By Peter Zschiesche
For years, those of us advocating for comprehensive immigration reform have heard the loudest objections be “no amnesty” or no reward for “illegals.” In objectors’ minds, this includes even those legalized by DACA — those who were brought here as children by their parents without documents. Those objectors say simply these immigrants “broke the law” and the only acceptable remedy is for them to return to their native countries — all 11 million of them.
When confronted by the total impracticality and immorality of this task, they have no answer. Trump’s repeated calls to “Build the Wall” and “Make Mexico Pay” are attractive to these folks because, for them, it’s not a question of practicality or even the billions of dollars’ in expense, but rather something else entirely.
In fact, there is something quite irrational about advocating for the blanket deportation of 11 million people, but it goes beyond that. There’s a viciousness to it. Candidate Trump has made it clear what kind of irrationality it is – racism at its core – when he coupled his demand for the wall with the demonizing of the Mexican people as a nation. He didn’t invent this stuff, but he made it a key rallying cry to his supporters who cheered and jeered in enthusiastic support all the way to his election and now during the current debate on a deal for immigrant youth under DACA.
Now, 18 months later, Trump has doubled down on his denigration of immigrants when he called Haiti and other African countries “shitholes” or “shithouses”, take your pick. Even mainstream commentators called this comment “racist.” Trump has gone on to badmouth Salvadoran immigrants as gang members and end the temporary legal status that has allowed them to build lives in the U.S. and escape continuing strife in El Salvador. He is also ending that same kind of temporary status for Haitians who face terrible conditions if forced to return to Haiti today. These are all cruel attacks on legal immigrants.
But along with all of this has come a new addition to the current immigration debate — the idea that legal immigration needs reform, too, and right away as part of the DACA deal. Just what kind of reform? The kind that replaces our current emphasis on family reunification with certain “merits” such as job skills, English language ability, and much lower limits on yearly legal immigration to the U.S.
Trump did not invent this new argument, but key members of his staff are schooling him on it and he has added their demands as a key part of the DACA negotiations. Conservative voices in Congress are lobbying hard for it, too, now led by Senator Tom Cotton, a young Republican from Arkansas. Arkansas is one of those states where the Latino population is growing rapidly. Still, Latinos only make up only 7 percent of the population there and 45 percent of them are homeowners.
Where’s the problem in Arkansas that has Senator Cotton so fired up? For Cotton, immigration isn’t an Arkansas problem, it’s a problem for all “true Americans” who fear people who don’t look, speak, or pray like them. Senator Cotton believes that “immigration is more than just another issue. It touches upon fundamental questions of citizenship, community, and identity.” He promotes that abstract fear of those perceived as “foreign” to help overshadow the rational arguments that we immigration advocates make.
Senator Cotton also claims that increased immigration over the last few decades has depressed wages for U.S. workers who lack higher education or who “work with their hands and on their feet.” He claims millions of unskilled immigrant workers take jobs from blue collar Americans and undercut their wages. Sound familiar? This argument is more than 150 years old here in the United States and has been used over and over to target many different immigrant working families — including the Irish, the Chinese, Asians in general, Italians, Greeks, Slavic people in general, and many others.
But conservative Senator Cotton is wrong about jobs. There is no “taking” of jobs by immigrant workers because it’s the employer who controls who gets hired to work, not any workers (unless they have a union hiring hall). And if immigrant workers are so “unskilled” how do they qualify for those jobs in the first place? Senator Cotton is no blue collar guy and presents no facts to back up this kind of claim. Still, Senator Cotton’s argument reflects a popular anti-immigrant sentiment that appeals to millions of Americans as an explanation of their stagnant wages. It’s most often heard when referring to Latino workers rather than white Irish, Polish, or other European immigrants and that suggests that there is an ethnicity/race issue here. But our California and national experience is that Latino immigrant workers have skills and a work ethic that are well-known and appreciated. In general, immigrants work hard to get here and worker harder to start their new lives here. It is part of our national strength.
Senator Cotton argues, “if the wage is decent and the employer obeys the law, Americans will do any job. And for tough, dangerous, and physically demanding jobs, maybe working folks do deserve a bit of a raise.” But how do American workers get their employers to pay decent wages and obey the law (especially health and safety laws and labor laws)? They organize and join unions. They advocate for state laws that protect all workers.
Cotton comes from a “right to work” (for less) state that outlaws union shops that give workers more negotiating power with their employer. If Cotton is really concerned with workers wages and fairness from employers, he should fight to overturn his state’s anti-union laws and give Arkansas workers more negotiating power. He won’t admit that in California and many other states, immigrant workers who predominate among hotel workers, janitors, farm workers, some building trades, and other industries, find power in their unions and, as a result, get better wages, benefits, and working conditions.
Senator Cotton and President Trump are using the weaknesses of our economy to heap blame on immigrant working families instead of heaping blame on the private companies that have abandoned so many of our small cities and towns. This tactic angers us here in California and millions of our pro-immigration allies across the country.
But the campaign and election of Trump show that his fear mongering is also very appealing to millions of others. It intentionally taints the national immigration debate just as we seek support from our pro-immigrant friends across the country. Winning votes in Congress will reflect the success of either side of this debate to win public support throughout the nation. We need to help each other confront this fear mongering of immigrants who are in fact our new hardworking neighbors seeking a better life for themselves and their families. As with our DACA youth, their stories in every state are powerful weapons to combat a most dangerous fear.
Peter Zschiesche is a former Machinist Union Business Agent and President of IAM Local 389. Over the past 30 years he has worked with the last five leaders of the San Diego Labor Council and served on its Executive Boards with three of them. He founded the Employee Rights Center in 1999, retired from there, and remains active on its governing body, Labor’s Alliance. He also serves as a Trustee of the Board for the San Diego Community College Board since 2002.