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Don’t let nativists scapegoat immigrants in the name of workers’ rights

Aaron Patrick Flanagan • May 01, 2014


May Day is not just an international celebration of workers; it is a reminder of struggles past which have led to present prosperities. Since 2006 here in America, May Day has also become an occasion for upholding immigrant rights. More than just a mass celebrating of common history, though, this is also a moment for drawing the attentions to modern-day threats to workers’ rights.

Certainly, one immediate threat comes in the form of the organized nativist movement in the U.S., led by intertwined organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and NumbersUSA, which together steer this movement. A primary message of this movement is as follows: “the more immigrants, the worse things become for the American worker.” That’s a lie.

Their scapegoating purposefully dispenses with all understandings of the need for humane immigration reform, while also failing to hold unethical executives and employers accountable for creating the conditions and contexts within which workers struggle every day.

Below are just three ways the American nativist movement continually perpetuates workers’ struggles.

1. Pitting working people against one another

The scapegoating quoted above — and variations of it — are not only false and patently bigoted, but they limit workers’ abilities to join in powerful coalitions that attract serious attention to their grievances. Insidiously, two ways this movement has been attempting to divide African-American and Latino workers are 1) by claiming the pro-immigrant stance insults the victories of the Civil Rights movement, and 2) that immigrants are responsible for the economic struggles of African-American men, in particular. Of course, the nativist movement’s messaging is totally devoid of any analysis of structural or institutional racism, either historical or contemporary. Simply put, this is a white-led movement looking to convince people of color that other people of color are the roots of their struggles. The vehicles for such fallacies often take the form of “front-groups,” such as the Black American Leadership Alliance, which attempt to simplify the concerns of African-Americans at-large as monolithic and static.

2. Criticizing immigrant workers but not allied policy-makers

Extending from point number one, this movement blames immigrant workers for the plights of Americans by casting so many as individuals who are most content with being underpaid, over-worked and under-represented. This movement, however, refuses to acknowledge those within their own ranks who draft policies to create a demand for lower wages, such as policies that deregulate the economic sectors. The result is a dual labor market, where some prosper, relatively speaking, in regulated industries (“primary market”) while others struggle in deregulated ones (“secondary market”). Such policies effectively legalize inequality by legitimizing the preference for cheap labor in some industries. As Aviva Chomsky writes, such policies ensure that “increasing inequality create[s] demand for immigrant workers and thus spurred immigration.” Time and again, nativist leaders simply won’t hold their allies on The Hill or in state capitol buildings accountable for repressive policies that broadly ensure social and economic inequalities.

3. Framing anti-immigrant bills as ‘pro-American worker’ policies

This movement is one of organized bigotry. As such, its leaders steer a coalition bound by a common investment in perpetual inequality. A worldview that values inequality will forever produce conditions for repression. Nativist leaders loudly trumpet their defenses of the American worker, especially in fund-raising emails, but what have their policies truly done for us? By 2010, Arizona’s SB 1070, which was drafted by FAIR’s attorney Kris Kobach and its close-ally Russell Pearce, led to a national boycott that cost the state’s convention and conference industry alone $250 million. By 2012, Georgia’s SB 1070 copycat (HB 87) caused migrant farm workers to flee the state almost overnight. One study estimated potential losses at $391 million and 3,260 jobs. As crops withered, farms regressed into prison plantations, as the state launched a plan for prisoners to replace the vanished workers. The average cost then for a farm to switch to machine harvesting was estimated at $1.2 million; such switches erase jobs entirely.

On May Day, let’s remember that FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA’s “concern” for workers ends exactly where their collective investment in inequality begins. Let us also remember their promotion of repressive policies, the negativity of which equates to millions of lives impacted, not just dollars lost.

Photo credit: Salina Canizales

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