In history books, we’re reminded that the United States is a
“nation of immigrants,” and that immigrants played a key role in
building the U.S. Yet right-wing politicians tell us today that immigrants are
responsible for crime, economic decline and other problems in the U.S.
This love-hate view of immigration and immigrants stems from the role that
immigration plays in the capitalist economic system under which we live.
The capitalist system is international, with products manufactured and sold
worldwide. Capitalists--the tiny minority that owns and controls the international
banks and multinational corporations--rely on a global pool of labor. To enable
the capitalists to fill their demands for labor, this labor pool has to be somewhat
The central mechanism of control over the movement of labor is the nation-state.
National border controls ensure that capitalism, through its state, maintains
control over labor, rather than allowing people to move at will.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada and
Mexico aimed to promote easy transport of goods and services across the three
countries’ borders. But NAFTA explicitly bars free immigration.
When economic growth produces a demand for workers that can’t be satisfied
by the existing workforce, a “labor shortage” results. During the
Second World War, women filled the labor shortage in military industries created
because millions of men entered the armed forces.
It is likewise with immigration. When the domestic workforce can’t fill
demands for labor that capitalists need, governments often promote immigration.
Immigration is not an accident.
Nor do rich countries accept the world’s poor out of generosity. Labor
migration is essential to the capitalist system. The purpose of immigration
policy, then, is to regulate the flow of labor--to control the borders so as
to control the workers themselves.
Immigration laws serve capitalism in two ways. First, they ensure cheap foreign
labor when the domestic economy needs it. Second, they allow for greater control
of the whole workforce.
Most of the advanced economies of the capitalist world were built on migrant
labor. They have actively sought foreign-born workers in some historical periods.
The same countries have also clamped down on immigration at other times.
The U.S. government’s previous bracero program shows clearly how immigration
policy is shaped to the needs of capital. The bracero program was initially
implemented as a wartime emergency program in 1942 to fill a labor shortage
in agriculture by importing farm workers from Mexico. The program became the
largest foreign-worker program in the history of the U.S., contracting over
5 million braceros to growers and ranchers over the next 22 years.
Yet the government maintained control over the movements of these workers,
and at any time could (and did) restrict the numbers of Mexicans crossing the
border and clamp down on Mexicans in the U.S. The passage of workers from Mexico
was crucial to the economy, but the workers themselves, at any given moment,
could be treated like unwanted criminals, refused entry or deported.
Reducing labor costs, a key aim of capitalists at all times, can be achieved
by paying lower wages. To this end, companies can either move production to
sites with cheaper labor supplies, or they can bring cheap labor supplies to
A perfect illustration of moving production to the labor supply is the maquila
zone along the U.S.-Mexico border, created after the bracero program ended.
Here, advanced country multinationals gain immigrant workers’ skills without
having to pay to develop them. The social costs of child benefits and education
have been provided by another state (in this case, Mexico).
But if the workers come across the border to work as undocumented labor in
the U.S., employers gain the same advantages.
What are the specific conditions that make immigrant labor especially attractive
to business? Immigrant workers are less likely to be unionized, and an immigrant
workforce is often more controllable. Employers use the threat of deportation
and criminalization to exploit immigrants ruthlessly and quell immigrants’
efforts to fight for their rights.
Legal immigrants waiting for confirmation of citizenship are subject to this
pressure, as well as undocumented workers. The presence of a criminalized section
of the workforce is crucial for the employers to maintain their control.
New immigrants often don’t speak English and are desperate for work.
Employers exploit this vulnerability to the fullest--paying below-average wages,
violating safety standards and workers’ rights.
Meatpacking companies in the Midwest, for example, send personnel managers
on tours of the U.S. to recruit Asian and Latino immigrants from California
and New York, according to sociologists Louise Lamphere, Alex Stepick, and Guillermo
Grenier. One company representative for Dupaco, a meatpacking firm in Nebraska,
was typically up-front about the aims of recruitment: “We need to get
us a minority group in here.”
The Dupaco executive’s statement illustrates another important benefit
employers gain from hiring immigrants: keeping the workforce divided. Employers
use every possible difference between workers--sex, race, sexual orientation,
skill and citizenship status--to sow division in the workforce. Employers know
that a divided workforce is less likely to unite to demand union representation
and higher wages and benefits.
It’s clear that when it comes to making profits, U.S. business
sees no borders.
That’s why it’s even clearer that the U.S. labor movement needs
to continue organizing among immigrants. Improving wages and conditions for
immigrants shouldn’t be seen as a way indirectly to boost “American”
wages and conditions, separate from immigrants’ conditions. On the contrary,
jobs performed by immigrants are crucial to the U.S. economy. Improving their
wages and conditions will benefit all workers, no matter what side of the Rio
Grande (or Rio Bravo) they were born.