The Ties that Divide: How Bipartisan Identitarianism Works for the Boss and Against Citizen and Non-Citizen Workers

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The Ties that Divide: How Bipartisan Identitarianism Works for the Boss and Against Citizen and Non-Citizen Workers

Bipartisan acceptance of skewed and dishonest terms of debate over immigration, trade, and labor dynamics lends itself to unbridgeable divides like we are now witnessing with the government shutdown

Pro DACA supporters protest outside the Capitol Hill on January 21, 2018 in Washington, DC. The U.S. government is shut down after the Senate failed to pass a resolution to temporarily fund the government through February 16 on January 21, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

I am not ashamed to admit that I have not paid as much attention to the government shutdown as perhaps I should, largely because I hate the coverage.  Like with other shutdowns, threats of shutdowns, Senate hearings, partisan divides over Supreme Court nominations, etc., the coverage of our current budgetary crisis boils down to accounts of the inherent dysfunction of democracy and the tribalist polarization of the electorate, rather than: brinkmanship is what you get when one side is insulated from popular will by ‘gerrymandering’ and when you have a system in which our political debates are skewed by both parties’ dependence on wealthy donors whose money allows a small number of rich individuals to exert greater influence over Republicans’ and Democrats’ political agenda than the masses of working people. 

The dominant political discourse related to race, class, and immigration—which is backdrop for the current crisis over the future of the Deferred Action for Children Act (DACA)—is a prime example of the problem that I reference above. 

The election of President Trump has amplified a longstanding tendency among upscale liberals to attribute working-class and poor whites’ (the people who have become, in liberal circles, the face of Trumpism) “conservatism” and related opposition to immigration to lower class whites’ deeply rooted racism. Though conservatives frequently and disingenuously deny that opposition to immigration from, let’s say, Latin America is often steeped in xenophobic or racist sentiments, there is no doubt that many of those who oppose Latin American immigration do so, at the very least in part, because they harbor racist and/or xenophobic views. Still, to reduce working-class whites’ support for immigration restriction, or even Trump’s proposed wall, to racism, ignorance, or hatred—as many liberals do—is wrongheaded and counterproductive. 

"Our fixation on the hands of inclusion and exclusion lead too many of us to overlook the boot of exploitation and misery that crushes the lot of undocumented and documented workers along with far too many American citizens."

While Democrats and progressives often, correctly, point out that undocumented and documented immigrants add-value to the nation’s economy in the aggregate, it is also true that in the specific fields in which undocumented and, often enough, documented laborers work, immigrant workers exert a depressing effect on wages and working conditions. 

To acknowledge that undocumented and documented workers have a negative impact on the working conditions in the fields, killing-floors, and factories in which they are employed is to neither vilify nor scapegoat immigrants.  To the contrary, for employers, the appeal of undocumented and documented workers respectively is little different from the foundations for slavery and Jim Crow.  Undocumented workers are—much like slaves—workers without rights. Documented workers are—much like sharecroppers during the Jim Crow era—workers with titular rights that have been crafted via a "democratic process" that denies the workers themselves input. Consequently, the legal status of low-skilled documented workers in particular comes down to ensuring a ready supply of cheap, tractable labor. In other words, because documented workers are not covered by the same labor laws as American citizens, low-skilled documented workers—like black workers in the Jim Crow South—have no rights that matter. 

So, while the refrain that immigrants “do the jobs that Americans don’t want” has served as the reflexive defense of documented and undocumented workers, this is a misleading claim. Immigrants aren’t doing jobs that Americans will not do. Undocumented and many documented laborers are, often enough, doing jobs that Americans are already doing, but refuse to do under the conditions that immigrant laborers are subjected to. 

This reality is not a case for mass deportation. In fact, the obvious fix (even just from a logistical standpoint) for people who are already in the United States would be to fast track citizenship, since the extent to which undocumented and documented immigrants depress wages and working conditions in the lines of work in which they are employed is largely owed to the fact that they are not citizens—they are not covered by the same labor laws as the rest of us.  

The absence of the reality that I describe above from liberal immigration discourse has helped to fuel two problems that we are living through right now.

First, Democratic reluctance to cop to the fact that undocumented and documented immigrant labor often depress the wages of American workers stokes the flames of resentment among some for whom lived experience—like those who work in residential construction—has left little doubt about non-citizen workers’ negative impact on wages and working conditions.  Indeed, Democratic politicians would sooner accuse those Americans who are forced to compete with undocumented and documented labor of racism and xenophobia than to forthrightly state that the problem isn’t the immigrant workers, but it’s the employers who hire non-citizens to circumvent labor and safety laws. For some who are in the throes of an industry-specific race to the bottom, the Democratic reflex sounds callus, while President Trump's racist, xenophobic, faux populist message sounds sympathetic.

Second, ignoring the basis of the appeal of undocumented and documented laborers to employers discourages the electorate from confronting the fact that our labor, immigration, and trade policies benefit a small stratum of wealthy Americans at the expense of a great many working people. There is no doubt that the hateful people are... hateful. But, as I suggest above, this is not the whole story—even if so many of us who are liberal, progressive, or left treat it as if it were.    

This is all to say that the immigration discourse crafted by our two major parties leads us to unbridgeable divides.

The GOP tells us that: illegal and even legal immigrants are taking “our jobs,” they are committing a disproportionately large share of the nation’s crimes, they are destroying American values, they are hijacking our democracy, and they are bankrupting our government. From this vantage point, those who support porous borders are bleeding heart dopes who are naive and/or hate America.

By contrast, the Democrats tell us: undocumented and documented workers are doing the jobs that Americans don't want; they pay taxes; they add value to the economy; and they enrich our national culture. All of this means opponents of immigration are ignorant bigots, which is what it is. And if those nativists happen to be competing for jobs with immigrant laborers, then they are losers as evinced by the fact that these Americans are doing the crap jobs that smart or skilled Americans “don't want." 

Since the partisan terms of debate related to immigration center on some version of the above dichotomy, then unbridgeable divides are inevitable.

And, of course, the chilling thing is that the GOP leadership actually likes "open borders" and so-called guest workers programs precisely because business wants cheap, tractable (rights-less) labor. In fact, this is why the claim that immigrants are taking “our jobs” fails on its own merits.  For better or for worse the jobs in question are the boss’s jobs not “ours.” So, anyone who is attracted to the Republican Party for its simultaneous celebration of unregulated capitalism and President Trump’s in-your-face racially charged xenophobia should wake up to the glaring contradiction.    

Anyone who is attracted to the Republican Party for its simultaneous celebration of unregulated capitalism and President Trump’s in-your-face racially charged xenophobia should wake up to the glaring contradiction.    Because elected officials, on both sides, are comparatively insulated from their constituencies thanks to the combination of the wealthy donors and the corporate media outlets that buttress the wealthy donors' agenda, showdowns over immigration are, often enough, high theater.

This is not to diminish the cruel implications of a budgetary repeal of DACA, which would inflict serious pain on several hundred thousand people. Still, the value of the theater that is the showdown over the Deferred Action for Children Act is that it offers each party’s base a sense of catharsis. 

But however the showdown over DACA resolves, in the absence of some reflection on the working conditions that undocumented and documented workers are subjected to—particularly the low-skilled workers—and some honesty about their impact on the working conditions in the fields, killing floors, and factories in which they are employed, we will continue to have a system that: with one hand, opens America’s doors to enough exploitable, basically rights-less labor to keep business happy and to promote a liberal sense of inclusion, while using the other hand to exclude just enough immigrants—on formally xenophobic and racist grounds— to satisfy the unsavory sentiments of a sizable portion of the conservative base.  Of course, our fixation on the hands of inclusion and exclusion lead too many of us to overlook the boot of exploitation and misery that crushes the lot of undocumented and documented workers along with far too many American citizens.

As I said at the start, bipartisan acceptance of the skewed terms of debate over immigration, trade, labor laws, etc. lends itself to unbridgeable divides, partly because they're not entirely honest.  The disingenuousness of the debate is one of the issues that brings us to the theatrical work of the political showdown. As individuals, we working people may not be able to wrest our democracy from the Koch brothers et al's well financed grip.  However, we can and should take this drama as jumping off point to engage in empathetic dialogue with our neighbors, family members, coworkers (off the clock), etc. who are on the “other side.”

Indeed, progressives should not lose sight of the fact that the current partisan showdown reflects the tensions between a GOP leadership that actually wants porous borders for much the same reason it wants America to be "right to work" (for less), and a base that—as far as this issue is concerned— is comprised of some racist, xenophobic ideologues as well as some people who understand that they are, in fact, losing ground but who have little more than racialist and xenophobic frameworks through which to make sense of the world.  

Progressives who are far removed from Washington, DC need to do what we can do to chip away at the sentiment that lends itself to the high theater we see before us. We have to resist the temptation to just cast the other side (people who vote Republican) as simply a "basket of deplorables," and consider their rationales (the horrible components as well as the legitimate ones) and reflect on "our" (people who vote Democrat) own talking-points (which also contain horrible components and legitimate ones), to establish the kind of dialogue necessary to break off the elements of the GOP's base that we can conceivably win over.  The problem isn’t that conservative voters are ignorant—though some are, but so too are some Democrats.

The issue is that Republicans and Democrats have each coalesced around narrow racialist narratives about immigration that, in the case of the GOP, encourage working-class and poor whites to blame people who are a lot weaker than themselves for their downward economic slide, and, in the case of the Democrats, encourage the putatively enlightened to disregard the material concerns of an otherized white working-class.  

In practical terms, neither party is looking out for either immigrant laborers or American workers, even if Democrats are on the right side of the DACA issue.  

Touré Reed

Touré F. Reed is a Professor of 20th Century US and Afro-American History at Illinois State University. He has published in the Journal of American Ethnic History, LABOR, Nonsite.org, Jacobin, The Nation, and The New Republic.  Dr. Reed is the author of Not Alms But Opportunity:  The Urban League and the Politics of Racial Uplift, 1910-1950 (UNC Press). He is currently working on a book titled Why Liberals Separate Race from Class (Verso Books). 

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