Our two main presidential candidates (and their political tribes) have very different visions for the future of immigration in the United States. Clinton favors a path to citizenship, while the more xenophobic Trump claims he’ll build a giant wall. Both sides fail to perceive why we have a schizophrenic situation where migrant workers are simultaneously invited and unwelcome, and why most Americans are absolutely dependent upon the preservation of this status quo.
Attitudes towards migrant workers have gone through predictable waves since this country was founded. There are times when we need cheap, plentiful labor and welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free or escape conflicts, just as long as they are willing to take the crap jobs and not get all uppity and forget their place, which is definitely not in the good neighborhoods. Yet, after a while, the perception is that there are too many immigrants coming in and taking the jobs while forming standoffish enclaves, not even bothering to try to assimilate, and who are they to do that? Legislation and public opinion sway like a pendulum, based upon the current fashion: are migrant workers “in” or “out” this season?
Cheap labor provided by undocumented migrant workers is a money saver for businesses. It’s not unheard-of for American companies to advertise available jobs south of the border, in the hopes of attracting a labor force that is inexpensive and docile. They’re inexpensive because the migrants, mostly solitary males, have few expenses beyond immediate needs and sending money home to their families. They can be housed in substandard structures (like a sweltering truck trailer or shed, or packed like sardines into small apartments) with minimal comforts or sanitary facilities, fed the cheapest calories (and charged relatively handsomely for this room and board), and potentially worked like slaves, seven days a week, from before sunrise to after sunset. It’s criminal to ignore labor laws this way, but as those “second amendment people” often say, criminals don’t obey laws, and while it’s popular to blame the migrant workers, let’s not forget that the employers are criminals too. I suspect this lust for slave labor is a huge reason that we’re never going to get that giant wall.
The migrant workers are kept scared and submissive by the constant threat of discovery and deportation. You’re not going to call the cops to come investigate a thieving boss or inhuman living conditions when the police are likelier to take you away than they are to fix the broken system. If you must drive but cannot legally get a driver’s license, you’re going to be one of the best, most careful drivers on the road, with the most impeccably unbroken tail lights. You’re not going to ask for more wages or form a union when all your employer has to do to bust it up is call in the Feds. And the more that the public seethes in anger and distrust over “illegals,” the more pressure there is to deport them, and the more pliable the migrants become. This is why we won’t see an easy path to citizenship: because if the migrant workers become citizens or even have green cards, they become legitimized, “uppity.” They will start demanding rights, like a minimum wage or safe working conditions. And as anyone who fights against the Fight for Fifteen will explain to you, these requirements make people too expensive to employ.
If American-sized wages had to be paid for workers in these industries, American citizens would have a harder time affording a lot of things we take for granted. If you like paying low prices for fruits and vegetables at the supermarket so you can afford to feed your family, then you depend on keeping a steady supply of frightened, complacent migrant workers coming in. But they do more than just harvest crops. They also work in restaurant kitchens, making your food and washing the dishes. They work in the construction industry; maybe undocumented hangers of drywall made your house more affordable. They work in landscaping, hospitality, child and elder care, factories, slaughterhouses, and all the other dirty, nasty, stinky, low-wage, low-safety jobs that Americans don’t want, won’t do, can’t stand, or, importantly, can’t afford. Either building an immigrant-proof wall (as if that were possible) or legitimizing migrant workers through citizenship (and, theoretically, the ability to score better jobs) would lead to crops rotting in the field and higher prices throughout the economy, and that’s a cost that Americans seem thoroughly unwilling (or unable) to pay, no matter which clueless panderer they plan to vote for this November. Our “always the low price” economy is, in part, a gift from the migrant workers.
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