Immigrants: Useless or Useful?

The verdict of US politicians is clear: the porous US-Mexico border and the “economic refugees” entering the country are an unbearable burden. Both parties appeal to the popular sentiment: What would happen if we let in all the world’s destitute people? Anybody can recite the next line in their sleep: they will steal our jobs! Its time this statement was taken seriously for once.

“They will steal our jobs!”

What does it tell us? First, that there are vast numbers of people around the world who find life so unbearable in their countries that they leave everything behind to make the dangerous journey to the USA in search of work. Vice versa, Americans see this as a threat and fear losing the thing most precious to them: work. A prime example of what’s called “globalization”: For most of the people of the world, work is the the only source of income. But as much as they are dependent on work, it is not up to them whether they work or not – that’s as true for immigrants as for those who are already here.

The saying “they take away our jobs!” signifies a staunch nationalist attitude, and has nothing to do with the truth: Jobs do not belong to those who talk this way. And illegal immigrants can’t take away anything they don’t possess. The decision on what jobs exist is made by a completely different authority: a business which must be willing to make money off those who offer their ability to work for sale. So even if everything revolves around work for most of the people on the planet, whether they have a job or not is the result of one condition: they must find a businessman or woman who lets them work for him or her – which they only do if their work increases the private wealth of the owners of that business.

This goal is best achieved by hiring people who don’t cost much. Immigrants, particularly illegal ones, serve that interest because they can’t go to court and claim that they didn’t receive minimum wages. So hiring illegal immigrants does not stand in opposition to the purpose of creating jobs. If immigrants did not get these jobs because they were sent back to where they came from, these jobs would either be eliminated or offered under the same conditions as they were before, at wages close to or under the minimum wage – because only then are they profitable.

In other words: only profitable work matters; it is not a matter of just doing the work that is needed to provide for oneself and one’s family, but working for the wealth of others. This principle subordinates xenophobic American citizens as much as the immigrants they are so hostile towards.

Why are immigrants leaving their countries?

The newspapers point to the poverty and drug violence south of the border as motivating factors for why immigrants are coming to the US without permission. Many Americans think: we are successful, why aren’t they? They must be doing something wrong! Why are we getting the bill for their problems?

First, who is this unified “we”? The success of the USA on the world market doesn’t mean everybody is doing well in the USA. Second, who is this unified “they”? The rich elites in Central America? The owners of huge banana and coffee plantations? Not every citizen of Central America is poor. Third, if it’s not about “us” being successful and “them” being poor, what are the reasons for the poverty in Central America that cause people to flee their countries to the USA?

The general reason is capitalism: People are dependent on earning money because everything they need is the private property of somebody else. And they are not only excluded from the means of consumption, but also from the means of producing them. The means of labor also belong to somebody else – the rich. Because wages are paid if and only if they contribute to the wealth of the owners of capital. Whether they are American or Honduran or some other nationality is irrelevant. That interest, making profit, is served only by paying low wages and having people work hard and long – that’s why the poor stay poor when they work for business.

The criterion for profitable work which presupposes poverty and perpetuates poverty is the same worldwide. The difference between poverty there and here is due to the fact that in the USA the majority of the population contributes to capitalist growth as a working class, whereas the majority of the people in Central America do not. Only a small fraction is needed to work the plantations where “cash crops” are produced and exported. Not without reason, the Central American states are known as “banana republics” because these cash crops are the only source of capitalist wealth. The “rest” of the population, the majority, lack a regular income and in the absence of any other means of survival turn to the only source of money – specifically, dollars – open to them: they cultivate and smuggle drugs for America’s crack users – not for their own benefit, but for all kinds of rival mafia gangs. So it’s no wonder they try to escape to the US.

These causes of poverty which lead people to flee their homelands are of no interest to the US government or the American public. The government’s only concern is how the US is affected by the consequences of immigration. Nobody in the US complains when jobs leave Mexico to come to the USA – such as GM and VW, which have both recently announced plans to relocate plants to the US because the cost of labor has been made so much cheaper that it is attractive to invest in American auto factories. The politicians are happy about this because profitable work is a contribution to the growth that the state is so eager for. In times of crisis and low demand for labor, however, the verdict is clear: illegal immigrants are an unacceptable burden on the US. The conclusion is that they must be prevented from getting into US territory by fortifying the border with drones, electric fences and National Guards.

But that is still not enough to prevent them from coming to the US. At an emergency meeting on immigration at the White House, Obama reminded the leaders of the Central American states of their responsibility: they are to contain this useless population within their own borders in spite of the fact that they are dependent on remittances from emigrants in the USA. Instead, they should look at America’s problem as their “shared responsibility” and function as auxiliary troops of the US.

When immigrants are (not) welcome

The criterion of profitable labor – work is only done and workers only employed if it pays off for capitalist businessmen and women – leads to high rates of unemployment and emigration. This is also the criterion which rules the US labor market. People in the US also desperately need to earn money, but aren’t allowed to do this work unless there is demand for them. The only reason business hires them is the economic interest in the costs of employment being justified by the additional money wealth they create by working long and hard with little pay.

The simple truth is: in a capitalist society, people can only live if they live for capital. Especially in a crisis but even in normal business times, the unemployed are made responsible for their own plight – not the criterion under which their labor is worthless. “They didn’t try hard enough to find a job!” is what people usually say when complaining about high rates of unemployment and the tax money spent feeding the unemployed. The view that people without work in general – and illegal immigrants entering the US in particular – are an unbearable burden is what Obama and his Republican opponents have in common.

They diverge on how to deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants who already live here. Republicans say they need to be deported en masse. First, they are here illegally, so they are criminals! Second, if they don’t find a job, then that’s because they don’t want to find one; they are just lazy parasites who are only interested in getting welfare. And third, even if they find a job, they harm Americans who are desperately trying to find jobs and failing because the immigrants underprice them by accepting slave wages. If immigrants are useless or even a burden – send them back to where they came from!

Obama applies the same criterion of usefulness as the Republicans, but comes to a different assessment: the immigrants already living in the US should be offered routes to legal status. His key argument is: they have jobs! They might be in the USA illegally, but they work, pay taxes, obey the rules and contribute to economic growth. They form strong families and communities and accept “us” as the leading culture. The brutal functionalist logic is: they are human resources which can contribute to the US success story.

After all, Obama says, an American is not defined by language, ethnicity or religion, but by a determination to make it through hard work and belief in the American dream:

“Because as long as there are men and women like all of you who are willing to give so much for the right to call yourselves Americans, and as long as we do our part to keep the door open to those who are willing to earn their citizenship, then we’re going to keep on growing our economy and we’ll remind the world of why the United States of America is and always will be the greatest nation on Earth.” (July 4, 2014 naturalization ceremony)

Obama’s welcome to immigrants couldn’t make it more clear that America is not about giving immigrants the opportunity to live their dreams, but sees in them opportunities for its program of enrichment and capitalist growth.

In spite of that, many immigrants take pride in being useful for the society (“We do the jobs that nobody else will do!”). They simply neglect the fact that their usefulness is not about doing the jobs nobody else will do, but doing jobs at such low wages and in such miserable working conditions that business people make a lot of money from this cheap labor.

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So why is there a debate anyway? America’s attitude towards immigrants hasn’t changed, only its need for human material. It has become more picky nowadays about who it lets in because international competition is tougher and the economic crisis is not over. Immigrants with education and money are always welcome because the US wants scientists and business-persons for its competition against other nations. Illegal workers can also be part of the “best and brightest” because the cheapest labor possible is also good for business and contributes to the success of the nation. If there is a demand for their labor, they should be here. If not, no. If there is no upswing in the economy, illegal workers are less an opportunity and more a burden who add to the dysfunctional poverty already widespread here. From that point of view, their numbers must be controlled.

If immigration is a problem, people should ask: why and for whom? If work would simply be treated as the toil necessary for producing the goods that provide a good life for everyone, an additional labor force would make work (and life) much easier. Under the criterion of capitalist labor, however, more labor is not a source of wealth for those who work but for those who let other people work for them. To have a job then becomes a privilege because it is not granted that people who need to earn money will be hired, and if they are hired it is not assured that they will earn enough to live on, because that is not what they are paid for. They are paid to enrich other people and that goal is best achieved by paying minimal wages.

Immigrants, illegal or not, are subordinated to this criterion of profit making as much as the American working class. They have to face its even tougher consequences in times of crises. Wouldn’t it therefore be time for the “average Americans” protesting detention centers to understand that they have more in common with illegal immigrants from Central America than with the Governor of Arizona and Obama?

Geoffrey McDonald edits Ruthless Criticism.


Geoffrey McDonald is an editor at Ruthless Criticism. He can be reached at: