Why the Immigration Debate Isn’t Asking the Right Question

By Tosh Anderson

The national immigration debate is deadlocked on whether, as a society, we want more or less immigrants. The conversation is so steeped in euphemism and specious arguments that we can’t even see we’re asking the wrong question. The polarization drives everything—from who we see as our friend and enemy to competing identity-based social movements and presidential elections.

Those arguing for more claim immigrants contribute to the economy by filling needed jobs and paying taxes, and add to the country’s cultural diversity and prosperity. They point to labor shortages, immigrants as job-creators and hard workers, declining birthrates, and anti-racism to support their position.

On the other side, immigrants are blamed for taking jobs, sapping public resources, increasing crime, and diluting ethnic purity. Solutions proposed range from indefinite detention, family separation, border walls, restrictions on public benefits, violence, and white supremacy.

Curiously, both sides mine the ideals of the founding fathers to justify their position, reminding us we are a nation of immigrants, welcoming newcomers with open arms to build a better life in a land of liberty and freedom. Conversely, the more conservative focus on founders’ views that identified assimilation as the key immigration criteria or the unapologetically racist one in order to call for a renewed ethno-nationalism to restore the “proper” racial and economic hierarchy.

Amidst all of this propaganda and discord, no one asks who is benefiting from the divisions among workers.

The racism and xenophobia of the anti-immigrant position requires no explanation. Like the racism of white yeoman farmers and trades people that W.E.B Dubois argued stopped them from uniting with the Freedmen against the planter class, so too does today’s racism directed toward immigrant workers from Latino, Black, and most visibly white, workers keep them from uniting with those with whom they have the most in common.

What deserves more attention is the racism that justifies the super-exploitation of immigrant workers coming from the big business/immigrant rights alliance advocating liberal immigration policy. It is increasingly common rationale, one that is based on cultural attributes of hard work and willingness to “do the work no one else will do” that argues business needs cheap labor. They lament that citizen workers will not do the work for the wages offered and go further threatening the US middle class that if it wants to keep its current lifestyle then it has to accept the reality that is cheap labor.

The New York Times has long been the primary propaganda piece espousing this position, warning that America will lose jobs and Americans will be poorer without cheap labor. In short, our way of life will be threatened if we don’t satisfy the insatiable thirst for cheap labor. Recent articles in the NY Times illustrate this racist pro-immigration position, Is Immigration at Its Limit? Not for Employers and Hiring Is Very Hard for Restaurants These Days. Now They May Have to Fire. This racism then fuels the hostility and resentment of white and increasingly Black and Brown workers who must compete in industry after industry.

There is long history of using immigrants as cheap labor in this country. From white indentured servants to chattel slavery to the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Bracero program to today’s employer sanctions provision that criminalizes undocumented workers and forms the basis of their super-exploitation. Since chattel slavery racism has consolidated the divisions in order to maintain this super-exploitation.

But the underlying racism is not the exclusive purview of one political party. Both Democrats and Republicans alike support the criminalization of undocumented.

While Republican Ronald Reagan passed the employer sanctions provision ostensibly to protect US workers’ jobs and deter immigration, it did neither and actually has had the opposite effect. It is now the Democrats who call for the strengthening of this law and try to explain away what the law has done to undocumented but also to documented workers. That U.S. imperialism or NAFTA has turned farmers to migrants, and the rationale that, while immigrants have a hard life here it’s better than from where they came, does not justify super-exploiting workers here. It also does not justify the harm it has done to US workers by enabling employers to impose harsher working conditions. The level of acceptance is both shocking and ubiquitous. Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke recently praised hard-working immigrants and in the same breath described their conditions as “modern day bondage.” The Trump presidency ironically has brought into relief how it is the pro-immigrant, anti-racist position that is calling for super-exploitation of immigrants.

Despite the popular spin control to reduce anti-immigrant fervor to white supremacy or isolated to the Trump base, there is a growing chorus of African Americans and Latinos who say they cannot compete with immigrant labor, or that the country hasn’t done enough for them. That academics continue to churn out studies saying immigrants don’t take jobs, does not change the reality that in construction, service, agriculture, and many other industries workers themselves know this to be true. They also see the hard-working label as cunning deceit.

They know because the same labor shortage rationale was used to justify their super-exploitation once upon a time. In today’s discourse however they play the antagonist to the immigrant—they are the lazy blacks who won’t work as hard. But we know what hard work gets you in this country. More hard work, injury, and poverty.

Instead of hiding behind the flags of human and civil rights or supporting employers who cry labor shortage only to super exploit immigrant workers, we should end the criminalization of immigrant workers. Making it illegal to hire undocumented workers makes them more exploitable and therefore more appealing to employers. In New York State alone, it is estimated that more than $1 billion annually is stolen from workers, of whom a large portion are undocumented. From this vantage point, the idea of sanctuary cities and states looks more like a plantation than a promised land.

Like the Black Codes that criminalized Freedmen for not working, employer sanctions criminalizes immigrant workers for working, with similar results. And, like the founding fathers writing the Declaration of Independence who protected slavery without ever using the word the employer sanctions provision cleverly disguises its real intention.

Identity politics and grassroots fascism are merely two sides of the same coin. The racism that is dividing workers encourages them to see the problem as other workers rather than employers and their allies in government benefitting from these divisions. It is no surprise that in the last 30 years productivity/profits have skyrocketed while wages have stagnated. When the pundits promise prosperity in exchange for this cheap labor system built on the backs of immigrants we should ask—prosperity for whom? It was clear the founders were thinking of the slave-owning class, the 18th Century’s proverbial 1%.

So why do we continue to hold out hope that we can resurrect our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and wield them for good, for freedom and equality just because a few words proclaim them as an ideal? The truth is we have exactly what the founders wanted: a society where the freedom of some requires the enslavement of many. There is nothing to uphold or to realize for the first time. No amount of ideological acrobatics can fashion a legacy from a history that never was?

From a recent NYT article to Amanda Gordon’s July 4 poem, Believer’s Hymn for the Republic, we are desperate to think those who have suffered the most under the yoke of this exploitation nation are the best-situated to reclaim the spurious, just-out-of-reach freedoms espoused by the founding fathers, that we can “redeem the dream” or “finish the job.” A reform proposal most consistent with the real intentions of the founders and more attuned to the country’s history is that offered up by Eric Posner in Politico last year in which each American could sponsor their own immigrant and by taking part of their wages reap the benefits of immigration—effectively turning all Americans into exploiting employers.

Shouldn’t we expose the founders’ promise of freedom and equality as a phantom trick and build a new a society united against exploitation that racism and sexism serve to deepen and justify? It’s not a matter of us actualizing the founders’ ideals by ending the deceit and disconnect between what they said, and what they did. It’s what they did and what the country has continued to do that only working people can end. Clearly, both political parties use immigration to criminalize and super-exploit some for the benefit of the few and to keep the working people of the country divided by appealing to racism and sexism.

The state of our state today is not a nation divided, but a working class that is divided by identity politics and grassroots fascism with calls for racial states, reparations, no deportations, the list goes on.

If we turn on ourselves, who wins? Not the immigrant worker toiling 12 hours a day or at an ever more rapid pace. Not the unemployed landscaper or construction worker, or the union electrician making the same wage she made 20 years ago.

It is up to us to ask the right question and let it lead us to correctly identify who are real friends are and who the real enemy is.