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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 [email protected]

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

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