A Nation of Immigrants

Every night on CNN, Lou Dobbs bashes immigrants. No matter what the subject, he manages to turn it into a horror story about the evils of people he calls “illegal aliens.” They steal; they cheat; they use drugs; they murder innocent people; they transmit diseases; they have filthy habits; they take jobs from decent hardworking American; they cost the taxpayers billions of dollars each year; they get perks ordinary citizens can only dream of, such as free healthcare and college tuition. Dobbs’ attacks are mirrored day and night on radio talk shows, in newspaper editorials and guest columns, and in the halls of Congress and every state capitol.

What these hatemongers say resonates with many of my fellow citizens. I have heard them say so, from Miami Beach and Amherst to Estes Park and Tucson. But especially in these hard economic times, when scapegoating of one group or another might become virulent and lead to vicious and divisive actions and politics, it might be a good idea to get a handle on some facts.

The first thing we need to understand is that immigrants come to the United States not out of choice but because changed circumstances, brought about often enough by business-supported political actions taken here in the United States, have forced them to do so. Consider the story of a typical immigrant, a composite of millions of others who could tell a similar tale. Let us call her Elena. Elena worked in a garment factory in a free trade zone in El Salvador. The factory is a subcontractor for a large clothing chain in the United States. The free trade zone, itself, is the product of an agreement made between the government of El Salvador and the International Monetary Fund. The government is right-wing, dominated by the rich rural families that have run the country for many decades. It has been waging a war against left-wing insurgents, aided by money and military advisors from the United States, which, in support of U.S. coffee companies and other businesses with interests in El Salvador, has been deeply embedded in Salvadoran affairs . The government’s budget is strained because of the war and because the rich are too powerful to be taxed and the poor have no money. In the countryside adults must subsist on about 1,200 calories per day. To pay its bills, the government goes to the IMF for a loan. The IMF, itself dominated by the United States, grants the loan but imposes strict conditions on the Salvadoran budget. One of these is that exports must be stimulated by offering foreign firms tax incentives. So the government establishes a free trade zone, a space in the capital city of San Salvador where businesses can set up shop in publically-financed buildings and operate tax-free. There is plenty of labor available, mostly women who have migrated to the city to escape the civil war in the countryside.

Elena gets a job in the garment factory. She is so desperate for work, with young children to support and no husband (he was killed in the fighting), that she ignores the long hours and horrendous working conditions. Wages are pitifully low but they keep her family fed. A year passes and Elena makes friends among her coworkers, all of whom have their own tales of woe. As the women become habituated to industrial labor and as they talk among themselves, they begin to think about things: about how hard it will be to work at such a rapid pace as they get older; about how the bosses abuse them physically and sometimes sexually; about how the clothes they make sell for a lot of money in the United States, enriching the owners on the backs of their starvation wages. One of the women is from a village once controlled by the rebels and has attended a peoples’ school, where she learned something of her country’s sordidly violent and oppressive history and of the global forces that have made it impossible for her and her family to ever improve their lot in life. She tells them that only when the ordinary people have gotten together and fought for a better life did things ever change. The archbishop of the city has been saying the same things and demanded that the government do something to alleviate the misery of the masses. As this woman speaks, Elena and the others feel something stirring inside themselves. If they banded together, perhaps they could win better pay, hours, and conditions. Maybe they could get the employer to provide daycare facilities so that they could bring their children with them each day.

The women contact a union organizer and they begin to try to get their coworkers to join. The organizer knows activists in the United States who will support and publicize what the women are doing. All goes well for awhile, but soon the boss begins a systematic campaign of torment of union supporters. The woman from the rebel village receives phone calls threatening death to her and her young daughters. When the workers and supporters put up a picket line to protest their treatment, police and paramilitary thugs descend on them with clubs and tear gas. A week later, Elena is fired. She begins to work out of the union headquarters to keep the union going, but she notices strangers following her home, and her phone starts ringing in the middle of the night. When she picks up the receiver, she hears screams that sound like someone being tortured. The day after three nuns were murdered by a military death squad, she decides that she must leave the country with her kids. Through a friend, she contacts a man who, for a fee, transports refugees into Mexico or the United States. Elena uses her entire savings and begins a long, difficult, and dangerous journey to El Norte, ending up in northern Virginia, with a letter to show to a priest. Through him, she finds a place to live until she geta a job. She meets many other refugees, some for El Salvador, and they take comfort from one another. And they begin again to build a community. She gets work at a hotel as a room attendant, using an identification card she gets from a friend. Her kids start school, and they help her with her English.

The second fact we need to grasp is that, more so than perhaps any other country, employers in the United States have relied upon, and indeed actively encouraged, periodic waves of immigration to provide them with easily exploited pools of cheap labor. For the past three decades, millions of immigrants, primarily from Mexico, Latin America, and East Asia, have come to this country seeking work, in what Kim Moody, in his book U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition, calls our third historical influx of immigrants. While some of the new arrivals are highly educated, with technical skills that give them access to special visas, most are poor men (men typically come first and their families follow) displaced by both political upheavals aided and abetted by U.S. foreign policy and the deregulated international trade and capital flows that have made it impossible for them to make a living as peasant farmers. In 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated 15.7 percent of the U.S. labor force—about twenty-four million people—to be foreign-born. Not all of these workers have proper immigration documents, although we do not know precisely how many. There are probably, at least, twelve million undocumented persons in the United States today, but not all of these are in the labor force. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that undocumented workers make up about 5 percent of the labor force, so if this is true, there are about 7.6 million undocumented workers here or a little less than one-third of all foreign-born workers. The number of immigrant laborers, both with and without documents, has risen dramatically (though unevenly), especially since the early 1990s. In 1970, foreign-born workers comprised only 5.2 percent of the labor force; in 1990, the figure was 8.8 percent.

By far, the largest group of recent arrivals has come from Mexico. In 2005, a little under one-third of all immigrant workers were from Mexico. Given that most of these have limited formal education and given the near impossibility of poorly educated and unskilled persons entering the United States legally, there is no doubt that a significant proportion of Mexican workers are here without documents. Other countries that have sent significant numbers of immigrants are the Philippines, India, China, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and El Salvador.

Third, there has always been anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, and it has always been based upon false generalizations. None of the things mentioned at the beginning of this post are true. Immigrants pay their own way and then some. Undocumented workers, for example, contribute billions of dollars to our social security trust funds but will never receive a dime of benefits. If an immigrant happens to use my social security number, money will be deposited in my account. I will benefit not the immigrant. If an immigrant picks a number no one has, the monies put in this account will eventually go into the general social security fund. So undocumented immigrants are subsidizing all of our retirements, including Lou Dobbs.. Immigrants pay sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes. They do work that is valuable to the society, work that it is unlikely native-born men and women would do. What often happens is that immigrants fill job slots that native-born workers have abandoned as they have moved into better employment. As a Boston Globe columnist put it with respect to those here without documents:

They perform jobs that are inseparable from our standard of living. Undocumented workers are about 5 percent of our overall labor force but— according to the Pew Hispanic Center’s analysis of Census data—are between 22 and 36 percent of America’s insulation workers, miscellaneous agricultural workers, meat-processing workers, construction workers, dishwashers, and maids. The American Farm Bureau, the lobbying group for agricultural interests, says that without guest workers, the United States would lose $5 billion to $9 billion a year in fruit, vegetable, and flower production and up to 20 percent of production would go overseas.

Mexican immigrants, many undocumented, do most of the drywalling in southern California. They are independent truck drivers at the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach. They toil in the basements of Korean-American-owned greengroceries in New York City. They are the major part of the manufacturing workforce in Los Angeles. They do the arduous garment work in sweatshops and homes that their Eastern European counterparts did one hundred years ago in the Lower East side of Manhattan. They take care of the children of the well-to-do. They manicure lawns, work in nurseries, break their backs in Midwestern meatpacking and Southern chicken and hog processing plants. They clean our motel and hotel rooms. Indian and Pakistani immigrants drive cabs and the limousines that take corporate executives to and from work in our large cities. Along with Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai immigrants, they slave away in restaurant kitchens. So do Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, and Hondurans. West Africans labor as grocery delivery men and sell items of all kinds from sidewalk carts. Immigrants do the hard work of the United States, the work the native-born are no longer willing—and with good reason—to do.

Of course, it is inevitable that there is some competition between the two groups, some cases where undocumented workers replace those either born in the country or here through legal channels. Through special visa programs, the United States allows domestic companies and public entities to hire skilled workers such as computer programmers, engineers, nurses, and teachers from countries like India for a fraction of what it was paying its native employees. Here, the domestic workers are clearly hurt by immigrant competition, although the foreign workers are also badly exploited, forced to pay large fees to job recruiters and subject to visa revocation if they make waves at work. Since there are ample reserves of domestic employees in these cases, the competition could be ended if the special visa programs were eliminated or at least altered to demand that employers prove that they cannot hire domestic workers for these jobs. On the whole, though, recent immigrants do not compete directly with native labor. They do work that natives won’t do any more, making possible the survival of some businesses, such as manufacturing around Los Angeles, enterprises that either would have died or moved abroad. In addition, as immigrants work and earn and spend money, they generate new businesses and employment.

Fourth, immigrant workers have been organizing to improve their working and living conditions, giving new life to organized labor and other movements for social change. In the past, organized labor, especially the AFL and then the AFL-CIO, has been, with some notable exceptions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the United Electrical Workers Union, part and parcel of the problem of nativism. But in 2000, the AFL-CIO reversed course and demanded amnesty for undocumented workers. Since then, the relationship between groups trying to improve the life circumstances of all immigrants and the union movement has been much warmer and closer. The 2003 “Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride,” in which immigrants traveled across the country holding rallies and educating working people about their conditions, and the May 1, 2006 “A Day without Immigrants” strikes and demonstrations, in which five to six million immigrants and their supporters participated, were strongly championed by the labor movement.

Some of the change in attitudes and policies within the house of labor has come from the realization that immigrants hold commanding positions in occupations and industries that unions would like to organize and they are willing, indeed eager, to organize. The workers who remove asbestos from buildings in New York and New Jersey are overwhelmingly from other countries, many here without documents. The Laborers Union has had great success in organizing these workers. They have stood up firmly in the face of strong employer antagonism, even under the risk of deportation. In their homelands, they may well have experienced themselves or known those who have experienced brutal repression for struggling for trade union rights. So employer resistance here is not something of which they are afraid. Similar stories can be told about packinghouse workers, who are trying to build a labor movement in what was once a union stronghold, or hotel and restaurant workers in San Francisco, who have waged multi-year battles to secure union recognition and better wages, hours, and working conditions. Greengrocery store workers, black car (limousine) drivers, and grocery deliverers have all made heroic efforts to unionize. Name a recent labor struggle and it is likely that immigrants have been in the forefront of it. Here is how Kim Moody describes the organization of the “black car” drivers in New York City:

The city’s 12,000 “Black Car” drivers work for fleets that serve corporate customers who want the elegant cars for their executives and clients. But, like the taxi drivers, they are independent contractors who must lease their cars. After paying their lease fees and other expenses they make between $4.00 and $6.00 an hour. Most are South Asians, but there are also East Asians and Central Americans. In 1995, they began organizing themselves. In this case, through an acquaintance they approached District 15 of the Machinists. Unlike many unions in this sort of situation, the Machinists allowed the drivers to organize and lead their own local, Machinists’ Lodge 340. In an unusual turn of events . . . the Machinists won an NLRB case in 1997 declaring the drivers employees. In 1999, Lodge 340 won its first contract with one of the major companies. Resistance from employers was intense, and because many drivers were Muslims they were frequently harassed by the Federal Government after 9/11. Nevertheless, by 2005, Lodge 340 had 1,000 dues-paying members. The effort to organize the whole industry continues.

There is data on the number of immigrants in unions, and it is encouraging. Between 1996 and 2004, the number of immigrants who are union members rose by nearly 25 percent. During this same period, the number of native-born union members fell. The percentage of all union members who are foreign-born also rose, from 9 to more than 11 percent. We do not know how many immigrant union members are undocumented, but given how many they are and where they are working, the number must be considerable.

Finally, it is crucial to understand that what the anti-immigrant movement is really all about is the repression of all workers. The growing desire for unions among immigrants and the threat that union support for them poses to employers (who hold the real power in this society) can be seen in the increasingly aggressive actions of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which, as David Bacon documents in his fine book, Illegal People, has been raiding plants where it believes undocumented workers have been hired. In meatpacking plants in Iowa, Nebraska, and elsewhere, for example, ICE has arrested and railroaded into quick trials thousands of immigrants, who are either deported or put in prison. Not coincidentally, these raids have disrupted union organizing campaigns. In one case, employers hired Somali immigrants from a nearby state, here with documents because they have been declared political refugees. This, of course, created tensions between the new and older arrivals, much to the benefit of the employers, who love a divide and conquer strategy. In a Mississippi electrical equipment factory, ICE raids conveniently helped employers and their rightwing political allies, who are fearful of an alliance between immigrant and black workers that could challenge their power. These raids, which have occurred across the country, are a boon to employers. As Marielena Hincapié of the National Immigration Law Center tells us, “raids drive down wages because they intimidate workers, even citizens and legal residents. The employer brings in another batch of employees and continues business as usual, while people who protest get targeted and workers get deported. Raids really demonstrate the employer’s power.”

MICHAEL D. YATES is Associate Editor of Monthly Review. His most recent book is the second edition of Why Unions Matter (Monthly Review Press, 2009), from which part of this essay has been adapted. He encourages correspondence and can be reached at mikedjyates@msn.com.



Michael D. Yates is the Director of Monthly Review Press in New York City. He has taught workers throughout the United States. His most recent book is Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation and Class Struggle (Monthly Review Press, 2022). He can be reached at mdjyates@gmail.com