As Republicans in Congress hurl claims about immigrants stealing jobs from US citizens, it’s clear that lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to be in deliberate denial about the fundamental hypocrisy of the US’s chaotic, cruel immigration policy.
As immigrant organizers laid bare in February 2017 by shutting down businesses nationwide with a “Day Without Immigrants” strike that exposed the inability of restaurants, construction companies and other businesses to function without their immigrant workforce, the US economy would collapse without the labor of the very immigrants that Republican lawmakers are trying to push out of the country.
“We want to make sure that people understand that this city would stop functioning if we weren’t there to build, or cook, or clean,” Ligia Guallpa, an organizer with the Worker’s Justice Project in Brooklyn, told Labor Notes at the time of the strike.
In a blog post titled “Under the Volcano,” legendary celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain also eloquently summed up these uncomfortable truths about the United States and its chaotic, cruel immigration policy as it pertains to people coming from south of the border: “Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children.”
“As any chef will tell you,” Bourdain continued, “our entire service economy — the restaurant business as we know it — in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are ‘stealing American jobs.’ But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position — or even a job as prep cook.”
Despite his erroneous use of the word “American,” Bourdain nailed the crux of the issue to the shed: The United States, despite all the strategic nativist political demagoguery from its politicians, is economically dependent on the massive pool of low-paid, often undocumented laborers who come north every day seeking work.
That dependence is why achieving a coherent, just immigration policy is a practical impossibility today: So long as this nation keeps lying to itself about the basic nature of its national economy, no solution will be found. The problem, in short, is all business, capitalism in the raw, humans treated as disposable to keep prices low and profits high.
Take, for Bourdain’s example, the restaurant/service industry. Last year, the Pew Research Center estimated that some 11 percent of workers in restaurants and bars, some 1.3 million people, are undocumented. According to Pew, 19 percent of the nation’s dishwashers and 17 percent of its bussers are undocumented.
Those figures are spread out across the whole country; the numbers in large metropolitan areas are far higher. “In major cities,” labor activist Saru Jayaraman told The Washington Post, “you’re talking about a restaurant workforce that is maybe 75 percent foreign-born, and maybe 30 to 40 percent undocumented. The restaurant industry in major cities would absolutely collapse without immigrants.”
A similar situation is seen in the US agriculture industry, which is heavily reliant on both documented and undocumented workers. A comprehensive study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform determined:
Over the past several decades, the farming sector has grown increasingly dependent on a steady supply of workers who have entered the country illegally, despite the unlimited availability of visas for foreign agricultural guest workers.
The agribusiness sector has consistently opposed an immigration policy that would result in a legal workforce. Their position is that current hiring practices are crucial for the survival of the industry, as Americans are not willing to do agricultural work and increasing wages to attract native-born workers would result in significantly higher food prices or a decline in American food production.
If unauthorized workers were replaced by authorized workers at the higher average wage rate authorized workers currently earn, farms in the fruits, nuts, and vegetable sector would experience a total labor cost increase of 10 percent, and the increase for the field crops and grains sector would be 6 percent.
The issue is not just with undocumented workers. Big Ag, along with the landscaping, seafood and meat processing industries, rely heavily on workers who have been granted temporary (H-1B and H-2B) visas to find seasonal employment. Thanks to the chaotic approach to immigration reform taken by Trump and his Republican allies in Congress, compounded by a long history of failure across the political spectrum, finding enough legal temporary workers has become an entirely unreliable process, which only serves to increase dependency on undocumented labor.
That chaos, and the staggering hypocrisy of anti-immigrant politicians and advocates, was on full display last week, as an attempt by House Speaker Paul Ryan to pass immigration reform legislation exploded into fully unsurprising disarray.
One bill, a cruel piece of work sponsored by Virginia Rep. Robert Goodlatte, would have sharply curtailed legal immigration and vastly expanded border enforcement. The bill was defeated by a vote of 193 to 231, with 41 Republicans and all 190 House Democrats voting in opposition. A second bill, slightly more moderate but still fully draconian, was pushed to next week after an uprising by the far-right House Freedom Caucus seemed to spell its doom.
At one point in the process, House Speaker Ryan and Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Mark Meadows got into a heated nose-to-nose argument over the legislation on the floor of the House chamber. According to Meadows, the second “compromise” bill lacked several provisions demanded by the Freedom Caucus. “The talking points,” said Meadows after his tangle with Ryan, “do not match the legislative text.” After a Thursday filled with fuss and feathers, a vote on the second bill was postponed.
What promised to be a weekend of difficult vote-corralling for Speaker Ryan and House leadership got much harder on Friday morning, when Trump tweeted that Republicans should “stop wasting time on immigration” until after the midterm elections. The Washington Post, in a moment of extraordinary journalistic understatement, reported that Trump’s tweet made Ryan’s task “significantly more difficult heading into the weekend,” though GOP leadership pledged to continue trying.
All of this, of course, comes within the context of the humanitarian catastrophe of migrant family separation still unfolding at the US/Mexico border. Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants led to images of frantic children being broadcast to the nation and the world. In the face of a massive groundswell of public disgust and outrage, Trump was forced, to a very small degree, to back down on his policy of separating children from their families. For the time being, those families will be indefinitely detained together.
In point of fact, many of the people arriving at the southern border did not come to find work in the fields or filling the ice bins behind the bar. The staggering, unrelenting poverty and violence that is tearing through countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala has forced families with children to flee for their lives. They are not “taking American jobs.” They are trying not to die, and find themselves ensnared in a long game of profits, prices and politics.
Immigrants have always been an easy target for opportunistic politicians seeking to wring votes out of the economic fears and racist resentments shared by a segment of the population. It works; Donald “Mexicans are rapists” Trump would not be president today had he not mined that deep deposit for all it was worth.
There is far more to this ongoing mess than politically expedient racism. This is a problem created and exploited by the fundamental cruelty of capitalism. To keep profits high and prices low, major US industries like agriculture do not want undocumented workers to have a path to citizenship, as that would require paying them a living wage and even providing benefits like health insurance. That, you see, would be expensive. Simultaneously, they do not want to see the flow of undocumented workers into the country stopped, as such an act would deprive them of the huge pool of cheap labor they have come to depend on.
Essentially, the industries making money on the backs of undocumented workers don’t want a solution to the problem, making an already complicated situation almost completely intractable. Adding to the mayhem are politicians who rail against immigrants while cashing campaign donation checks from the very entities that thrive on cheap labor.
“Illegal immigrants are some of the most exploited workers in history,” writes immigration activist Garrett S. Griffin. “Capitalists can increase their profits by taking advantage of millions of people, again whether intentionally or as a natural, inadvertent consequence. Capitalism benefits from a steady flow of illegal immigrants. It is very interesting to note that in this case the ideology of anti-immigrant conservatives does not align with the interests of capitalist power.”
That alignment is there for all to see when politicians use nativist rhetoric to win elections so they can vote in favor of the interests of capitalism and big business. It has been this way for many long years now, but the inherent contradiction appears, at long last, to be coming to a head. More than that, Trump’s abrupt surrender this week on the issue of family separation demonstrates that even the worst of the lot can be forced to act.
“Our movement,” argues immigration activist Joel Sati, “must make a fundamental shift in how we frame our experience in the struggle for substantive immigration protections: safety from deportation, citizenship for all 12 million, and a reconceptualization of political membership in such a way that the situation we face never happens again. We deserve this not because we are good, but because we are human beings.”
Before that happens, before a fair and functioning immigration policy can be established, this country must have a reckoning with itself. Cheap food, cheaper labor and the enforced nightmares of opportunistic racism must be seen for the empty vessels they are.
Until US citizens come to grips with the degree to which our comfortable lifestyle comes at a blood cost, and until the capitalist drive for profit at the expense of human life and dignity is cast aside, no solutions will be found.