A Democratic Diva’s Dilemma over immigration

21 Jun 2008 05:10 pm
Posted by: Donna

I had a long drive in the Valley this afternoon so I was able to listen to most of Desert Politics on KPHX 1480.    Todd Landfried is the host.  Immigration is Todd’s pet project so he made that the topic today, as he does quite often lately.  I’m okay with that, because everyone should have a pet project, and Todd is a sharp guy who does his homework and he offers a much-needed alternate view to the ubiquitous chatter from the Joe Arpaio Appreciation Society and He-Man Brown People Haters Club that pollutes the Phoenician airwaves 24-7.  

That said, there’s something about the way Todd approaches the issue that seems at odds with what I’ve come to believe are fundamental, and non-negotiable, progressive values.  He seems to have unquestioningly accepted certain premises that come straight out of the corporate cheap labor lobby.   He’s definitely not alone in it.   The gentleman he was interviewing, an academic from Princeton who heads a study group on immigration seems to have drunk the same koolaid as well.  

They were doing fine when they were debunking myths about undocumented immigrants committing crimes and bringing diseases and all that other silly stuff that the xenophobes fixate on obsessively.   Also, I’m in agreement with amnesty (yeah, I said it) for people who have been here for years,  particularly those who were brought here as children.   If someone has a problem with that, then we are at an impasse and will have to agree to disagree.

Where they lost me is when they essentially justified the continuation of an underclass of cheap, exploitable slave labor.   Using the stock phrases like “jobs Americans won’t do”, “labor shortage”, “not taking jobs from Americans”,  “it’s just work that needs to be done”, Todd and the good Dr. from Princeton (perhaps unwittingly) advanced the cause of the rich people who would be delighted to turn the entire globe into their personal sweatshop.   Concerns over entire factories being staffed by migrants were brushed away by Todd and his guest with the insistence that Americans were getting jobs supervising and managing those workforces.   I’m not sure how that works out since those jobs only go to a handful of people.   (In a previous show, Todd made the same claim about construction crews, which used to employ native-born workers at good wages in mostly unionized jobs, but are now mostly low-wage, low-skill migrant workers.)   I was waiting for the claim that American workers are being so busy retrained for better jobs or getting college degrees (demonstrably false, as higher education is rapidly becoming less affordable and accessible) that they wouldn’t be wanting those jobs anyway. 

Yeah, they probably wouldn’t.  Especially since many of the jobs that undocumented workers are doing are so poorly paid, unsafe, and wretched that no one in their right mind would want to do them.   Unless, of course, they were poor and desperate and had their economy decimated by trade policies.  Policies designed by and for the cheap labor lobby. 

What really got to me, as Todd and the researcher matter-of-factly and in modulated tones, discussed the need for comprehensive immigration reform, complete with a guest-worker program to legalize and codify quasi-slavery, was their blithe indifference to what it really was they were talking about.  The researcher guy described how difficult it was for large meatpacking plants to retain employees and how most of these facilities have a 100% annual turnover rate, despite paying higher than minimum wage. 

Now, the first thing that popped into my mind was what kind of an unmitigated hellhole must a workplace BE to lose 100% of it’s workers every year?!  

This was not a question that Todd or his guest seemed inclined to pose (the “repetitive” nature of the work was mentioned), as the researcher went on to explain how this miserable industry would need to continue to have quasi-slaves fed to it in the US or else they’d *gasp!* move their operations offshore.

The same is true for agriculture, apparently, with researcher guy reporting that some farms are moving south of the border because of anti-immigration sentiment to the more exploitation-friendly fields of Mexico.  But actually, there’s still exploitation aplenty on our fruited plains.  Farming has long been a mainstay of migrant workers here in the US, but the percentage of undocumented immigrants doing unskilled work has exploded over the past 2 decades.  In 1989, 7% of farm workers were illegal immigrants.  By 2000 the number was estimated to be over 50%.  What happened?   Farming has always been tough work, but work and living conditions for the people who toil to bring us our produce have become unspeakably bad in the past 2 decades, according to numerous immigrant and labor advocacy groups.   They’re “jobs Americans won’t do” because the people that hire for them have made damn sure of it. 

So why aren’t people like Todd, the gentleman from Princeton, and other progressives screaming about this?   Why are we ceding the moral high ground on the rights and dignity of workers to the Russell Pearces and Joe Arpaios?   Because that’s what we’re doing when we dismiss the Americans at the bottom of the pay scale, who have seen their wages stagnate, and who are competing with illegal immigrants for jobs whether Todd wants to believe it or not.   When you have reports of hotels in California replacing African-American workers for Hispanic immigrants (while unemployment for African-American males is double that of any other group), it’s time to acknowledge that something is awry, without the accusation that you must be about to join the Minutemen.  

It’s also what we do when we spout corporate talking points about the “need” for exploitable slave labor, rather than denouncing the fact that it exists, anywhere.   There is simply no excuse for slave wages, unsafe working conditions, extortion, child labor, union-busting, and people going without adequate housing, sanitation, and health care.   I don’t care if the workers are in Mexico, Guatemala, China, Indonesia, or Chandler, Arizona.    It is not okay.   Not.  Okay.    And if you think for one minute that any “comprehensive immigration policy” courtesy of Big Business is going to change those working conditions, as they exist here in the US, in any significant way I’ve got serious news for you. 

Obviously, the answer lies in dramatically transforming the global economic system so I don’t pretend to offer any solutions as to how we’re going to do that.  But I think we, as progressives, need to remember just who it is we fight for and what principles we hold.   A truly progressive immigration policy is the one that places the interests of workers first and the corporatocracy second.    


  1. Comment by Stentor on June 21, 2008 9:17 pm

    Right on.

  2. Comment by Judy on July 3, 2008 4:11 pm

    Good points, Donna. I’m wondering how America reached the point where we will apparently look the other way toward the glitzy malls and movies while our hired personnel murder, torture and displace anyone who can’t fight with the same weapons we provide our armies, police, and corporations. How much longer will we be the organized criminals of the world spending like there is no tomorrow?

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