Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Michael D. Yates: A Nation of Immigrants

A Nation of Immigrants: The Drone of the Hatemongers

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, from Miami Beach and Amherst to Estes Park and Tucson. 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 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.

Third, there has always been anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, and it has always been based upon false generalizations. None of the things mentioned at the beginning of this post are true. Immigrants pay their own way and then some. Undocumented workers, for example, contribute billions of dollars to our social security trust funds but will never receive a dime of benefits. If an immigrant happens to use my social security number, money will be deposited in my account. I will benefit not the immigrant. If an immigrant picks a number no one has, the monies put in this account will eventually go into the general social security fund. So undocumented immigrants are subsidizing all of our retirements, including Lou Dobbs.. Immigrants pay sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes. They do work that is valuable to the society, work that it is unlikely native-born men and women would do. What often happens is that immigrants fill job slots that native-born workers have abandoned as they have moved into better employment. As a Boston Globe columnist put it with respect to those here without documents:

They perform jobs that are inseparable from our standard of living. Undocumented workers are about 5 percent of our overall labor force but— according to the Pew Hispanic Center's analysis of Census data—are between 22 and 36 percent of America's insulation workers, miscellaneous agricultural workers, meat-processing workers, construction workers, dishwashers, and maids. The American Farm Bureau, the lobbying group for agricultural interests, says that without guest workers, the United States would lose $5 billion to $9 billion a year in fruit, vegetable, and flower production and up to 20 percent of production would go overseas.

Mexican immigrants, many undocumented, do most of the drywalling in southern California. They are independent truck drivers at the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach. They toil in the basements of Korean-American-owned greengroceries in New York City. They are the major part of the manufacturing workforce in Los Angeles. They do the arduous garment work in sweatshops and homes that their Eastern European counterparts did one hundred years ago in the Lower East side of Manhattan. They take care of the children of the well-to-do. They manicure lawns, work in nurseries, break their backs in Midwestern meatpacking and Southern chicken and hog processing plants. They clean our motel and hotel rooms. Indian and Pakistani immigrants drive cabs and the limousines that take corporate executives to and from work in our large cities. Along with Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai immigrants, they slave away in restaurant kitchens. So do Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, and Hondurans. West Africans labor as grocery delivery men and sell items of all kinds from sidewalk carts. Immigrants do the hard work of the United States, the work the native-born are no longer willing—and with good reason—to do.

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