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How capitalism uses immigrants

By Lance Selfa and Helen Scott | April 21, 2006 | Page 7

IN HISTORY books, we're reminded that the United States is a "nation of immigrants," and that immigrants played a key role in building the U.S. Yet right-wing politicians tell us today that immigrants are responsible for crime, economic decline and other problems in the U.S.

This love-hate view of immigration and immigrants stems from the role that immigration plays in the capitalist economic system under which we live.

The capitalist system is international, with products manufactured and sold worldwide. Capitalists--the tiny minority that owns and controls the international banks and multinational corporations--rely on a global pool of labor. To enable the capitalists to fill their demands for labor, this labor pool has to be somewhat mobile.

The central mechanism of control over the movement of labor is the nation-state. National border controls ensure that capitalism, through its state, maintains control over labor, rather than allowing people to move at will.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada and Mexico aimed to promote easy transport of goods and services across the three countries' borders. But NAFTA explicitly bars free immigration.

When economic growth produces a demand for workers that can't be satisfied by the existing workforce, a "labor shortage" results. During the Second World War, women filled the labor shortage in military industries created because millions of men entered the armed forces.

It is likewise with immigration. When the domestic workforce can't fill demands for labor that capitalists need, governments often promote immigration. Immigration is not an accident.

Nor do rich countries accept the world's poor out of generosity. Labor migration is essential to the capitalist system. The purpose of immigration policy, then, is to regulate the flow of labor--to control the borders so as to control the workers themselves.

Immigration laws serve capitalism in two ways. First, they ensure cheap foreign labor when the domestic economy needs it. Second, they allow for greater control of the whole workforce.

Most of the advanced economies of the capitalist world were built on migrant labor. They have actively sought foreign-born workers in some historical periods. The same countries have also clamped down on immigration at other times.

The U.S. government's previous bracero program shows clearly how immigration policy is shaped to the needs of capital. The bracero program was initially implemented as a wartime emergency program in 1942 to fill a labor shortage in agriculture by importing farm workers from Mexico. The program became the largest foreign-worker program in the history of the U.S., contracting over 5 million braceros to growers and ranchers over the next 22 years.

Yet the government maintained control over the movements of these workers, and at any time could (and did) restrict the numbers of Mexicans crossing the border and clamp down on Mexicans in the U.S. The passage of workers from Mexico was crucial to the economy, but the workers themselves, at any given moment, could be treated like unwanted criminals, refused entry or deported.

Reducing labor costs, a key aim of capitalists at all times, can be achieved by paying lower wages. To this end, companies can either move production to sites with cheaper labor supplies, or they can bring cheap labor supplies to production sites.

A perfect illustration of moving production to the labor supply is the maquila zone along the U.S.-Mexico border, created after the bracero program ended. Here, advanced country multinationals gain immigrant workers' skills without having to pay to develop them. The social costs of child benefits and education have been provided by another state (in this case, Mexico).

But if the workers come across the border to work as undocumented labor in the U.S., employers gain the same advantages.

What are the specific conditions that make immigrant labor especially attractive to business? Immigrant workers are less likely to be unionized, and an immigrant workforce is often more controllable. Employers use the threat of deportation and criminalization to exploit immigrants ruthlessly and quell immigrants' efforts to fight for their rights.

Legal immigrants waiting for confirmation of citizenship are subject to this pressure, as well as undocumented workers. The presence of a criminalized section of the workforce is crucial for the employers to maintain their control.

New immigrants often don't speak English and are desperate for work. Employers exploit this vulnerability to the fullest--paying below-average wages, violating safety standards and workers' rights.

Meatpacking companies in the Midwest, for example, send personnel managers on tours of the U.S. to recruit Asian and Latino immigrants from California and New York, according to sociologists Louise Lamphere, Alex Stepick, and Guillermo Grenier. One company representative for Dupaco, a meatpacking firm in Nebraska, was typically up-front about the aims of recruitment: "We need to get us a minority group in here."

The Dupaco executive's statement illustrates another important benefit employers gain from hiring immigrants: keeping the workforce divided. Employers use every possible difference between workers--sex, race, sexual orientation, skill and citizenship status--to sow division in the workforce. Employers know that a divided workforce is less likely to unite to demand union representation and higher wages and benefits.

It's clear that when it comes to making profits, U.S. business sees no borders.

That's why it's even clearer that the U.S. labor movement needs to continue organizing among immigrants. Improving wages and conditions for immigrants shouldn't be seen as a way indirectly to boost "American" wages and conditions, separate from immigrants' conditions. On the contrary, jobs performed by immigrants are crucial to the U.S. economy. Improving their wages and conditions will benefit all workers, no matter what side of the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo) they were born.

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