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. 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 the same 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 ash 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 the archbishop is murdered, 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.
Why would anyone consider Elena to be an evil person. How is she responsible for her fate? What would you have done if you were her? Aren’t the actions of the United States, its government and its corporations, root causes of what has happened to her?
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.
Part of this essay is taken from the second edition of my book, Why Unions Matter, just published by Monthly Review Press. You can order a copy at http://www.monthlyreview.org/books/whyunionsmatter.php