Immigration and Class Struggle
October 21, 2013 4 Comments
Post by Michael Carey (occasional blogger for the site, joined May 2013). See:
Consider the following paragraphs from an article in Salon about a recent immigration proposal:
“The proposal, then, is to turn most of today’s illegal immigrants in the U.S. into a new, legally resident class of non-citizen foreign serfs. They will be allowed (i.e., compelled) to work for American employers. But they will be denied all the benefits that go to the working citizen poor. And none of them will be eligible to vote for a decade and a half, at the earliest.
Quite apart from its inhumane treatment of illegal immigrants, this proposal is a direct assault on the rights and interests of native and naturalized American citizen-workers. American citizen-workers are threatened by anything that creates a multi-tier labor market inside U.S. borders. Allowing workers with different levels of rights to compete for the same jobs in the U.S. economy permits employers to pit one category of workers against another. And when one group has fewer rights and less bargaining power, many employers will prefer to hire them rather than the workers with more rights and greater bargaining power.”
There are a few distinct strands here, but the basic idea is that we shouldn’t allow immigrants into the country under a system that affords them fewer rights than other citizens because a) it is inhumane to the immigrants and b) it hurts American workers.
Eventually, the article advocates giving “clean, swift amnesty followed by full, equal citizenship” to the undocumented immigrants that are here while hoping that “new waves of illegal immigration could be deterred in the future.”
The combination of preferring total amnesty for existing immigrants while deterring future immigrants seemed a bit contradictory at first to me. Why consider the welfare of current undocumented immigrants over next years undocumented immigrants?
The answer is that I don’t think the welfare of immigrants is really the author’s driving consideration. The author is considering immigration as one aspect of a class struggle between labor and capital:
Capitalists benefit from more unskilled immigration because it drives down wages. They prefer not to give the immigrants too many rights because this probably tends to raise reservation wages. Labor would prefer to keep out the competition, but if it can’t prevent immigration outright, they would rather have voting immigrant laborers join their side to bolster their political power.
In short, capital prefers high levels of immigration and low levels of immigrant rights while labor prefers low immigration and high immigrant rights.
Of course, not everyone fits into these categories, so I present to you my two dimensional immigration Quadrant graph:
Note that the origin of this graph does not represent zero immigration or no rights. The axes just represent “more” and “less” along two different dimensions. Also, the representative groups are not necessarily the only inhabitant of their quadrant. For example, territorialists also occupy the spot I have attributed to labor. Finally, when I use the word “rights” I don’t necessarily mean that there actually exists a set of natural rights that everyone is entitled to. You can replace this axis with “privileges,” “entitlements” or whatever suits you.
Perhaps you don’t agree with my placement of labor in the lower right corner in the first place. Before you object too much, let me concede that not all of those who identify with the labor movement would fit in this quadrant. But I think there is a pretty significant trend in this direction. See, for example, this rambling socialist essay noting that the AFL-CIO changed their position to one more in support of immigrant labor rights and sponsored a series of demonstrations in support of immigrant rights. They go on to urge “immediate and unconditional amnesty for all undocumented workers” and even “a living wage of $12.50 and free universal health care.” At the same time they concede that a demand for open borders would be an “obstacle to dialogue between socialists and native born workers.” To help the poor in other countries they support “assisting in the economic and social development of poor countries.”
So, basically, they want to offer full citizenship and benefits to immigrants in order to achieve labor solidarity and prevent capital from pitting different groups of labor against each other. But since high levels of continued immigration would drive down wages we need to slow the process down. Granted, they don’t actually say we need to build a wall on the border. Maybe they actually believe that global economic aid to poor countries will suddenly start to work. But the overriding goal is labor solidarity and ultimately this requires accepting those who are already here and making sure that we don’t get too many more.
So, assuming you agree with my quadrants, there are a few things to note. First, class struggle is relevant to the immigration debate, but it is orthogonal to the Open Borders/Nativism divide. Second, open borders advocates usually don’t insist on zero volume restrictions and full rights for immigrants — they often consider keyhole solutions that involve some trading off of volumes and rights. And my sense is that most open borders advocates would restrict rights before restricting volume. I am probably in this camp personally. The fact that so many people are willing to come here illegally is evidence enough for me that the benefits (for immigrants) of increased immigration are enough to justify sacrificing some political privileges.
So it seems my preferred immigration policy would probably be beneficial for capital and detrimental to labor. Since I don’t really have a dog in that fight, maybe I should think more about ways of implementing immigration reform that explicitly favor labor, such as using immigrant fees to help support a guaranteed minimum income.
Or should I simply advocate the immigration policy I think is right and ignore the impact it might have on class struggle?