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Truthout Contributor David Bacon on His New Book, “Illegal People“

Writer and photographer David Bacon has released the new book

David Bacon: There’s certainly that exclusionary aspect to it. Immigrants coming from Mexico, Latin America, Asia and Africa have always been treated differently from those from Europe. Think about the difference between the experience of Europeans coming through Ellis Island into New York, which was relatively free (and without visas, incidentally), and, at the same time, the incarceration of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco Bay, as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

But I try to point out in the book that behind this difference is a system that is basically driven by the need to supply labor, and that this system, which both produces workers by displacing people in Mexico, for instance, and then uses their labor in agriculture, meatpacking and other industries, is a single system. And what drives it is money.

Mark Karlin: In your book and your articles for Truthout, you tie the migration of Mexicans and Central Americans to the United States to the globalization of the economy. How has a trade agreement such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) spurred border crossings from Mexico into the United States?

David Bacon: Much of the book describes how this system works. NAFTA allowed big US grain and meat producers, for instance, to export to Mexico and sell at a very low price, subsidized by US taxpayers. Mexican producers couldn’t sell corn or meat for a price high enough to pay the costs of growing it. Families then had to leave home, which meant selling their land (allowed once Mexico changed its land-reform laws) and migrating in search of work. Six million people came to the United States during that period, overwhelmingly because survival had become so difficult because of these changes. This is just one example. The book details many others.

Mark Karlin: In reading “Illegal People,” I was struck by how transnational corporations now have rights to cross borders in pursuit of profit, but poor people seeking jobs from Mexico and Central America don’t.

David Bacon: Well, we all know that the border doesn’t stop people from coming, nor do all the draconian ways immigration law is enforced. What they do is ensure that people come in a vulnerable status, with far fewer rights than other people have in the communities around them. They don’t prevent migration, they just criminalize it. That makes the labor of migrants cheaper, because it becomes much more difficult for them to complain about low wages and bad conditions or to organize unions. But the growing trend in the United States and other industrial countries is to manage this flow through guest worker programs, which create a similar vulnerability.

Mark Karlin: American politicians like to use the “immigration” issue to emotionally ignite voters, but isn’t it ironic that corporations export jobs to Mexico with the blessing of trade agreements, while Mexican workers often take jobs – such as in agriculture – that US citizens won’t do because of the low wages and harsh working conditions?

David Bacon: Agriculture, especially the industrialized agriculture of the American West and South, has always had a workforce of immigrants and workers of color. Growers and agribusiness corporations have used the vulnerability of those workers to impose a low-wage system that goes back all the way to slavery, in which they didn’t pay wages at all. The book talks about the evolution of illegality, from its roots in slavery through the ways unequal status was imposed on people coming from Mexico, Latin America and Asia.

But the history of slaves, and of workers in agriculture, is that they’ve always resisted those low wages and unequal status, and the book describes some of that history. People have never willingly accepted inequality or miserable conditions of life. Politicians who play the anti-immigrant card are scapegoating people for the conditions imposed on them, demonizing them with racial and national stereotypes. They try to set other working people against them, as though people getting low wages were attacking them, rather than identifying the cause of those low wages and the people responsible for paying them.

No one wants to work for low wages and in bad conditions. The answer to them has always been for people to get together with each other, organize and force a change. That’s the history of unionism in agriculture.

Mark Karlin: Some supporters of a more compassionate policy toward Latino immigrants were confused by George W. Bush supporting a “guest worker” program. Why was this really just another perpetuation of the old bracero policy?

David Bacon: The old bracero program, and the guest worker programs of today, are basically the same. Both allow employers to recruit workers in other countries, and bring them to the United States to work for low wages. But if a bracero or a guest worker loses a job because he or she organizes a strike, or files a complaint against those conditions, he or she gets deported.

People who want an immigration policy based on labor and human rights say that people coming to the United States should have visas that don’t tie the ability of a person to live here with their employment. People should have the same rights and status as others so that they can advocate for themselves and organize without fear, and lead normal lives as productive members of the communities they live in. That would be a truly compassionate policy because it would give people rights and equality.

Mark Karlin: Recently, The New York Times and other publications have focused on Apple’s use of contractors overseas who exploit workers, particularly in China. You write in your book about “Silicon Valley sweatshops.” Can you describe them?

David Bacon: The underbelly of Silicon Valley are the many contract factories that work on products for the big label manufacturers. In one factory, for instance, workers labored winding wires and coating them for transformers. The chemicals were so concentrated and harmful that they’d bleed from their noses at the end of the day.

Even in the larger factories, people are often not employed directly by the company whose products they’re working on. They work for temp agencies, without health or other benefits, in jobs that can end at a moment’s notice. Most media attention, like that around Facebook issuing stock shares, focuses on the fabulous wealth of a few. There’s no media attention to the actual working conditions of most people in Silicon Valley, especially those who work in factories producing high-tech products.

Mark Karlin: How are unemployed blacks pitted against Hispanics by corporations in the United States seeking to deny labor rights and hiring workers at the lowest possible cost?

David Bacon: This is an old game in the United States. Employers tell one group that if they don’t agree to low wages, that other workers will, whether they’re immigrants in the United States, or workers in other countries like Mexico. If a factory is in the North, employers say they’ll move it to the South. Boeing just did this, telling workers in Seattle that they were moving production of the Dreamliner to South Carolina because they went on strike too often. But then, Boeing tells those workers in South Carolina that they shouldn’t join a union because if they do, they’ll become “uncompetitive,” and the company will move the work back north. Often, this same game is played using race or nationality, as well.

But the important thing is that people are able to unite across those divisions of race, nationality or geography, and when they do, they can win the power to change their lives. The book describes a number of places where this happened – the victory of the union drive at Smithfield Foods in North Carolina, the effort to unite blacks and immigrants to win political power in Mississippi, and the way the hotel union in San Francisco and Los Angeles fought for language in its contract that both protects immigrant rights and takes down discriminatory barriers in hiring that kept black workers out of many jobs.

Mark Karlin: Alabama and Georgia, among other states, have approved rather draconian laws that affect undocumented workers. Now farmers in those states and others are complaining that their crops are withering on the vine because they can’t get enough farm laborers? What’s wrong with this picture?

David Bacon: Those laws have caused many people to leave those states in fear for what could happen to their families, so many that, in some cases, it’s affected the ability of growers to hire the workers they need. That’s hurt the economy of those states. It has created a climate of fear and hatred that makes them places people want to avoid, which hurts tourism or economic growth. So, the people getting hurt by this aren’t just the immigrants who are being attacked by right-wing politicians using hatred to stampede people into voting for them. These laws are hurting everyone affected by the decline in the economy, and people who don’t want to live in communities divided by racism and hysteria.

Mark Karlin: The passage in your book on the hypocrisy of Wisconsin Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner in regards to immigration from southern nations is shocking even to the most cynical person. Can you briefly explain how he represents corporate exploitation of migrant workers while trying to make them felons?

David Bacon: Sensenbrenner wrote one of the worst immigration bills, which would have made it a felony to be in the United States without papers. That would have turned 12 million people into criminals. Yet, at the same time, he was in business in Mexico with partners who were breaking a union of miners, driving blacklisted miners across the border as they fled the blacklist. Sensenbrenner’s family company, Kimberley Clark, then benefits from the labor of migrants who tend the trees that go into making the toilet paper the company sells.

In other words, first, his business helps to produce migrants, by a pretty brutal means; then, it uses migrant labor to make profits. And then, Sensenbrenner introduces a bill that would turn those people into criminals, not coincidentally, making them even more vulnerable, and their labor even cheaper. The hypocrisy is astounding.

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