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 Michoacán, 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.