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An American underclass

| Monday, September 1, 2014

The immigration debate took the national stage again this summer, with thousands of Central Americans arriving on the U.S. border. As 2014 congressional races have begun in earnest, the dread word “amnesty” is central.

President Barack Obama, whose administration has overseen the removal and expulsion of some 2 million immigrants, is now considering plans to delay further deportations through use of an executive order. When and how he will act is in question, given concerns by members of his party that such an order would endanger their upcoming election campaigns.

The estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are unlikely to win any lasting dignity from politicians, whose own interests are radically different. The key figures of the present debate, from President Obama to Speaker of the House John Boehner to Senators Harry Reid and Ted Cruz, are members of the economic elite. Their interest in the votes and legacy that immigration reform might bring is real, but their lives are completely divorced from the conditions of undocumented workers.

Undocumented immigrants in the United States make up an underclass with functionally few to no rights. Abuses in the workplace or serious bodily harm often go unreported as victims fear they will be deported if they contact the authorities. While the U.S. government cannot deport all those living and working illegally in the country, it consistently does so to enough immigrants that the rest need live in constant fear as they dutifully labor to enrich a country in which they’re not ensured even basic rights.

The U.S. and Mexican governments in large part built the modern immigration landscape by signing the NAFTA, which ensures the free movement of capital but not of labor. When the economic conditions turn against you, but you cannot legally move to where the work is, you’re trapped between becoming destitute or becoming criminal.

“Amnesty” is blasted in the political arena, but what is the alternative? Mass deportation is unrealistic. Putting aside the logistical and humanitarian nightmare of rounding up an estimated 12 million undesirable persons, a policy of deporting all undocumented workers would cause a major economic disaster.

Of the country’s 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers, nearly three quarters are foreign-
born and roughly half are working in the United States illegally. They are largely alienated from American society, and yet they are some of its most essential parts.

Expelling these workers would cripple the agricultural industry. Produce supplies would drop and prices would spike as farm owners scrambled to fill jobs generally considered undesirable by American workers. The country’s ability to feed itself would be greatly damaged. This is to say nothing of the major blows to other immigrant-dense industries.

The United States needs these workers, there can be no question about that. The only question is whether the government should continue to terrorize them by breaking up families and keeping them in a state of virtual rightlessness.

This state of affairs is advantageous for employers, but when it comes to working Americans, the old labor motto that “an injury to one is an injury to all” holds. Working-class citizens find their wages driven down when they have to compete with a labor force that is unable to stand up for decent conditions or wages. By fighting for the rights of the undocumented workers who are already a major part of the economy, working people everywhere will find themselves in better positions.

So far, the solutions offered to the immigrant issue have been half-measures at best. Activists and politicians have tried time and again to pass the DREAM Act, which favors the young, educated demographic that plays a disproportionately large role in organizing campaigns and demonstrations. It would effectively cut the head off of the snake of the immigrants’ rights movement by satisfying the most vocal group and leaving the rest behind.

Opponents of general legal status argue such a measure would provide an incentive for further illegal immigration. Obviously, the whole world can’t live in the United States, and further immigration would have to be built around terms that actually work. But the question of the undocumented workers presently living in the country is hardly one of immigration any longer, as they are now necessary elements of U.S. society. Don’t those who labor to feed our society have at least as much right to this land as anyone else?

It is a choice between legal status for undocumented workers and their families or a system of terror and exploitation that hurts all working people. The byword, then, must be “no one left behind.”

Billy McMahon is a senior studying Latin American history and is active in the labor movement. He welcomes all comments at wmcmahon@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • FastForwardAfter

    The answer is mandatory E-verify in the U.S. These people need to rise up and make demands to their governments in their own countries instead of running away.

    • Billy McMahon

      I agree that people need to change the conditions in every country, and there are plenty of people “rising up” to do so. A few weeks ago, I was staying in “La Realidad,” a jungle compound of the Zapatistas, whose rebellion began 20 years ago with the implementation of the NAFTA and the halting of land reform under their constitution. People there held their heads up high and were dedicated to resistance and mutual aid. There are people like this in every country and I hope they change the global economic structure.

      However, it is unreasonable for the United States to take the position that these people should just try to fix their own countries and not come here, since in many cases it was the United States and its capital owners who caused major problems there. In signing the NAFTA, the United States helped remove major principles of the Mexican constitution centered around the rights of peasants and opened up the Mexican corn market to compete with the heavily government subsidized U.S. corn industry, which sparked economic disaster. Two million Mexicans had to leave their farms and real wages for workers across the country declined. The Mexican government is just as much to blame here as the U.S. government, but not the Mexican people, since the NAFTA was signed under the long rule of the PRI, which stayed in power from 1929-2000 through electoral fraud and repression.

      Other undocumented workers are from Central America, which has long felt the heavy hand of the United States. In 1954, the the Dulles brothers, the CIA director and the Secretary of State, steered the U.S. into overthrowing Guatemala’s democratically elected president in order to ensure the profits of the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita), of which both were major stockholders. What followed was decades of U.S. support for military dictators and a literal genocide against indigenous peoples. Though the Civil War is now ended, Guatemalan workers and peasants still suffer the loss of protections and benefits that disappeared with President Arbenz.

      Some workers may come from Nicaragua, where the U.S. backed the mass murdering Contras against the Sandinistas (who took over Nicaragua in 1979 and won internationally observed elections in 1984) until their campaign of terror succeeded in unseating the FSLN. All countries in the region have seen such stories.

      Is it such a surprise that when a superpower uses its might to ensure its economic interests, concentrating 25% of the world’s wealth in a country with less than 5% of the world’s people, that others will seek to come there, just to survive? People should rise up in their own countries, but let’s remember that when they do, the CIA is there to put them down again.

      Take it easy,

      • Froggy

        Fair points, but are those arguments even necessary? The critique and your counterpoint both assume an us vs them mentality. We should be thinking of them as our brothers and sisters who have just as much right to our wealth as we do. Being born in america does not make you more deserving of our world’s wealth than someone who wasn’t born here, and our policies should reflect that.

        It’s also worth mentioning that the free trade of labor that would result from open borders would be great for the US economy

  • Froggy

    Nice article. Empathy is tough for too many people.

  • Jeremy

    Less than 5 percent of illegal workers are in agriculture which already has an unlimited guest worker program at its disposal. Most illegal workers are in construction, manufacturing, and service industries. There is no shortage of Americans (U.S.-born and immigrant) for employers to recruit for those jobs.

    • Billy McMahon

      Hey Jeremy,

      Could you give me a source for that 5% figure? It
      doesn’t seem to fit well with the rest of the statistics I’ve found.
      Anyway, the figure that matters the most is the proportion of
      farmworkers that are illegal, rather than the other way around. Losing
      millions of jobs in other industries, especially the immigrant-dense
      construction industry, would also have a major economic impact.

      for there being “no shortage of Americans” to fill farmworker jobs,
      there was a very public “Take Our Jobs” campaign which resulted in only
      11 people taking jobs in the industry.

      Bringing up the guest
      worker program is pretty contradictory to your other point, too, seeing
      as how an H-2A visa application requires the employer to demonstrate
      that there are no “able, willing, and qualified” American workers to
      fill the job. The existence and use of the program demonstrates that the
      United States is dependent on non-citizen workers for its agriculture.
      The guest worker program is a serious humanitarian concern, however,
      since it ties the worker to a single employer, seriously encroaching on
      the most fundamental labor right—the right to quit.
      Workers in this program bear poor conditions, wage theft, and abuse,
      because they cannot get a job elsewhere without being sent back to
      whatever economy had clearly been unable to support them.

      status for those who are living and working here on a more permanent
      basis is a better solution because it ensures that the industries that
      rely on non-citizen labor, such as agriculture and construction, have to
      take labor rights more seriously. Employers driving down the cost of
      labor through exploiting undocumented workers and H-2 guest workers
      hurts everyone who draws a wage for their labor, just as employers being
      able to pay blacks less also drove down white wages and paying women
      less also drove down men’s wages. Working people rise and fall together.

      I hope this helped clarify my position.

      Take it easy,

      • Jeremy


        Thank you for your response. According to this 2009 Pew Research report (tables 5 & 6), about 4 percent of the illegal workforce is in agriculture: http://www.pewhispanic.org/2009/04/14/a-portrait-of-unauthorized-immigrants-in-the-united-states/

        I think you misread my first comment. I didn’t say there was “no shortage of Americans” to take agricultural jobs. I said there is no shortage of Americans to take jobs in manufacturing, construction and service industries. Those are the industries where most illegal workers find employment. The Ag lobby spends a lot of money to make their industry the focal point of debates about immigration, but it is a very small piece of the immigration picture, even if you include legal guest workers and permanent immigrants. That was my primary point.

        You are correct that Americans aren’t lining up for picking crops. The agricultural industry has become so corrupt in it’s employment practices that wages and working conditions deteriorated to the point where it is one of just six occupations tracked by the government in which Americans don’t make up the majority of the workforce (along with fingernail painting, misc. personal appearance workers like fingernail painters, plasterers and stucco masons, sewing machine operators, misc. ag workers like animal breeders, and
        tailors/dressmakers/sewers — together these occupations make up less than 1 percent of the total U.S. workforce).

        My second point was that farmers already have an unlimited guest worker program, if they are willing to jump through the hoops and meet the minimum wage and working condition standards to use it. Your point about H-2a workers facing exploitation and poor conditions is well taken. It’s a shame that so many employers get away with avoiding even the minimum worker protections that H-2a provides by using unauthorized workers.

        Another limited or expansive legalization program would almost certainly benefit the legalized workers, but it will also incentivize more illegal immigration, which will in turn depress the wages and opportunities of the recently adjusted workers along with citizens and legal permanent residents who work in those industries.

        Again, thank you for your reply and for engaging in a civil exchange.

        All the best,

  • teapartyimmigrationcoalition

    We have proven that there are not 12 million illegal aliens here. We have demonstrated that there are between 35 and 50 million invaders on our shores. Thus they are not an underclass. We don’t want them here and they are illegally doing things that invaders do:
    Rob, maim, rape, murder, destroy. And they are urged on by their own governments to do so.
    Since there are as many as 25 million Mexicans here, if we were to take the argument presented here, what should we have said to France if 25 million Germans line up on their border ready to walk across to take their jobs, to steal their treasury, to take their wealth, to commit up to 1.2 million crimes per year? Should we say to France, welcome them?
    No other nation could nor should be so invaded.
    Mandatory E verify with criminal penalties for Both employers and government workers who fail to use the system.