We’ve often heard of the growing unease some African Americans feel when attention is given to immigrant-rights. The topic has been covered on a host of radio and television programs as well as national publications. The point most of this coverage makes is that some African-Americans, many of which are longtime loyal Democrats, believe immigration is hurting US workers. Is this true? Is immigration bad for US workers — or is the real issue the lack of a just global economic development policy, both in the US and Mexico? Here we examine some of the underlying issues.
Race, Class, Survival
The immigration debate brings to the fore the relationship between race, class, and the competition for advancement that is especially challenging at the lower rungs of America’s social and economic structure. This country’s phenomenal economic growth has fostered the notion that social and economic mobility is indeed possible. Immigrants from around the world have come to America and demonstrated that achievement in the United States is possible. They’ve pretty much said to the world: “You can come from meager beginnings and achieve greatness in America.”
However, recent economic indices suggest that this message is becoming less true. The chasm between rich and poor has grown unchecked since the 1960s, with statistical data suggesting that our class system is becoming more permanent. The fondly held belief that one can pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps is not necessarily rooted in today’s reality. Equally vexing is the apparent correlation between class division and racial lines.
More directly, what was lauded to be a land of opportunity to the waves of immigrants that have come to this country was a land of oppression to the ancestors of most African Americans living in America. These same ancestors were builders of this nation who got little or nothing in return for their blood, sweat, and tears. Perhaps not surprisingly then, some in the Black community oppose the immigration movement. Many in this faction feel disenfranchised, afraid now that immigration reform will translate into less opportunity for them and their children.
But does immigration reform necessarily result in fewer jobs and lower wages for African-Americans? Or can it mean more allies for social justice?
When we couch the immigration debate in terms of labor reform, what emerges is that the current climate is not the product of failed immigration laws but the byproduct of global economic policy designed to benefit the few at the cost of the many. Instead of members of the lower class and underclass pitting themselves against each other, the time is right to form a natural alliance—a coalition that transcends race or ethnicity. Among the semi- and unskilled, there is a need for organized labor to take a more proactive position supporting the exploited.
For example, a recent General Accounting Office report noted that a decade of heavy immigration to LA has changed the janitorial industry from a mostly African American, unionized workforce to one of non-unionized Latinos, many of whom are undocumented workers. According to the latest census, the employment of African Americans as hotel workers in California dropped 30% in the 1980s, while the number of immigrants doing these jobs rose 166%. A similar story can be told of the garment industry, the restaurant business, hospital work, and public service jobs. Yet, management compensation is at an all-time high and the compensation disparity between management and labor has reached epic proportions. It’s become commonplace to read headlines such as “Wal-Mart’s CEO Compensation 871 times as high as US Wal-Mart Worker Pay; 50,000 times Chinese Worker Pay.”
Juan Gonzalez, award-winning co-host of “Democracy Now,” commented that legalizing the 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants would help to drive wages up. “Right now you have 11 to 12 million people living in a situation where they cannot challenge their employers,” he said recently. “They have no legal status. They can be completely exploited. Any kind of a process of legalization would allow them to assert labor rights more and, in essence, begin to bring the sort of bottom of labor wages up to some degree.”
Often undiscussed in mainstream media is NAFTA’s role in this debate. Its proponents touted the North American Free Trade Agreement as more than a trade deal. Passing it, they argued, would lessen the number of undocumented workers coming into the US. President Bill Clinton and three of his predecessors—George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and then president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari—all made this argument.
But the flow of undocumented workers into the US has surged since 1994, when NAFTA went into effect. The number of undocumented immigrants has more than doubled. Furthermore, the free trade agreement was supposed to generate thousands of new jobs, invigorate trade in North America, and transform Mexico into a manufacturing powerhouse.
The results have been mixed, experts say. NAFTA has facilitated the free movement of capital and goods, tripling trade between Mexico, the US, and Canada. But it has also had a devastating impact on employment in Mexico, particularly within the agricultural sector because the flood of subsidized food imports from the US has sent prices plummeting, putting millions of Mexican farm workers out of work and sending record numbers of migrants across the border to seek work in the US.
Tim Cavanaugh of Reason.com argues that the US should have open borders. “The solution to the immigration crisis, if there is such a crisis, does not rest in guest worker programs or higher visa quotas, but in the one possibility nobody is mentioning: eliminating visas altogether within the North American Free Trade Agreement countries, and allowing Canadians, Americans, and Mexicans with legitimate passports to travel freely among our three countries for any reason or for no reason.”
When NAFTA first passed, many compared the possible outcome to what we now see in the countries of the European Union. Any citizen of any EU country can travel, work, study, train, reside, or retire in any other EU country without restrictions. No passport is required. All countries within the EU use the same currency. This border-free union is made up of countries who just 50 years ago were at war with each other, yet today are working together to build a strong economy.
The time is ripe for coalition building in the western hemisphere and particularly in the US. The media attention that has focused on the children crossing the boarder recently sends a strong message to our leaders. Progressives have an opportunity to do what we historically have done best — build coalitions between groups—Blacks, Latinos, and Labor.
—Sharon Kyle, J.D.
Sharon Kyle is the Publisher of the LA Progressive. With her husband Dick, she publishes, edits and writes for several print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. She is also a professor of law at the People’s College of Law in Los Angeles.