A column of mine on immigration earlier this year provoked both an op-ed response and numerous e-mails to me, charging I "don't get it" that illegal immigrants are the cause of working class woes. My critics raised thoughtful concerns in need of a careful response. Those who attack immigrants because of their legal status forget that U.S. citizens are not especially law abiding. Long before Mexicans crowded our labor markets, our citizens were taking far more cash under the table than undocumented immigrants ever have. Some citizens have good reasons. I recently interviewed a young single mother who, not surprisingly, could not support her two children on $400 a month in welfare and $200 in food stamps. If she reported income, however, she would lose benefits. She earns several thousand dollars a year "under the table." She feels guilty about her lawlessness, but, "I am not going to let my family starve." Both undocumented Mexican immigrants and many full U.S. citizens take money under the table. Both find themselves in increasingly desperate positions. But are undocumented Mexican immigrants the reason some single mothers in Maine must take money under the table? Two recent books, Aviva Chomsky's "They Take Our Jobs - and 20 Other Myths about Immigration" and Jane Guskin and David Wilson's "The Politics of Immigration," provide extensive documentation from a wide range of historical and economic perspectives that the same global economic restructuring that has led to outsourcing the best U.S. jobs and attacks on unions here has also badly damaged societies in the developing world and led to widespread migration of the poor. There is, however, a tradition, often informed by racist and nationalist stereotypes, that has led American workers to blame economic dislocation and joblessness on the newest arrivals. Chomsky reminds us that in the 19th century white workers in the South "clung to their status of legal and racial superiority, but the entrenched racial inequalities undermined the status of poor whites as well." Black job seekers per se did not hurt poor whites, but rather their disenfranchisement combined with racism prevented their organization into unions and political movements. Employers enjoyed a pool of poor and easily exploitable workers with which to break strikes and undermine all working-class wages. Some academic literature does suggest that low-skilled immigrants undermine working-class wages. But a contrasting body of literature both from academics and from those in the trenches finds no or minimal impact on working class wages. My take on this controversy is: It depends. The effect of immigrant incursions depends on the cultural and political setting. If every immigrant worker received, merely by the fact of having a job, full access to minimum wage protection, rights to union organizing, access to occupational health and safety guarantees, and a realistic path to citizenship, employers would find it harder to use the undocumented to beat down wage standards for all. Guskin and Wilson cite U.S. Department of Labor studies showing that following the 1986 amnesty, real wages of undocumented workers rose dramatically, exerting upward pressure on all wages. The U.S. today has no shortage of urgent tasks, from fighting fires to rebuilding levees, to laying new track lines. If all such work is properly compensated, if the Federal Reserve cared as much about job creation as inflation, if governments at all levels worried as much about the health of the infrastructure as the profits of the financial sector, plenty of good new jobs would be created. The question for progressives is this: Are reforms of trade treaties, enforcement of workplace laws, and establishment of adequate wage standards more likely if we somehow expel most undocumented immigrants by militarizing our border and turning employers into border cops? These initiatives risk fracturing the very coalitions needed to enact progressive reforms. Just as unfortunately, they distract workers from the role that corporate tax evasion and workplace violations play in wage stagnation. Earlier immigrants from Ireland and Italy, also much vilified, made great economic and political contributions to our society. The same is possible today. The Black Commentator recently pointed out: "In the countries [current immigrants] hail from there are traditions of working class militancy and solidarity deeper and more widespread than anything here, and traditions of broad left wing social movements tougher and more enduring than we see here in the U.S. In Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia and Brazil, in South Korea and Colombia, farm, factory and service workers join unions... and fight for their own rights, often at great personal cost." Unfortunately, the legislation derailed in Congress last summer moved in the wrong direction. Its path to legalization was so complex and burdensome that few would be able to navigate it. Its guest worker programs tie immigrants to specific jobs in ways that make them even more dependent and exploitable. A new president and Congress need to address this problem from a more humane perspective. John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may contact him at email@example.com.
© 2007 Bangor Daily News