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Like many other areas over the past years, the US has seen a rapid increase in immigrants who have come to the region seeking better lives for their families. These immigrants, like those throughout U.S. history, are generally hard workers and make important contributions to the economy through their productive labor and purchasing power.
Most immigrants usually fill essential service jobs in the economy, which are vacant. Unfortunately, like new immigrants throughout U.S. history, “they experience conditions that are commonly deprived, oppressive, and exploitive” (Conover, 2000). They are paid low wages with little potential for advancement, are subjected to hazardous working conditions, and are threatened with losing their jobs and even deportation if they voice dissatisfaction with the way they are treated. Many work several jobs to make ends meet. Many also live in substandard housing with abusive landlords, have few health cares options, and are victims of fraud and other crimes.
Immigrant problems are related to trade agreements designed to enable large corporations to capture both consumer markets and cheap labor. These agreements protect rich investors, but not the workers or the environment. In the U.S., millions of production and assembly jobs are lost when corporations move operations overseas. Poor countries have had to sell state industries and open national borders to multinational corporations in order to meet a new economic order and payment of international debts.
This process has restricted markets for home industries, driven out local producers, and forced people to immigrate. The U.S. borders can never be sealed, because millions of people are seeking ways to support their families, so will come to where jobs are available. Furthermore, American businesses want and need these workers. While the multinational corporations and their rich investors benefit from corporate welfare deals and seek out havens to avoid supporting society with their taxes, ordinary Americans have to pick up their tab.
This situation sounds familiar in American labor history, where immigrants have been a mainstay in the national workforce. It wasn't until the labor movement gained strength that workers in the U.S. were able to turn “exploitive jobs into occupations that enabled them to support their families and improve their living conditions” (Dougherty, 2004). Higher wages have also increased their purchasing power, stimulated economic growth, and higher standards of living.
Labor contracts and new laws, regulations, and policies established a more open employment system, procedures for addressing complaints, and safer working environments.
One of the most important outcomes is that workers gained a clear democratic voice in determining their own rights and conditions. The same solution is possible on a global scale. Wherever the multinational corporations go, labor unions can follow them and ensure the rights of workers who produce the world's goods.
One of the most important of the immigrant rebellions was the yearlong strike by southern California drywallers, who put up the interior walls in new homes. “In 1992 and 93, from the Mexican border north to Santa Barbara, an area of 5000 square miles, these mostly-Mexican immigrants” (Kwong, 1999) were able to stop all home construction. Workers ran their movement democratically, from the bottom up. They defied the police and the Border Patrol, blockading freeways when their car caravans were rousted as they traveled to construction sites.
In a world where workers and unions have become hamstrung following routine procedures, they had faith in the power of their numbers, in direct action, and in the common culture of their immigrant communities. In 1992, they finally forced building contractors to sign the first agreements covering their work in decades the first union contracts won by a “grassroots organizing effort in the building trades anywhere in the country since the 1930’s” (Martinez, 2002).
In this labor upsurge, workers participate on an equal basis. In unions seeking to build their strength through an alliance with this movement, organizers have to acquire a basic understanding of immigration law. Unions and community allies often distribute business cards, which advise workers of their rights if the Border Patrol stops them. In union meetings, workers ask questions about legal status, not only to get information, but also to test the union to see if it is really committed to defending undocumented as well as legal immigrants.
The defense of the rights of all immigrants, including the undocumented, has become a survival issue. Employers routinely use the threat of immigration raids to intimidate workers. Employer sanctions have provided them a legally unchallengeable way of conducting mass firings when faced with organizing activity. The normal legal remedy of reinstatement and back pay cannot be enforced for the undocumented.
Immigrant-based labor struggles have reinforced thinking in the labor movement, which sees unions as social movements, as the United Farm Workers was at its height in the 1960s and 70s. In the eyes of many active and progressive unionists, this upsurge contributes new ideas and tactics and an increased sense of militancy. It helps ground unions in local communities, and is making them more democratic. Unions involved in this movement don’t see the changing demographics in the workforce as a cultural threat, but as a source of new traditions and new strength.
Experiences in organizing and representing undocumented immigrants first convinced the two garment worker unions (since merged into the Union of Needle trades, Industrial and Textile Employees) to call for the repeal of employer sanctions in the late 1980s. The California Labor Federation later took the same position.
This year the AFL-CIO took a big step towards embracing the immigrants who have contributed to its best traditions. It called for a new amnesty for the undocumented, for repeal of employer sanctions the U.S. law making it illegal for an undocumented worker to hold a job, and for educating immigrants about their rights.
It recognizes a new world reality. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that over “80 million people live outside their countries of origin—the U.S. is home to only a small percentage” (Ngai, 2004). Growing economic inequality on a global scale, between rich and poor countries, causes this migration. When people cannot survive and feed their families at home, they will leave and seek survival elsewhere, come what may.
Economic survival has become difficult because of the structural adjustment and trade policies imposed by wealthier countries and international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. It is shortsighted, if not hypocritical, for the U.S. to promote these policies on the one hand, and then ignore their consequences on the other. The migration of people will not stop until the underlying economic causes forcing people from their homes are eliminated.
NAFTA and free trade have freed the movement of capital and goods, while the people they’ve displaced become illegal and hunted. Workers also have a right to freedom of movement. U.S. immigration policies have, however, undermined the rights and well being of people once they are here. Thousands of workers have been fired from their jobs as a result of employer sanctions. It is a tribute to the courage and anger of immigrant workers that thousands have defied those risks to successfully organize unions, choosing the same path to economic advancement generations chose before them.
Ngai, Mae M. 2004 “Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America” Publisher: Princeton University Press.
Martinez, Ruben. 2002 “Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail” Publisher: Picador.
Conover, Ted. 2000 “Coyotes: A Journey through the Secret World of America's Illegal Aliens” Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group.
Dougherty, Jon E. 2004 “Illegal: The Imminent Threat Posed by Our Unsecured U.S.-Mexico Border” Publisher: Thomas Nelson.
Kwong, Peter. 1999 “Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor” Publisher: The New Press.