THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF MIGRATION By David Bacon
In December 2005, Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner convinced his Republican colleagues (and to their shame, 35 Democrats) to pass one of the most repressive immigration proposals of the last hundred years. His bill, HR 4437, would have made federal felons of all 12 million undocumented immigrants in the
, criminalized teachers, nurses, or priests who helped them, and built a 700-mile wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep people from crossing. U.S.
Other voices in Congress criticized the representative, arguing that the labor of migrants was needed in the
economy. Not even Sensenbrenner could deny this. Some 22 million immigrants live in the U.S. with documents, and 12 million without them. If they actually did go home, whole industries would collapse. Some of the country’s largest corporations, completely dependent on the work of immigrants, would go bankrupt. U.S.
Latin America, the neoliberal system displaces workers, from miners to coffee pickers, who join a huge flood moving north. When they arrive in the , displaced workers become an indispensable part of the workforce, whether they are undocumented or laboring under work visas, in conditions of virtual servitude. U.S.
immigration debate needs a vocabulary that describes what happens to them before they cross borders – the factors that force them into motion. In this political debate, people like the miners or pine tree planters are called job seekers, rather than political or economic refugees. It would be more accurate to call them migrants, and the process migration. U.S.
Are those fleeing poverty and persecution job seekers or refugees? They’re both, of course. But in the
and other wealthy countries, economic rights are not considered human rights. In this official view, hunger doesn’t create political refugees. In effect, the whole process that pushes people north is outside the parameters of political debate. U.S.
The economic reforms that followed the end of the Cold War, imposed by rich countries and institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, destroyed the systems of national development that protected the economies of developing countries. It was a very brutal and chaotic process for those at the bottom of the income scale, but for those at the top, immensely profitable.
Mexico created more billionaires during the 1990s than the , while at the same time the government documented an official poverty rate of 40%, and an extreme poverty rate of 25%. United States
NAFTA rules required the Mexican government to dissolve the Conasupo stores. This government enterprise bought corn from small farmers at subsidized prices to enable them to keep farming and stay on the land. Then the stores sold tortillas made from the corn, along with milk and other farm products, to poor urban consumers at subsidized prices. NAFTA rules called this form of social welfare a barrier to the free market.
Without price supports or rural credit, hundreds of thousands of small farmers found it impossible to sell corn or other farm products, even for what it cost to produce them. When NAFTA pulled down customs barriers, large subsidized
corporations dumped agricultural products on the Mexican market at low prices. Rural families went hungry when they couldn’t find buyers for their crops. U.S.
Economic reforms eliminated laws that had prohibited direct
U.S. ownership of factories in Mexico, allowing investors to build plants that take advantage of lower Mexican wages, and produce goods for the market. Over 40 years this model grew to include more than 3000 factories, employing two million people. Cities like U.S. Tijuana, Mexicali, Juarez and mushroomed. Matamoros
The maquiladora workforce was drawn from the south, from migrants displaced by the same economic changes that produced immigration to the
privatization, rural poverty, job elimination – that permitted construction of the maquiladoras themselves. A new labor regime was put in place to attract foreign investment, including the brutal repression of independent unions. U.S.–
Attention has focused on the construction of the factories and industrial parks on the border, while the dislocation that produced the workforce has been much more hidden. Yet maquiladora workers often later become migrants traveling far beyond the nearest export processing zone. When the maquiladoras are located a stone’s throw from the border, crossing it is almost inevitable.
Employers gain great advantages from this system, particularly lower labor costs and increased workforce flexibility. Large meatpacking companies in the U.S. Midwest, for instance, hire a workforce in which immigrants make up a majority. A steady stream of migrants crosses the border, finds its way to small meatpacking towns, and gets jobs.
Over the last 20 years, the industry’s wages have steadily fallen behind the manufacturing average, a major accomplishment, from the companies’ point of view. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1980 slaughtering plant wages were 1.16 times the manufacturing average. After twenty-five years, they are now .76 times that average. US manufacturing wages have fallen behind inflation. But meatpacking wages have fallen faster.
Guest worker and employment-based visa programs were created to acommodate the labor needs of employers. When demand is high, employers recruit workers. When demand falls, those workers not only have to leave their jobs, but the country entirely.
It’s no wonder that native born workers and settled immigrant communities look at the growth of this employment system with alarm. This system fosters competition among workers for jobs, and uses it to expand the section of the workforce with lower wages and fewer rights. It’s not hard for people to see the system’s impact on their own lives, even if they can’t always identify its cause.
One of the biggest mistakes made by immigrant advocates in the last decade was arguing that immigrants have no impact, or only a positive impact, on the wages or jobs of people in the communities around them, or that immigrants are just taking the “abandoned” jobs others won’t do. This denies a reality workers can easily see for themselves. More important, advocates thus stop making clear the real causes of migration—unemployment, low wages, and job competition—and no longer point to the system and corporations responsible.
In 2005 the Center for Labor Market Studies at
found that between 2000 and 2004, jobs held by immigrants rose by two million. At the same time, the number of employed native-born workers fell by 958,000, and of longtime resident immigrants by 352,000. According to the report's authors, "the net growth in the nation's employed population between 2000 and 2004 takes place among new immigrants, while the number of native-born and established immigrant workers combined declines by more than 1.3 million." Northeastern University
Black unemployment nationally has grown at a catastrophic rate – from 10.8% to 11.8% in May of 2005 alone. Nearly half (172,000) of the 360,000 people who lost their jobs in June 2005, were African American, although they were just 11% of the workforce. In
, only 51.8% of Black men between the ages of 16 and 65 had jobs in 2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For Latinos it was 65.7%, and for whites 75.7%. New York City
Yet very little of the rise in African American unemployment is a result of direct displacement by immigrants. It’s caused overwhelmingly by the decline in manufacturing and cuts in public employment. In the 2001 recession 300,000 of 2,000,000 Black factory workers lost their jobs to relocation and layoffs.
Spurred by changes in the
labor market, unions began to see inclusion as the key to their survival. Labor support for immigrant rights was not a moral issue, but a pragmatic one. Immigrants today are the backbone of organizing drives from the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in U.S. North Carolina to janitors and Cintas industrial laundry workers. The unions that are growing are mostly those that understand the willingness of many immigrants to fight and join. As a result, immigrants have gained a growing base in union leadership, and now speak out on political questions from the war in Houston to immigration and labor law reform. Iraq
Some unions have tried to link these issues together in bargaining. In
hotels, UNITE HERE Local 2 already has strong contract language protecting the rights of its immigrant members. In the 2006 negotiations, it added new language requiring hotels to set up a diversity committee to increase the percentage of African American workers. This could become a step toward an affirmative action program requiring hiring that reflects the diversity of San Francisco ’s overall workforce, benefiting immigrants and non-immigrants alike. San Francisco
Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee proposed a bill that was a similar effort to find common ground. It would have given legal status to undocumented people in the U.S., set up jobs programs in communities with high levels of unemployment, and protected the rights of all workers, immigrant and native-born.
Inequality is the most important product of
immigration policy, and a conscious one. U.S. ’s various reform proposals have assumed that immigrants should not be the equals of the people around them, or have the same rights. This assumption denies the reality that the migration of people is as much a product of the global economy as the migration of capital. Washington
An immigration policy that denies community inevitably produces rootless people, vulnerable to exploitation. It undermines workplace and community rights, affecting non-immigrants as well. It inhibits the development of families and culture.
The alternative is a policy that recognizes and values communities, and sees their creation and support as desirable. It reinforces indigenous culture and language, protects the rights of everyone, and seeks to integrate immigrants into the broader society. Modern migration is a “problem” because so much of it is caused by forcible dislocation. Changing corporate trade policy and stopping the neoliberal agenda is as central to immigration reform as gaining legal status for the undocumented.
Today working people of all countries are asked to accept continuing globalization, in which capital is free to go wherever it can earn the highest profits. By that same token migrants must have the same freedom, with rights and status equal to those of anyone else. People in
Mexico, Guatemala, China, the and every other country need the same things. Secure jobs at a living wage. Rights in our workplaces and communities. The freedom to travel and seek a future for our families. The borders between our countries should be common ground to unite us, not lines to divide us. U.S.
David Bacon is the author of a book by titled ILLEGAL – How Globalization Produces Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants Beacon Press