The left splits over immigration

Most liberals have celebrated the recent pro-immigration marches. But some leading progressives say illegal immigration hurts American workers.

Published April 20, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Britt Minshall is a United Church of Christ pastor and a proud member of the religious left. A former civil rights Freedom Rider, he heads an interracial Baltimore congregation of 200, which has ministries that care for recovering addicts and for prostitutes. He also works in Haiti, and has written a self-published novel "to expose the pernicious effects of American foreign policy" on the people of that country. He calls the current administration "evil, wrong, treasonous ... a pack of monsters." And yet as he watched hundreds of thousands of immigrants march through the streets of America's biggest cities in the past few weeks, he found himself agreeing with some of the most right-wing Republicans. Most liberals are "dead wrong" on immigration, he says, arguing that social justice demands a crackdown on the undocumented. "I'm afraid the Minutemen have a point here," he says.

Most liberals have celebrated the recent pro-immigration marches, seeing in them a new kind of civil rights movement. They've supported calls to legalize many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. Many have delighted in the fissures opening up on the right, where nativists are pitted against laissez-faire business interests hungry for cheap labor. Yet there are fault lines on the left as well, with a small but notable number of progressive commentators warning that by championing rights for illegal immigrants and expanded legal immigration, liberals are working against the interests of low-skilled American workers. "I'm instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote last month. "But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration ... [W]hile immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration -- especially immigration from Mexico."

Minshall says he sees the pain every day. Baltimore, he says, is full of young, black men who are "unemployable because they won't work for $4.50 an hour." The influx of immigrants, he says, "is tilting everyone's wages down, except for the upper class." He says that one member of his church, the owner of a roofing business, recently fired his entire crew and replaced them with immigrant contractors. The man felt "pushed up against a wall," Minshall says, because he couldn't compete without using illegal labor. "The customer will always buy the $2,000 roof and not the $2,500 one," Minshall says, adding, "We've gotten so addicted to cheap goods."

As people like Minshall illustrate, the liberal debate over immigration isn't simply one between the left and the center. It cuts across ideologies. There are conservative Democrats, civil rights activists and leftist multiculturalists calling for legalizing undocumented immigrant workers, while figures including antiwar Air America radio host Thom Hartmann, writer Michael Lind and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., are urging much tougher restrictions. The central question is whether the interests of working-class Americans and those of immigrants, legal and illegal, are necessarily in opposition, and if they are, how progressives -- and the lawmakers they support -- should deal with it. What does it mean if the inspiring words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty -- "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me" -- can't be reconciled with the needs of this country's workers?

There are two bills at the center of the debate, though it goes far beyond them. The recent pro-immigration protests were galvanized by a stringent measure recently passed by the House that would criminalize illegal immigrants and those who help them. Many of those at the demonstrations supported a competing Senate bill put forward by Ted Kennedy and John McCain. That bill would create 400,000 temporary visas for low-skilled foreign workers, and would allow illegal immigrants who have been in the country for over five years to gain legal residency and start a path to citizenship after paying fines and undergoing background checks. A Senate compromise on the bill collapsed last week after Republicans failed to toughen it enough to make it palatable to some reluctant conservatives, and it's not clear whether any immigration reform legislation is going to pass. But the debate is almost certain to keep boiling, with another big day of nationwide pro-immigrant protests planned for May 1.

So far, the immigration protests have drawn support from both civil rights leaders and labor leaders. Some liberals, though, are urging progressives not to align themselves with a movement that could ultimately hurt Americans workers. Plans for a guest worker program are especially contentious because opponents argue that it would create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised labor.

In a March 29 column posted on the progressive Web site Common Dreams, Thom Hartmann described the fight between supporters of the Senate and House bills as one between "corporatist Republicans ('amnesty!')" and "racist Republicans ('fence!')." "Working Americans have always known this simple equation: More workers, lower wages. Fewer workers, higher wages," he wrote. "If illegal immigrants could no longer work, unions would flourish, the minimum wage would rise, and oligarchic nations to our south would have to confront and fix their corrupt ways. Between the Reagan years -- when there were only around 1 to 2 million illegal aliens in our workforce -- and today, we've gone from about 25 percent of our private workforce being unionized to around seven percent. Much of this is the direct result -- as Caesar [sic] Chávez predicted -- of illegal immigrants competing directly with unionized and legal labor. Although it's most obvious in the construction trades over the past 30 years, it's hit all sectors of our economy."

As Hartmann notes, Cesar Chávez, the legendary founder of the United Farmworkers Union, was at one point so opposed to illegal immigration that he was known to call the INS on the undocumented. "What he was trying to do was to stop growers from using immigrants to break the strikes," says Nestor Rodriguez, co-director of the Center for Immigration Research at the University of Houston.

There are, of course, many factors besides immigration leading to the long decline of labor unions. Globalization, the deindustrialization of the American economy and the antilabor policies of the GOP, at both the state and national level, have all played profound roles. But there is data to back up the claim that immigration drives down working-class wages. In a 2004 study, Harvard economist George J. Borjas wrote that by "increasing the supply of labor between 1980 and 2000, immigration reduced the average annual earnings of native-born men by an estimated $1,700 or roughly 4 percent." High school dropouts were more severely affected -- their wages were reduced 7.4 percent, Borjas found. "The reduction in earnings occurs regardless of whether the immigrants are legal or illegal, permanent or temporary," he wrote. "It is the presence of additional workers that reduces wages, not their legal status."

"What immigration really does is redistribute wealth away from workers toward employers," Borjas told the Washington Post last month.

Borjas' conclusions are not universally accepted; UC-Berkeley economist David Card challenged them in a 2005 paper titled "Is the New Immigration Really So Bad?" He declared that the wage gap between American dropouts and high school graduates has remained nearly constant since 1980, despite the rise of immigrants in the workplace. "Overall, evidence that immigrants have harmed the opportunities of less educated natives is scant," he wrote. A recent analysis in the New York Times, "Cost of Illegal Immigration May Be Less Than Meets the Eye," pointed out that the wages of high school dropouts in California, who face a lot of competition from illegal immigrants, fell 17 percent between 1980 and 2004. But the wages of high school dropouts in Ohio, where there are very few illegal immigrants, fell 31 percent during the same period.

Nor is it at all clear that illegal immigration is to blame for high African-American unemployment, as pastor Minshall supposes. "No academic has really been able to make the direct correlation," says Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Clinton and a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. African-American unemployment, she says, "obviously has something to do with a broader set of sociological and racism issues. It leads people to say if you didn't have the immigrants here, legal or illegal, then those high unemployment rates among African-American males would come down. But that's not been the case."

Still, there is a general consensus among most experts that immigration has at least some negative effect on the wages of low-skilled American workers. "Nobody's been able to really pin it down with hard data, except to the extent that there probably is a slight depressing of wages," Meissner says. "We know from economic theory overall that if you have an unending supply of labor, you're going to make it more difficult for the workers at the bottom to compete effectively."

Conservatives, eager to deflect attention from their own schisms, are glorying in the dilemma that immigration economics seem to create for liberals. Writing in the National Review, Rich Lowry evinced a newfound reverence for the noble legacies of Chávez and "great labor leader" Samuel Gompers, both of whom supported restrictions on immigration. "Democrats opposed the ratification of the Central America Free Trade Agreement last year for fear that it would undercut American workers made to compete with cheap Latin American labor," he wrote. "The problem the Democrats must have had with this effect on American workers was that it was too indirect. The party now favors importing lots of that same cheap Latin American labor directly into the United States."

Why, then, did so many union officials support the April 10 marches? Both the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO were involved in organizing the demonstrations, and labor leaders spoke at several rallies. "This is a moment of historic decision for the United States of America," AFL-CIO president John Sweeney told the crowd in Washington. "Do we reaffirm our welcome to families fleeing poverty and oppression, who come here seeking a job, a home, a chance at a better life? Do we create a path to citizenship to all who have earned it with their hard work, to all who love and respect America? Or do we reject our heritage and put up signs that say, 'The American Dream belongs only to the few?'"

Lowry sees the union support as a cynical attempt to recruit immigrants in order to make up for unions' failure to organize American workers. But for some progressive analysts, there's a more optimistic explanation, one rooted in the old ideal of solidarity.

One way for liberals to transcend the ideological impasse over immigration is to take on the larger problem of the upward distribution of wealth in America. As things stand now, American high school dropouts and illegal immigrants are essentially fighting over scraps at the bottom of the American pay barrel. But by cooperating in a reinvigorated labor movement, some progressives say, both Americans and immigrants can elevate the pay scale and receive a decent wage.

Nathan Newman, policy director at the Progressive Legislative Action Network, points out that right now, the poorest fifth of Americans earn a mere 3.5 percent of the national income. Rather than accepting the status quo and then fighting over their small shares, Newman argues, American and immigrant workers need to join together. Turning that 3.5 percent into 7 percent, he says, would have a far more salutary effect on wages than any crackdown on immigrants.

"The reason most workers, civil rights leaders, et cetera, are supporting the idea of immigrant rights is that they know the best way to keep [labor policies] the same is to allow conservatives and others to pit different groups of workers against each other," Newman says. As he sees it, support for the immigration movement isn't a betrayal of America's working class; rather, it's the key to a class-based political realignment. The movement that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets this month has "the makings of new political alliances that are far more stable and far more likely to create broader social change," he says. "Which is again why you see many black civil rights leaders supporting these marches. This is the alliance they want. They think it's an alliance that can deal with these much broader issues."

The broader issues are about economic justice in a country where the gulf between rich and poor seems to widen by the day. "If people are worried about wage standards in the U.S., let's deal with that," Newman says. "Let's really deal with the issue of what's happening with the enforcement of our labor laws, with the complete collapse of the minimum-wage rate. Those are far more significant issues for most workers than the ones everyone is wringing their hands over."

Some union leaders argue that legalizing undocumented immigrants -- and thus giving them the same rights as other workers -- will stop employers from using them to undermine organizing drives. "It is bad for American workers to have any worker in this country without any rights and subject to exploitation," says Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the SEIU, the country's fastest-growing union. "Immigrants are going to continue coming. The question all of us should ask ourselves is under what condition should they come. Most people would say better they come with full rights and protection so they're not exploited and used by employers against American workers."

Immigrant workers, after all, aren't just working in the underground economy -- many of them are on the books, working in industries that unions hope to organize. "In about 50 to 60 percent of the employment circumstances, employers are actually reporting those workers and paying into the Social Security system," Meissner says. "A very large share of these workers are either using somebody else's Social Security number, or they're using fake Social Security numbers." Some even use 000-00-0000, which, she says, the system accepts. Despite the perception of illegal immigrants as an absolute drain on public resources, Meissner points out that hundreds of billions of dollars have been paid into Social Security from untraceable accounts, indirectly supporting American workers.

Agriculture used to be the main industry employing illegal immigrants, but that's no longer the case. Now, Meissner says, the dominant fields in which they work are construction, landscaping, healthcare, elderly care, hospitality and restaurants. Because there are so many illegal immigrants in the service economy, union leaders say that securing their rights is key to organizing that growing sector. These are not, by and large, jobs that can be outsourced, so if employers are forced to stop underpaying service workers living in America, they'll have to raise wages.

Currently, somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of SEIU's 1.8 million members are immigrants, Medina says. He doesn't know how many are illegal, but says, "I think it's fair to assume there are a lot of undocumented workers among that number." Yet organizing undocumented immigrants presents specific challenges. Right now, illegal immigrants serve as a kind of safety valve for employers who want to thwart union drives. Legally, employers can't fire workers for trying to start a union -- unless they're undocumented. In the 2002 decision Hoffman Plastic Compounds Inc. v. NLRB, the Supreme Court ruled that the National Labor Relations Board could not order back pay to an illegal immigrant who was let go for trying to organize his workplace, reasoning that the wages would have been illegally earned in the first place.

Thus threats to crack down on undocumented workers can dissuade organizers. "We see it every day," says Medina. Sometimes it's blatant -- an employer will threaten to call the INS. "Other times, all of a sudden they'll start questioning their [employees'] papers, their Social Security numbers and all of that. The message is pretty clear. This all of a sudden begins to happen during an organizing drive."

If immigrants had access to work permits and a path to citizenship, Medina says, it would be harder to exploit them, and working conditions could be improved across the board. "Immigrants understand if they want to improve their lives, the labor movement is their best bet," he says. "And if the labor movement wants to improve the lives of American workers, immigrants are the best bet for accomplishing that." This is a vision that most progressive thinkers can embrace. Whether American workers will do so is another question entirely.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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