WHAT TRUMP CAN AND CAN’T DO TO IMMIGRANTS
People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
—Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” 1852
While the government officials developing and enforcing U.S. immigration policy changed on January 20, the economic system in which they make that policy will not. As fear sweeps through immigrant communities in the United States, understanding that system helps us anticipate what a Trump administration can and can’t do in regard to immigrants, and what immigrants themselves can do about it.
Over the terms of the last three presidents, the most visible and threatening aspect of immigration policy has been the drastic increase in enforcement. President Bill Clinton presented anti-immigrant bills as compromises, and presided over the first big increase in border enforcement. George W. Bush used soft rhetoric, but sent immigration agents in military-style uniforms, carrying AK-47s, into workplaces to arrest workers, while threatening to fire millions for not having papers. Under President Barack Obama, a new requirement mandated filling 34,000 beds in detention centers every night. The detention system mushroomed, and over 2 million people were deported.
Immigrant labor is more vital to many industries than it’s ever been before. Immigrants have always made up most of the country’s farm workers in the West and Southwest. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 57% of the country’s entire agricultural workforce is undocumented. But the list of other industries dependent on immigrant labor is long—meatpacking, some construction trades, building services, healthcare, restaurant and retail service, and more.
Both deportations and workplace firings face a basic obstacle—the immigrant workforce is a source of immense profit to employers. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that, of the presumed 11 million people in the country without documents, about 8 million are employed (comprising over 5% of all workers). Most earn close to the minimum wage (some far less), and are clustered in low-wage industries. In the Indigenous Farm Worker Survey, for instance, made in 2009, demographer Rick Mines found that a third of California’s 165,000 indigenous agricultural laborers (workers from communities in Mexico speaking languages that pre-date European colonization) made less than minimum wage.
The federal minimum wage is still stuck at $7.50/hour, and even California’s minimum of $10/hour only gives full-time workers an annual income of $20,000. Meanwhile, Social Security says the national average wage index for 2015 is just over $48,000. In other words, if employers were paying the undocumented workforce the average U.S. wage it would cost them well over $200 billion annually. That wage differential subsidizes whole industries like agriculture and food processing. If that workforce were withdrawn, as Trump threatens, through deportations or mass firings, employers wouldn’t be able to replace it without raising wages drastically.
As president, Donald Trump will have to ensure that the labor needs of employers are met, at a price they want to pay. The corporate appointees in his administration reveal that any populist rhetoric about going against big business was just that—rhetoric. But Hillary Clinton would have faced the same necessity. And in fact, the immigration reform proposals in Congress from both Republicans and Democrats over the past decade shared this understanding—that U.S. immigration policy must satisfy corporate labor demands.
While candidate Trump railed against NAFTA in order to get votes (as did Barack Obama), he cannot—and, given his ties to business, has no will to—change the basic relationship between the United States and Mexico and Central America, or other developing countries that are the sources of migration. Changing the relationship (with its impact on displacement and migration) is possible in a government committed to radical reform. Bernie Sanders might have done this. Other voices in Congress have advocated it. But Trump will do what the system wants him to do, and certainly will not implement a program of radical reform.
What Is to Be Done?
To defeat the Trump enforcement wave, immigrant activists in unions and communities will have to fight for deeper understanding and greater unity between immigrants and U.S.-born people. Workers in general need to see that people in Mexico got hit by NAFTA even harder than people in the U.S. Midwest—and their displacement and migration isn’t likely to end soon. In a diverse workforce, the unity needed to defend a union or simply win better conditions depends on fighting for a country and workplace where everyone has equal rights. For immigrant workers, the most basic right is simply the right to stay. Defending that right means not looking the other way when a coworker, a neighbor or a friend is threatened with firing, deportation, or worse.
The rise of a Trump enforcement wave spells the death of the liberal centrism that proposed trading increased enforcement and labor supply programs for a limited legalization of undocumented people. Under Trump, the illusion that there is some kind of “fair” enforcement of employer sanctions and “smart border enforcement” will be stripped away. Sessions will have no interest in “humane detention,” with codes of conduct for the private corporations running detention centers. The idea of guest worker programs that don’t exploit immigrants or set them against workers already in the United States will face the reality of an administration bent on giving employers what they want.
So in one way the Trump administration presents an opportunity as well—to fight for the goals immigrant rights advocates have historically proposed–to counter inequality, economic exploitation, and the denial of rights. As Sergio Sosa, director of the Heartland Workers Center in Omaha, Nebraska, puts it, “we have to go back to the social teachings our movement is based on—to the idea of justice.”
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