Legalize Free Movement of Labor: Viewing A National Debate

— Malik Miah

THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE is exposing deep social, racial and class divisions within American society. The arguments are sharp, furious and divide many families - immigrant as well as native born.

What is happening, however, is an oversimplification of the issue. Not everyone advocating more border patrols, English-only and deportation of "illegal aliens" are racists. The Minutemen are; but most of our co-workers aren't. Confusion and anger are common when the issue becomes personal.

The mass mobilizations seemed to appear from nowhere in city after city. They were primarily organized on radio stations and newspapers with large immigrant listening and reading audiences. They were led by the immigrants themselves - documented and undocumented. The demands were also simple: respect, legalization and citizenship rights.

The protests/awakenings have helped to clarify and sharpen the debate. Undocumented immigrants are workers and families like native-born Americans. They are our neighbors, co-workers and friends. The issue is not, as most media pundits and conservative politicians assert, about national security, patriotism or terrorism. It is an issue of human rights and social and class solidarity.

It is necessary to step back and see two related, but distinct, subjects - legal rights for immigrants and the path to citizenship.

The Facts

There are at least 10-20 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. People from all over the world come to the country for one primary purpose - to work and earn a better living than is possible in their home countries. This is true whether for the lowest paid worker from Mexico, or the highly paid skilled worker from India employed in Silicon Valley. The driver is economics.

The class issue is also the main motivator for the employers -agribusiness, commuter tech giants and meat packers in the Midwest. They seek cheap labor. The bosses know "illegals" will work harder because they have few legal protections.

The employers are not the force promoting criminalization and more restrictions. Demagogues in Congress and elsewhere are using the issue for political gain - tapping real fears among native-born working people because of concerns about future jobs and national security.

Stopping immigration is not the objective. It is controlling the flow of immigration.

The employers support an underground economy work force because a free flow of cheap labor across borders, where everyone is legal, would raise their labor costs. The exception is in high technology, where the expansion of legal visas provides a more reliable and stable workforce.

Another way to look at the immigration debate is to see it as the flip side of outsourcing. Both allow employers to get the skills they desire at the lowest cost - outside the borders and domestically. Those industries that can't send the work abroad, however, must rely on importation of documented and undocumented immigrants to drive down costs.

A case in point is home building. According to the National Association of Home Builders, immigrants' work is vital to this industry. The Association states that some 20% of construction workers - about 2.4 million people - are foreign born. Of those, 50% or more are undocumented (as reported in the May 28, 2006, San Francisco Chronicle).

California has the largest share of construction workers. Nearly one third of the workforce is from the Americas - mainly Mexico. The Chronicle article explains, "Nationally, one-third of all construction laborers and 22 percent of all carpenters are immigrants." The Pew Hispanic Center notes that the construction industry employs the largest share of the country's estimated 7.2 million undocumented workers.

African Americans Divided

The jobs issues are behind some divided views among African Americans. Black youth unemployment is extremely high. In many urban areas such as Los Angeles, many laborer jobs going to immigrants used to go to Blacks. Some Black workers support tighter immigration controls, hoping for more job opportunities. The construction trades tend to be better paying.

Johnny Blair Vaughn, an African American construction worker, is quoted in the May 25 Christian Science Monitor article "Rising Black-Latino clash on jobs," making that point:

"'If you drive across this city, you will see 99 percent of all construction is being done by Hispanics…. You will see no African-American males on these sites, and that is a big change,' says Vaughn, who has been in construction for two decades. His two oldest boys, in their early 20s, have been turned down so many times for jobs - as framers, roofers, cement layers - that they no longer apply, he says."

Is this simply anecdotal or real? Perception is reality when an employer explains his desire for immigrant labor as, "These people have a very strong work ethic. They will bust their butts off all day, 10 to12 hours a day, if you ask them to. And they'll do it with smiles on their faces. They have that much of a desire to get ahead." (May 28, San Francisco Chronicle)

Is it a surprise that the Senate in a bipartisan vote seeks a path to legalization as opposed to mass deportations?

President Bush's stance is entirely in line with the view of large employers. They reject legalization but also reject a pure law and order and vigilante approach as advocated by the hard right in the House.

The Citizenship Issue

The issue of citizenship is different in that there is no serious division within the ruling class. Citizenship is seen as a privilege and reserved for immigrants who pledge loyalty to the United States. Little of the debate is really about changing citizenship requirements, except the proposal for denying babies born to undocumented immigrants on U.S. soil citizenship (as is true in most countries).

The most important issue is legalization of immigrant labor. If all workers arriving in the United States are allowed to apply for jobs and work, the issue of citizenship would be about time limits and process. Should it take five years? Should it include economic requirements as some countries (e.g. Australia) have?

Organized labor generally is either silent or straddling the fence on these issues. Those with high immigrant work groups, like the construction trades and service sector, tend to be sympathetic to more favorable immigration laws. Unions in industries less dominated by new immigrants take a more "native born" first approach.

Civil rights leaders are also careful but more supportive. They know how racism has been used by white conservatives and liberals to deny African-American rights in the past. Figures such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have spoken at and joined the mass actions. Their sympathy is for the superexploited immigrant.

My Family History

The divided views among Blacks, and among immigrants themselves, are a reflection of family history in many cases. As someone from a "mixed" family - my father was an "illegal" immigrant from British India after World War II, and my mother a Black American from Detroit - I have the "advantage" of seeing the conflicts of emotions close up over decades.

My father came here illegally, but not by plan. Like many male immigrants he worked commercial ships crossing the Pacific. He had been a union organizer and faced a blacklist for his activism. He debarked in California and worked briefly in the fields before being picked up by immigration.

Because of a shortage of labor, immigration officials gave my father a choice - deportation or stay as a legal resident. (Once again it shows how labor supply and demand affects the immigration needs.)

My father then used his legal status to begin the process of bringing his brother and other relatives to the United States. It took two decades (all came legally) but that's what occurred. Most of my Bangladeshi family now lives in the United States.

My father's story is typical of many immigrants who came from Asia, Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world - illegal, then legal. He stayed because life was better and he brought his other relatives here via the legal system.

On my mother's side of the family the issue was not about immigration. If they thought about it at all, it was about competition for jobs. Most immigrants have been welcomed in the Black community, especially those of darker complexion. New immigrants to Detroit, like Blacks, sought the better-paying jobs in the auto industry.

Polls show that a majority of Blacks are sympathetic to undocumented workers' plight but believe more job opportunities may exist if fewer "illegals" were here.

Many Asian American workers see the issue in this conflicted way too. Those who came legally see it differently than those with relatives who may have come to the United States illegally.

At United Airlines where I work, I have had many discussions with Black and Asian co-workers who are not racist but who support border patrols and a fence on the southern border. They tend to be progressive on other union issues. In truth some white co-workers have similar views - pro-labor, anti-"illegals."

The supply and demand of jobs, the loss of pensions and rollback of other gains weigh heavily on all workers. Any advantage by class, legality or ethnicity is sought for - and this is true for minority communities too.

It is one reason why I cringe when I hear a progressive-minded unionist or Black co-worker lump all opponents of undocumented workers rights as "racist." It is an oversimplification of the issue.

A Principled Stance

What stance should labor and progressives take on the issue of undocumented workers?

First, all immigrants should have the right to work anywhere to earn a living and feed their family. Open the borders! To say so is not Pollyannaish. Regulations of course will exist. Equal labor rights may or may not be a path to citizenship.

Labor must have the right to cross the northern and southern borders (as well as the eastern and western borders by air and sea) to work in the Untied States in a similar manner that labor can freely travel across the European Union. Once workers are able to migrate freely and follow national labor laws it gives workers an advantage they don't have today. It is up to unions to organize them, as they seek to organize all unorganized workers.

Second, how an immigrant becomes a citizen is a separate issue. The United States is one of only a few countries that automatically grant citizenship to all babies born on U.S. soil - whether by citizens, legal or undocumented immigrants. Those not born here need to have an easy route to citizenship if they so chose too so. It is a discussion worth having, but it has nothing to do with illegality.

The issue of free labor is key to resolving the issue of illegal immigration. Only a focused strategy based on support to open borders for immigrant workers can begin to shift the debate and aid the fight for full equality and human rights, for all immigrant and American born workers.

ATC 123, July-August 2006