Anti-immigrant victim-blaming won’t help nail salon workers

Lindsay Schubiner • May 14, 2015
Photo credit: Angie Chung, Flickr (modified; link below)

In recent days, anti-immigrant leaders have weighed in on the New York Times exposé of the dangerous and exploitative working conditions immigrant women experience in nail salons across the country.

No surprise, their analysis is gravely wrong.

Leaders of the anti-immigrant movement have worked hard to present themselves—falsely—as champions of working class and middle class Americans. Their reactions to the story simply build on their well worn, yet fallacious, argument that immigrant workers take American jobs and drive down working conditions for all.

As president of NumbersUSA, the largest grassroots anti-immigrant organization in the U.S., Roy Beck surely knows his words are significant. Yet his argument has been debunked many, many times. Immigrants are not “excess labor” but people, who expand this economy by living and working here, creating more jobs overall:

As usual, the anti-immigrant movement and their right-wing friends not only obscure the facts, but hide their true motives. Some may express concern for nail salon workers, calling their stories “heart-breaking,” such as the author of the article anti-immigrant leader Mark Krikorian tweeted below. But the anti-immigrant movement was founded to maintain a white majority in this country, and though (some of) their rhetoric may have changed, their goals have not.

Anti-immigrant leaders are right about one thing, though, and that’s the fact that many workers in this country, particularly those who are undocumented, face exploitative working conditions. They’ve just got it backwards: Immigrants are not to blame for the poor working conditions created by their employers and made possible by the U.S. immigration system.

In her book Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, Aviva Chomsky writes:

Illegality is a way to enforce a dual labor market and keep some labor cheap, in a supposedly postracial era. Illegality uses lack of citizenship – that is, being born in the wrong place – to make workers more exploitable. Once naturalized, the status neatly hides the human agency that forces workers into this marginalized status.

With few better options, many undocumented immigrants are forced to work in sweatshop-like conditions. Although the nail salon industry is a particularly egregious example, similar conditions exist across many industries.

Rather than merely a result of unscrupulous employers and lax enforcement, industries that exploit undocumented immigrants can be understood in a more systemic way. Chomsky argues that sweatshops are, in fact, an intended product of U.S. immigration laws that criminalize entire classes of people, deprive them of their rights, and use them to fulfill the nation’s need for low-wage labor.

The immigration reform movement often urges Congress to fix our “broken” immigration system — but what if it’s working perfectly well? Perhaps it is working, but only to serve the interests of those who benefit from low-wage labor. It certainly is not working to uphold human rights, strengthen families and communities, or achieve racial justice.

Instead of scapegoating immigrants for our country’s economic woes, we should fight for the rights of all workers — and all people.

Photo source: Flickr

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