has been the decline of the U.S. based manufacturing sector as a whole – be it steel, automotive, or – in the case of southern California – the aerospace industry. And these have to be laid at the feet of capital mobility, not immigrant labor.Certainly, there are cases where industries (Wal-Mart, for example) have used/abused undocumented workers to drive down wage costs. But I hardly think that the answer here is to scapegoat the workers. I’d suggest instead that the answer is vigorous organizing drives within those sectors – as indeed the most dynamic unions today are pursuing, such as SEIU, UFCW, or UNITE-HERE. Finally, I’m confused by the reference to the UFW as a “real estate organization.” I can only imagine that the writer may be referring to efforts such as those of Oregon’s Farmworker Housing Development Corporation or Washington’s Farmworker Housing Trust Board. If so, then I’m afraid we have a very substantial disagreement over core values.
If you want to determine the impact of illegal immigration on wages, look at the industries where the illegal aliens are, not the industries where they never were. Ohio is still a better place for high school dropouts, in spite of the industrial decline. Construction used to be the best job in the world for a guy who didn’t go to college. It was seasonal, but high paying, and a man’s job, where women have never been very competitive. Now we have a Denver contractor saying he can’t afford to hire Americans because that would add $20,000 to the price of a house. The housing projects of the UFW may be very worthwhile, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they have failed in their primary mission, organizing farmworkers. When Cesar Chavez was alive, he was a strong opponent of illegal aliens used as strikebreakers. His tactics in the early days would make the Minutemen look very moderate.
We may have different experiences re. the successes of farmworker organizing; I’d point, for example, to the recent and very well-publicized campaigns of Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers (www.ciw-online.org), or, closer to home, enactment of a farmworker minimum wage law in Idaho.I’d also suggest that community development projects by the UFW and others is in fact a self-conscious element of a broader social change strategy that encompasses work on parallel fronts alongside organizing in the fields. More to the point: what we’ve seen in the last weeks – and will no doubt see again on Monday – is massive popular mobilization that represents one of the most hopeful and significant developments for progressive social change in decades. Given the demographics (especially the “rise of the second generation” in the Latino community), the political mobilization of immigrants is an absolutely essential ingredient for long term progressive wins. And while the history you cite is indeed ironic, those marching today are in fact carrying on Chavez’s legacy – marching under his banners to the ubiquitous shouts of “Si Se Puede.”The Trades is certainly a sector that has seen enormous change; times aren’t what they used to be – and that includes organizing among women in the trades (e.g., Oregon Tradeswomen Network – http://www.tradeswomen.net) as well as locals now actively organizing immigrants, like the Denver or Las Vegas Carpenters.Again, my “take home point” here is to emphasize that as a movement we’re much more likely to win by seeking common ground amoung low- and middle-income workers than by blaming those on the lowest rung of the ladder and targeting them for sanctions.