The politics of immigration poses one of the most important challenges to the US left today. While the public discourse, with demands for a wall or the panic over a migrant caravan, may be hyperbolic, it only sharpens venerable themes that have structured the debate for a half-century: a nativist movement that sees immigration as a cultural and economic threat, set against an immigrants’ rights movement that argues for a more inclusive and liberal orientation. In that time, immigration reform has been a constant on the legislative and policy agenda. Major revisions to national immigration policy were enacted in 1965, 1986, 1990, and 1996.1 Bills on comprehensive immigration reform have been passed by at least one house of Congress, and publicly debated with the support of the sitting president, at least once a decade since 1996.

Despite all this legislative activity, how little has actually been accomplished on the issue is evident in the fact that, for the past forty years, the two major parties have negotiated and renegotiated variations of the same deal. That deal is built around a public discourse of the proper administration and management of migration, with the goal of identifying and admitting hard-working, civic-minded, morally upright immigrants while sorting and keeping out those prone to violating laws (including immigration laws), terrorist activity, or dependence on public benefits. Each round of negotiations involves Democrats and Republicans trading pro-immigrant policies, such as an amnesty for undocumented immigrants or the expansion of immigration in some form, for programs to increase border security and immigration law enforcement, and increase penalties for violations of the immigration law.

While under some conditions, repeated negotiations represent movements towards a mutually acceptable solution, in this case, the window for compromise seems to shrink with each round. Comparing the reform bill passed in 1986, the Immigration and Reform Control Act (IRCA), with the present-day debate gives us a sense of how much ground has been lost. The IRCA was structured in much the same way that modern immigration bills have been — increased militarization of the border and criminalization of unsanctioned entry are exchanged for some form of immigration expansion and/or amnesty for undocumented migrants. The IRCA’s amnesty provision, however, can be distinguished from more recent incarnations not only because it passed, but because it was much more inclusive than anything considered politically feasible by the major parties today: it was offered without restrictions on age, employment history, or education, to all undocumented immigrants who could prove continued presence in the US for the five years preceding the IRCA’s passage. Today, a blanket amnesty of this kind seems impossible in a political climate where even an amnesty limited to the “Dreamers” — undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the US as children and met education requirements — has failed to pass in Congress.

What is most disheartening about this impasse is that, politically speaking, the coalition opposing nativist policies should have the upper hand. After a history of ambivalence on the question of immigration, the Democratic Party has finally embraced a consistently pro-immigrant policy — supporting a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants, and even offering some carefully worded critiques of the quota system and deportation and detention practices. In this, the party is following major policy shifts in organized labor, which, in 2000, abandoned its general restrictionist stance. Both of these shifts reflect the emerging political power of immigrant constituencies which have both grown in number and become more coherent and militant on the question of immigrant rights. Even capital, which benefits from labor inflows, can ostensibly be counted as part of this coalition.

But then why has progress been so elusive? The typical explanation points to the rise of a far-right nativism, evidenced by movements like the Tea Party and the electoral success of candidates, like Donald Trump, who have employed blatantly racist and nativist rhetoric. This understanding turns immigration into a problem of race, which sees the nativist right not as a fringe movement, but as vocal tip of a more widespread white racial anxiety. Not surprisingly, this has encouraged the immigrants’ rights movement to articulate their strategy around humanitarianism and liberal values.

The apparent failure of this strategy to stem the growing nativist tide has largely been taken as a sign of the intensity of “white anxiety,” and has in turn generated two responses from the Left. The first has been to condemn the nativist forces and dismiss them as a reactionary, backward impulse of a “white working class” soon to be eclipsed by the very demographic changes they fear.2 The second, while still condemning racism, points to the material underpinning of nativism, and argues that the origins of modern nativism have more to do with neoliberalism, austerity, and the decline of living standards since the late twentieth century.3 While the second approach has more to recommend it than the first, they share an assumption that the problem of immigration policy is a problem of the American working class — that their racial or economic anxieties are the primary obstacle to more rational and humane immigration policy.

The problem with this assumption is that there is very little evidence to support it. In terms of organized labor, while it is true that the mainstream unions have historically been opposed to immigration and problematic on the question of race, it has been over two decades since major unions like the AFL-CIO have changed their position, initiating drives to organize immigrant workers and advocating for immigrants’ labor rights. Even if we cannot say that these positions are representative of the working class in general, there is no other compelling evidence for a widespread anti-immigrant sentiment in the US. Polling data regularly finds that a supermajority of Americans report positive attitudes toward immigrants and support policies like the legalization of undocumented immigrants (including majorities of Republicans and Tea Party members).4 Trump rallies aside, most demonstrations of white nationalism are notable for how easily they are dwarfed by counter-protestors.5 The question we should be asking, then, is not how to get the working class to be less nativist, but to understand why the national policy so weakly reflects the preferences of the majority for a humane immigration regime.

The answer to a question like this lies where it often does, in the interests and strategies of capital. In most other materially relevant policy arenas, capital sets the limits and constraints on most objectives that workers pursue, given its structural power in a capitalist economy — immigration is no exception to this. Even when organized labor in the US was actively opposed to immigration, the extent to which its policy orientation was translated into policy was always circumscribed by capital’s perceived interests and its political clout. This remains true today, when the policies of organized labor and the preferences of workers are more immigrant-friendly.

To properly assess how capital’s structural interests impact immigration policy, we need to begin with a conceptual distinction between questions of the immigration flow and questions of immigrants’ rights.6 There is, of course, a significant overlap and interaction between these two phenomena — the nativist argument against immigrants’ rights, for example, is primarily based on the deterrent effect that restricted rights will have on the immigrant flow. Still, the distinction remains useful because the interests of capital and labor with regard to immigration are not monolithic, but often diverge on the questions of flows and rights.

It is correct to say that capitalists, as employers, have a direct interest in the immigrant flow as a source of labor. However, their preference is for that flow to be flexible — growing to meet demand during periods of expansion or native labor unrest, but restricted when not needed. Thus, the oft-repeated accusation that the movement for open borders serves the interests of capital is imprecise. Capitalists may prefer the opening of borders to the extent that immigration policy permits large flows of immigrant labor, but they also prefer an immigration system that does not confer many rights to these entrants — ideally, immigrants enter under a regime that permits employers to hire them, but with no right to settle or remain if that employment should end, or political rights against employer power, to make claims on the welfare state, or to demand more secure terms of residence. How those competing preferences are balanced is determined by the urgency of employers’ labor supply needs. Where this supply is insufficient and immigrant labor is critical, capital has been more malleable on the question of rights, if only to make immigration more desirable to foreign workers. Where and when capital has other sources of labor — such as an adequate supply of domestic laborers or the option to offshore production — it has been less so, and may even support policies to restrict immigrant flow.

While the waxing and waning nativism of working-class movements may play a role in immigration politics, it is the shifts in employers’ dependence on immigrant labor that has set the parameters of the immigration debate at its most fundamental. This is critical because, while in certain historical periods the employer class could be relied upon to support formal immigration because of its dependence on immigrant labor, that dependence is now much diminished. Mechanization and transformation of agricultural production drove this decoupling of capital from immigrant labor in the early twentieth century, which has intensified during the neoliberal era, when globalization, offshoring, and the consolidation of migrant networks that facilitate undocumented entry into the US have changed the labor supply calculation definitively — securing an adequate flow of immigrant labor is no longer a problem for capital. Under current conditions, immigration is most useful for capital as an unresolved problem — a convenient scapegoat for workers’ losses during the neoliberal era and an obstruction to labor solidarity.

For its part, the Left has responded to this reality by focusing on the question of rights, on the basic humanitarian concerns of those immigrants who enter the US. On its face, the strategy makes sense. It not only addresses the immediate and obvious problems, but it focuses on that part of the immigration question where the interests of workers are most unambiguous: whatever native workers may fear about the intensified competition from new entrants to the labor market, with regard to the rights of the immigrants who enter the US, all workers benefit when those new workers are protected from employer despotism. Defending the rights of labor depends on labor’s organized power, and that power is hard to sustain if employers can hold large sections of the working class hostage to worries about their legal status. Focusing on rights also avoids the thornier problem of flow, where there has been a long and unsettled debate about where workers’ interests lie. In any capitalist labor market, a liberal immigration regime seems threatening to workers, because any increase in the supply of immigrant labor puts native workers at risk in the short term — by heightening job insecurity or downward pressure on wages. Even if the labor economics research shows that this impact is minimal, for unorganized workers who have few other strategies for protecting their economic interests, immigration can loom as a pressing concern. For these reasons, the tendency of organized labor in the US has been to support some sort of restriction with regard to immigration flow, even in the present day, when on rights-related questions, like detention or amnesty for undocumented workers, unions have been quite aggressive in supporting immigrants.

But this is a self-defeating strategy. The basic fact is that you can’t fight to protect immigrant rights while also unleashing a legal regime against immigrant flows. In other words, it is hard to fence off policies directed at one horn of the dilemma from affecting the other one. Fighting to defend one’s labor or political rights becomes more challenging — if not impossible — if you lack the basic right to be in the place where you live and work.7 When the flow of migration itself is minimal that conflict between the right to enter and other rights may not be so conspicuous. However, when the migration flow is significant, and efforts to restrict entry intensify, the legal apparatus that is deployed will always place immigrant workers in a highly vulnerable position in the labor market.8 Because their right to remain in a country is insecure, these workers are more vulnerable to exploitation and less likely to make claims on whatever rights to labor or political participation they formally possess.

Even more importantly, supporting immigration restriction in any form undermines the interests of the domestic working class as well. Whatever downward pressure is created by an increased flow of immigrants cannot compare with the impact of a draconian rights regime. As we will see in this paper, when we compare the impact that the decline of unions has on workers’ welfare with the impact of increased immigrant flows, the latter is dwarfed by the former. A reversal of labor’s fortunes depends on a revitalization of labor organizing — but that very organizing is undermined by a restrictive and punitive immigration regime. The labor movement cannot win without immigrant workers, and creating the conditions for immigrant workers to fully engage in struggle requires not only a defense of immigrants’ formal rights, but an outright rejection of restrictionism with regard to migration flow.

Negotiating Flows and Rights: A Short History of Capital And Labor in Immigration Policy

Immigration policy in the US can be very broadly broken down into two eras, demarcated roughly by the turn of the twentieth century, and distinguished by the state’s orientation towards immigration restriction. The first period, which stretches back to the colonial era, oversaw a generally open regime, in that international migration was largely unrestricted. Some state laws provided for the exclusion of “undesirable” migration — including the poor, and convicts — into their territories, but on a federal level, what legislation existed regarding immigration was focused on stimulating migration or regulating the conditions under which migration occurred,9 rather than controlling or restricting the flow of migration. The second period, where federal law explicitly regulated the flow itself, began to emerge towards the end of the nineteenth century as immigration law became centralized in the federal government, and more importantly, moved from the assumption of admission (barring some ground of exclusion) to an assumption of exclusion (unless the migrant specifically qualifies for admission).

When Capital Needed Immigrant Labor

While the historiography around this transition is complex — and includes political and social factors like the consolidation of federal power and a rising backlash against migration from Asia into the Western territories — the extent to which the country’s material need for manpower, including an emergent industrial capital’s need for labor, drove the relative openness of early American immigration policy is well-established.10 American capital’s dependence on immigrant labor in the nineteenth century is unique among industrializing countries, in that the process of colonization and settlement had resulted in patterns of yeoman farming, rather than feudal agriculture, and thus lacked the reserves of surplus agricultural labor that propelled European industrialization.11 Domestic population growth could not solve the problem, as the vastness of the Western territory meant that fertile lands were available in plentiful supply to anyone willing to cultivate them for most of the early industrial period.

When we say that capitalists have an interest in immigration today, we mean something different than what it meant in the nineteenth century: mass immigration was not just useful, it was essential to the industrialization and economic expansion that occurred at that time.12 Between 1820 and 1920, more than 33 million immigrants entered the US,13 at a time when the nation’s total population grew from 9.6 to 92 million. By 1880, first- and second-generation immigrants represented 57 percent and 64 percent of the country’s manufacturing and mining labor force, respectively.14 This meant that even when nativist movements arose in reaction to these large inflows, they were stoutly resisted and rejected by capital, which not only fought to maintain the country’s openness to new immigrant flows, but also lobbied for greater state participation in promoting and facilitating immigration.

Capital required state support not only because immigrant labor was necessary to growth, but because the flow of that necessary labor was not reliable or self-perpetuating. The costs and difficulty of migration, given the technology of the time and the regions from which labor was available, presented a significant obstacle to the immigrant flow. As a result, employers lobbied to block legislation that would increase the costs of migration,15 while pushing to pass legislation intended to support active recruitment efforts in Europe and Asia. Securing this flow, however, did not necessarily entail the protection of the rights of those recruited immigrants. In the 1860s, for example, the prominent pro-business Whig politician, William Seward, then secretary of state, sponsored An Act to Encourage Immigration, creating a “United States Emigrant Office” which, while not explicitly tasked with recruitment, would coordinate the transportation of immigrants and disseminate information on migration to the US.16 The law also legalized contract migration and transportation debut, and, so similar were its terms to the colonial-era indenture system, required a disclaimer clause assuring that it did not create “in any way the relation of slavery or servitude.”17 To the extent that the system created by the Act was less burdensome than formal indenture — debtors were not required to provide labor directly, but could be paid through pledged wages or liens on any land they acquired — it was unsatisfying to the business interests involved in its implementation; they immediately began lobbying for further legislation that would increase creditors’ ability to enforce migration debt contracts.18

Because the question of rights was secondary to questions of immigration flow, however, rights could be expanded as long as they were consistent with ensuring an adequate pool of immigrant labor. The debates around the Homestead Act of 1862, which was eventually passed to distribute land without restrictions on citizenship, were hampered by concerns that including noncitizens in the Act would harm northeastern industry.19 The law’s passage in 1862 was made possible by a shift in the views of economic elites regarding the impact of homestead land on labor supply; they came to understand that the Act would result in a net increase of labor because “newcomers who aspired to launch farms would be forced to remain in the cities and work in order to earn the wherewithal to do so.”20

As the labor movement emerged in the 1860s, it generally opposed employers’ campaign to formalize systems of contract and bonded labor — in other words, on the question of rights — but was less explicit on the question of the general immigration flow. The nascent labor movement was reluctant to oppose the free mobility of labor as a matter of principle. But it was also true that as long as the major rights-related problems associated with immigration remained confined to contract labor, stopping the human rights violations associated with contract migration would have the consequence of slowing the migration flow. In other words, this strategy presented no conflict between rights and restriction.21 Thus, new labor associations like the Knights of Labor or the National Labor Union actively campaigned for the repeal of the Act to Encourage Emigration, and for the outright prohibition of contract labor in 1885 (the Alien Contract Labor Law), both because they opposed the indenture-like relationships entailed by migrant labor contracts and because that contract labor was often imported by capital for the purpose of strikebreaking.22 In this early period, even those laws that were explicitly racially targeted, and so could be read as clearly nativist or anti-immigrant in their intention, such as the earlier versions of the anti-Chinese legislation, were also framed as targeting certain types of migration associated with humanitarian abuses.23

Immigrant Labor’s Waning Importance for Capital

As the nineteenth century came to a close, a new politics of immigration began to come into view. The continuation of mass immigration despite the prohibition on contract migration began to make clear that labor would eventually have to directly address the tricky question of immigration flow. By the early 1890s, both major labor organizations — including the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor — had begun to push for immigration restriction in general, and not just with regard to contract labor.24 At the same time, the country’s political economy had shifted in ways that decreased the dependence of industrial capitalists on immigrant labor. Fertile frontier lands were becoming scarcer,25 mechanization in all sectors, including in agriculture, began to produce a domestic labor surplus, even as employment growth in manufacturing slowed.26 With these changes, capital became a much less reliable defender of open borders27 — while few capitalists actually advocated for immigration restriction, many began to indicate their support for nativists’ concerns.28

These changes paved the way for the “closing of the gates” — which occurred in fits and starts, beginning with mobilization that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and consolidating definitively with the Quota Acts of 1920s, with the imposition of an overall quota, a system of visas, border management, and deportations.29 The Quota Acts (Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924) are well-known for the racial order they tried to ensure with the “national origins formula” preferring Northern European settler-stock immigrants,30 but the question of race was only salient once a consensus had been reached on the question of overall restriction. That capital’s acquiescence was key to this consensus is suggested by the timing of the Quota Acts, which did not occur at the beginning of labor mobilization for restriction, but thirty years later, only after World War I had clearly tested, and established, the country’s independence from immigrant labor.31 Moreover, where business interests conflicted with immigration restriction — as in the Mexican migration to the Western states, which had increased to replace the Asian immigrant labor that had been cut off by the Chinese Exclusion Act and still remained crucial to agricultural production in the region — the racial order could be ignored: immigration from the Western hemisphere, including all the Latin American countries, was exempted from the first quota system.

This regime, in which capital (apart from a few unique sectors) has little interest in increasing immigration flows, while labor struggles to balance flows and rights, persists to the present day. Most sectors of capital are even less vulnerable to decreases in the immigrant flow than they have ever been. Mechanization of production is an important part of the story, but as important are the transformations in trade — both political and technological — that have lowered the costs of transferring production to regions with lower wage levels. Thus, most sectors of capital are now untethered — in the medium and long term — to geographically specific labor markets. The decimation of the Rust Belt is painful evidence of how this process has worked in manufacturing,32 but even many industries that currently rely heavily on immigrant labor — such as high-tech software and internet services — have the capacity to move most of their work offshore if access to labor were to become difficult.33

From this viewpoint, the ineffectiveness of a strategy to build immigration reform coalitions around capital’s ostensible labor needs is unsurprising. And the persistent support for this strategy among not only the Republican Party, but Democrats and organized labor, seems disingenuous or, at best, naïve. Critics of open borders often cite the political activity of Charles G. Koch and David Koch, owners of the second-largest privately held company in the US and major supporters of conservative causes, as both evidence of capital’s support for immigration and reason to be suspicious of immigration expansion,34 but it misrepresents the ways in which the Kochs have spent their money on the immigration issue. While they may sponsor the Cato Institute’s libertarian policy proposals, they are also major funders of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the influential conservative lobbying group35 that promulgated legislation to increase state and local participation in immigration enforcement, and, in general, promotes a “law-and-order” approach to immigration that opposes amnesty and promotes criminalization.36 This equivocation on immigration is not atypical — major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, who co-wrote an op-ed with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates in 2014 in support of immigration reform,37 two years later donated nearly $100 million to the presidential campaign of a candidate who ran on an openly anti-immigrant platform. The scale of Adelson’s contribution to the Trump campaign also gives us a sense of how little even those sectors that consistently support immigrants’ rights and immigration expansion have actually spent to influence the political process. In that same election cycle, — the lobbying organization created by Facebook and other tech giants to promote immigration reform — spent only $12,525 on campaign contributions.38

Where Immigrant Labor Still Matters

Only a small number of industries remain dependent on immigrant labor — those sectors that are geographically bound and have not yet managed to extensively automate production. Agriculture and construction because of their ties to the land, style-sensitive garment production (which require constant interaction between design and production, with flexibility to respond to fashion market trends39), and direct services such as cleaning, health care, and food service are key examples. In some of these fields, where higher rates of pay make it possible to attract native workers, the dependence on immigrant labor is less pronounced; for example, only 22.3 percent of nursing and home health aides are foreign-born — higher than the share of immigrant workers in the total labor force (14.1 percent), but not anywhere near the range of agricultural work, housecleaning, personal appearance services, or construction, where immigrant employment rates can rise to above 50 percent.40

Some of the immigrant labor demand in these sectors is met through the formal migration system, which currently permits the immigration of approximately 1.1 million immigrants (admitted with permanent resident status).41 Another 2 million are admitted each year for residence in nonimmigrant capacity (temporary workers, students, etc.).42 Though unauthorized entries are difficult to measure, researchers estimate that another approximately 780,000 undocumented immigrants entered each year between 1990 and 2009.43 These flows produce a foreign-born population of approximately 44 million, one-quarter of which is undocumented. For those 11 million undocumented immigrants, what exists is a de facto guest-worker program.44 Few migrants are actually stopped from entering the US labor market. Despite high-profile investments in border security and deportation, the immigration policy has been largely ineffective at curtailing unauthorized migration. Border enforcement only apprehends a small fraction of the migrants attempting to cross,45 and, given that the associated penalties (deportation or voluntary departure) are low, migrants are largely undeterred from repeated entry attempts.45 While employer sanctions exist, they are easily circumvented and largely unenforced.46 What those workers experience, however, is a secondary status. Though technically federal labor law applies to all workers regardless of immigration status, as with guest workers whose immigration status is dependent on employer sponsorship, unauthorized workers who fear detection and deportation are less likely to claim those rights by appealing to the state or participating in labor movements.

Yet because employers in these sectors are actually dependent on immigrant workers, negotiations around flow and rights have, until recently, remained more similar to what existed in the nineteenth century generally — with capitalists willing to exchange expansions in the rights of new immigrants in order to secure immigrant labor supply.

Take, for example, the passage of the immigration amnesty provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which extended the right to remain to approximately 3 million undocumented immigrants. In the 1960s, organized labor and an insurgent farm-worker movement, led by immigrant workers, had succeeded in ending the bracero guest-worker program and as well as the Western hemisphere exception on restrictive immigration quotas. In the 1950s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (ins, the precursor agency to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ice) had waged a successful campaign to channel Mexican migration away from informal migration and through the formal programs like the bracero.47 Because so much of the migration was through formal channels, their sudden closing had an immediate impact on migration flows, and consequently, on those industries that relied on Mexican immigrant labor. The rise in wages that resulted from the end of the bracero program and the rise of farm-worker organizing forced large swaths of Western agriculture to revert to sharecropping.48 The balance of power was only just beginning to return in favor of growers, with the rise in unauthorized workers through the 1970s and early 1980s finally placing downward pressure on wages.49

Any policy targeting this newly reestablished undocumented flow, as the immigration reform bill proposed in the early 1980s did, was a credible threat to the Western growers, who lobbied hard against the bill and only acquiesced when a provision to greatly expand the H-2 temporary worker program to allow for an adequate flow of seasonal agricultural workers had been added.50 Immigrant groups and organized labor vehemently opposed any expansion of the H-2 program, which they saw as a reinstatement of the bracero program. The compromise solution, which was to expand the IRCA’s amnesty provisions so that Mexican migrant workers would qualify, demonstrates the extent to which capital can bend on the question of rights when the flow of immigration itself is under threat. The IRCA’s standard residency requirement for legalization required eligible applicants to have lived in the US continuously for the five years prior to the law’s enactment, a requirement that most migrant workers — who usually circulated seasonally between Mexico and the US — could not meet. Under the compromise, a special provision for “seasonal agricultural services” who could demonstrate ninety days of employment in the US within a single previous year was included in the IRCA in exchange for the expansion of the guest-worker program. This extension of amnesty would secure another 1.2 million immigrant workers,51 who would no longer be subject to deportation. Dolores Huerta, United Farm Workers’ vice president, explained the union’s support of the compromise thus: “It gives the workers a fighting chance.”52

Unfortunately, 1986 may have been the last time that a restriction-with-rights strategy might have been viable, even with respect to that subset of capital dependent on immigrant labor. In the 1980s, the threat of restriction was particularly real because of the experience of the 1960s, which had demonstrated that immigration policy changes could significantly affect capital’s labor costs. The lessons from the 1986 legislation, however, have been its opposite — the current configuration of migration is one that cannot be decreased through rule changes or even violent enforcement. The 1960s-era restrictionism had the impact they did because the bracero program had, in the preceding decade, institutionalized the migration into formal channels. Those channels could be easily affected by policy changes, but the rerouting of that migration through unauthorized channels, and the continuation of that unauthorized migration despite increased criminalization and spending on border security since the 1970s, suggests that actually stopping labor migration in the medium-to-long run is not possible (and that stopping this migration is not possible even in the short term).

As early as the late 1980s and early 1990s, migration scholars were comparing flow estimates with border policies to theorize that the scale of immigration enforcement required to actually deter migration attempts would require exponential investments.53 Those investments were actually made in the late 1990s and through the first two decades of the twentieth century, but they had no effect but to demonstrate the futility of such efforts.54 The militarization of the border may have increased the costs of crossing, and thus had some deterrent effect, but the increased risk also incentivizes migrant workers to become settled, rather than circulate back and forth, contributing to an increase in the overall population of undocumented immigrants.55

The Left’s Dilemma

Under the current system, then, even employers in sectors that rely on immigrant labor have little to lose from immigration restriction policies. We have built fences and walls, militarized the border, and imprisoned immigrants, without significantly impacting the availability of immigrant workers to those businesses that need them.56 Immigration restriction policy largely does not matter to employers’ bottom line, which means that they also will not support a more open border policy. On the other hand, they have a very direct and immediate interest in supporting a punitive rights regime, in that the sense of vulnerability that it creates among immigrant workers also has a chilling effect on labor organizing in general. The implications for the movement for immigration reform are obvious. Capital cannot be viewed as a reliable partner for passing more liberal legislation. Indeed, given capital’s interest in a more punitive rights regime, any success in advancing immigrant rights will only be achieved over its resistance.

It is this challenge, of building the power necessary to secure immigrant rights over the objections of capital, that is the central issue for the reform movement. And it cannot advance without the participation of immigrant workers themselves — not because of their overall number (they only constitute 15.5 percent of the working population57), but because they are concentrated in those key sectors that cannot easily move offshore or be replaced by technology. Those few bright spots of private sector labor organizing in the past half-century have involved industries in which immigrant workers are concentrated (nearly one-fourth of Service Employees International Union’s membership are immigrants58) — not only have studies shown that immigrants are more receptive to union organizing than native workers,59 they occupy that portion of the economy where local workers retain some strategic power.60

Even within these industries, however, current union membership rates remain abysmally low — for most, in the low single digits.61 Of course, there are many factors beyond the scope of this paper that explain these numbers, but for immigrant workers, these other obstacles are compounded by the risks inherent in their immigration status. Formally speaking, all immigrant workers, legally authorized or otherwise, have most of the same labor protections and rights to participate in workplace organizing as native workers. Substantively, the right to be present in a country is a precondition for securing all other rights. Even if undocumented immigrants are formally granted labor or political rights, the constant risk of deportation or detention renders those rights less enforceable.62 Even for authorized workers, who have greater legal protections, the precariousness of the status of “immigrant” endangers their labor rights.63 Educated technical workers who enter the US to work for high-tech companies under the H-1B visa, while not generally subject to our deportation and detention regimes, are still deterred from participating in labor actions or even changing employment. For these workers, obtaining permanent resident status in the US requires continuous employer sponsorship through what can be a decade-long process,64 during which employers can terminate employment or withdraw their sponsorship at will.

This chilling effect of immigration law on workers’ rights is well-understood and documented,65 though most of the literature, in focusing on the impact of enforcement, implies that the problem is not with restrictionism itself, but merely overzealous implementation. While it is certainly true that the magnitude of the chilling effect can vary depending on the aggressiveness of workplace immigration enforcement tactics, the effect itself is the logical consequence of any system that restricts migration. No matter how generous it may be with regard to the rights extended to entering migrants, the problem arises the moment entry and access to employment is made conditional on permission of some kind: a “legal” status begets an “illegal” status, and as long as those deemed “illegal” are subject to expulsion or deportation, that status will be an obstacle to organizing. Dolores Huerta’s statement about the “fighting chance” indicates the strategic relevance of the right to remain for the class struggle.

Given the importance of immigrants for the labor movement, the necessary position seems obvious — that the Left should not only support immigrants’ rights, but also fight for an end to the policy of immigration restriction. And to some degree, both the Democratic Party and organized labor have moved in this direction. In the past two decades, the Democratic Party has positioned itself definitively as the party of immigration, championing amnesty for undocumented workers and reform of the immigration system. Both of these positions are also supported by the AFL-CIO and the SEIU. But these moves have been inadequate. On the questions of migration quotas, economic migration, or border enforcement, the Democratic Party has always been restrictionist. It has simply insisted that the policy be tempered by humanitarian concerns such as the reunification of families and the extension of rights to unauthorized immigrants who are already in the country.66 Even a call that sounds as radical as “Abolish ICE” is ultimately only a critique of how restriction is enforced. The labor movement is also hesitant on the question of immigration restriction, issuing carefully worded statements about comprehensive immigration reform that both critiques a system that produces a subset of vulnerable (because unauthorized) workers, but demands, as a solution, only a more “rational” restriction, not the abolition of the principle in its entirety.67

Given the stakes, why do we see this hesitation? The answer, of course, is the fear of a nativist backlash.

Responding to Nativism

In the American public discourse today, when we talk about the rise of nativism, we are rarely talking about the far-right white nationalist political movement — except on the specific questions of violence and terrorism. That movement remains too small to be a significant concern for electoral politics. Rather, the concern with nativism is primarily about its attractiveness to the working class, imagined now as a social identity equivalent to ethnic “whiteness.” The electoral success of far-right parties and politicians in recent years suggests that the Democratic Party and organized labor are not wrong to tread carefully around nativism. Perhaps then, examining working-class nativism to address the problem of immigration is useful, though not because the working class is the cause of the repression of immigrants, but because working-class mobilization is necessary to stopping it. If a nativist reaction obstructs that mobilization in some way, then it is a problem that the Left must take seriously. Will a call for open borders inevitably alienate native workers?

The answer to that question will differ depending on what we think ultimately drives the nativist reaction among the working class — racial animus or material anxiety. To be sure, both factors are necessary to understanding how anti-immigrant politics in the US has developed. Workers’ most immediate interest is in a protected labor market, and because the tendency of organized labor in the US has been to pursue rather narrow economic strategies, the historic orientation of major labor organizations like the AFL-CIO towards immigration has been one of restriction. Labor’s pursuit of this agenda, often with racialized rhetoric, makes it difficult to disentangle workers’ material concerns from racial animus.68 There is, however, a difference between acknowledging that racial formation and racist discourses mediate the translation of class interests into policy, and arguing that racial animus was the ultimate motivation for these policy positions. In labor historiography, workers’ anti-immigrant positions always suggest a tangled, confused relationship between race and the material interests of workers — even the most blatantly racist programs of organized labor, such as the California trade unions’ campaign to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act and the AFL’s defense of that Act for sixty years, were also crucially motivated by economic anxieties about immigrant competition.69

The distinction matters because it has important implications for whether and how nativist reaction can be addressed. The race-based interpretation can lead us to dismiss the working class as a progressive force in struggles around immigration — something I have argued above the Left cannot afford to do. It also leads us to overlook key reasons why support for immigration in any left coalition might be weak. For if America’s labor market is segmented along lines of race and national origin, and if immigrants tend to enter at the bottom of that market, then the heightened competition in those sectors will also conflict with the ties of solidarity ethnic groups or communities of color may share with new immigrants. We do not have to look hard to find empirical evidence for this process: While it may now be so well-established it is taken for granted in American politics, Latinx communities’ support for the extension of rights to undocumented immigrants only predates the policy shift in organized labor by two decades. Until the late 1970s, before the Chicano movement helped to popularize a more radical binational ethnic solidarity, most Mexican-American organizations openly supported immigration restriction and opposed amnesty programs.70 Support for immigration in African-American communities also cannot be taken for granted, where anxieties of displacement by immigrants often translates into a frankly nativist discourse.71

If we look beyond the policy positions of organized labor, to research on anti-immigrant sentiment among working-class respondents, there is ample evidence that the critical rationale for anti-immigrant sentiment is more economic than tribal or racial. Analyses of voting patterns have found that opposition to immigration is correlated with skill levels, with those individuals and communities more vulnerable to the competitive impacts of immigration more likely to support restriction. These effects are robust to noneconomic factors, including the actual levels of immigration into a community.72 Even research that finds racial stereotypes to be a key driver for anti-immigrant sentiment reveals that the tendency to rely on such stereotypes is correlated with economic calculations, and is exacerbated during periods of economic hardship.73 Surveys that disaggregate opinions on immigration between socialcultural and economic issues show that, even when views on immigration are positive overall, the potential negative economic impact of immigration remains a significant concern, though overridden by positive opinions about the cultural diversity that immigrants bring.74 The correlation between the rise of such nativist movements and economic crises is so tight that most social science takes it for granted, with studies focusing on those rare occasions when they fail to appear during periods of economic crisis.75

The Way Out

Until the shock of the 2016 election, the approach of the Democratic Party to these material anxieties was to dismiss them as either less important than humanitarian concerns or as workers’ error. Barack Obama’s reflections on immigration in The Audacity of Hope are an example of the first approach. He begins with an acknowledgement that mass immigration has had a deleterious impact on native workers, and even that this impact was disproportionately felt by workers of color because of America’s racialized inequality:

“Everywhere, it seemed, Mexican and Central American workers came to dominate low-wage work that had once gone to blacks — as waiters and busboys, as hotel maids and as bellmen — and made inroads in the construction trades that had long excluded black labor …. If this huge influx of mostly low-skill workers provides some benefits to the economy as a whole … it also threatens to depress further the wages of blue-collar Americans and puts strains on an already overburdened safety net.”76

The resolution he offers to this conflict, however, is not based on a direct engagement with the material question. Instead, he appeals to America’s “humanity” and “way of life”:

“… But ultimately the danger to our way of life is not that we will be overrun by those who do not look like us or do not yet speak our language. The danger will come if we fail to recognize the humanity of [immigrants] — if we withhold from them the rights and opportunities that we take for granted.”77

The material question is passed over with an optimistic banality — “America is big enough to accommodate all our dreams.”78

The second approach simply informs native workers they are wrong to fear that immigration will harm their material interests.79 The argument itself is grounded in economic research that has shown that, even if immigration can put downward pressure on wages initially, the effect is small, and are often temporary, because the result in profit gains and investment will eventually lead to economic expansion.80 Immigrants also contribute to economic growth through their consumption, and, depending on their human capital endowments, through entrepreneurial activity or the synergies between their skills and the needs of domestic businesses.81

The problem with this type of argument is less the validity of the research than the disjunct between these findings and the actual experience of workers. In the past thirty years, mass migration to the US reached levels unseen for a century, and those thirty years have not been a period of prosperity and wage growth for the working class, but the opposite. For those American workers who have experienced declining wages, long periods of unemployment, and the hollowing out of public services, the claim that the economic dynamism of immigrants will benefit everyone must read as a kind of trickle-down economics of the Left or a fossil fuel company’s questioning of climate science — a self-interested rejection of common sense. If material anxieties are the primary driver of working-class nativism, then neither strategy — of emphasizing humanitarianism or minimizing workers’ material concerns — can lead the way out of the dilemma that immigration presents to the Left. The path has to be through confronting those anxieties and actually offering solutions. Here, the labor movement has done a better job than the Democrats. While acknowledging that immigration can impact wages, they proceed from here by making the argument that whether immigration actually has this effect is largely the result of politics, that the limitation of wage competition, collective bargaining, and an expanded social safety net can nullify any potential negative impact of immigration on native workers.82

This argument is much easier to make because it does not respond to the straightforward argument about immigration and wage competition with jargony scholarly analysis or economics literature. It responds with another straightforward argument: Worker solidarity and negotiating as a unified labor force is more effective than individual bargaining. The labor movement is absolutely correct in this analysis. Empirically speaking, what negative impact immigration may have on native workers is tiny relative to what can be won or lost through organized class struggle. George J. Borjas, an economist whose work has often been used to buttress nativist policy, has found that immigration has a positive impact on the wages of native workers at all but the lowest skill level (high school dropouts), and here, the measured decline is 1.7 percent.83 The figures estimated by most other labor economists are smaller, or positive.84 On the other hand, the evidence that unionized workers earn more than nonunionized workers is unequivocal. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that employees in all sectors — excepting private sector management professionals (a category that includes “top executives” of major corporations) — make more when they are unionized. And they do so at rates that are often in the order of 50–60 percent.85 This dwarfs not only what small losses unskilled workers might experience because of immigration, but gains workers typically make through market processes when labor markets are tight.86 Moreover, this account does not require that workers pretend that the losses of the past forty years never occurred, but offers an alternative explanation and points to a more effective way forward than antagonism towards immigrants. Finally, it does not require overlooking the material anxieties of workers or sacrificing for the well-being of some other group of people (i.e., immigrants), but rather, argues that whatever costs incurred will redound to the benefit of all.

So why hasn’t the strategy worked? Why do union participation rates continue to decline, while the politics of immigration seems only to twist further to the right? There are, of course, many factors that contribute to this change, but one of them is the ways in which capital manipulates the immigration question. For if capital is no longer concerned with securing an immigration flow, it has every reason to exploit immigration as a source of division within the working class. It is not hypocrisy for Donald Trump to both provoke anti-immigrant sentiment while also staffing undocumented immigrants in his business, it is good strategy. It not only serves to silence his immigrant workers, many of whom are too afraid of detention and deportation to demand better wages or working conditions, it serves to undermine the labor movement as a whole, channeling native workers’ frustration and anxiety away from class exploitation and inequality. And as I have outlined above, Trump is not an anomaly; he is only particularly vocal. Responding to this onslaught without addressing the distinction at the core of its divisive power — between “native” and “immigrant” — is folly. Yet this is what major labor organizations like the AFL-CIO do when they continue to support the basic principle of immigration restriction.

The Left must go further than to debunk workers’ fear that immigration is a material issue. We must say that immigration is without question a material issue, but not because of its impact on labor markets. It is a material issue because of the impact that immigration restriction has on the labor movement — as a source of division, and the means through which a critical minority of today’s workers are deprived of basic political rights. And whatever downward pressure an influx of immigrants has on wages, it is dwarfed by the economic consequences of a weak and divided working class. The working class cannot reverse its economic decline without bringing immigrant workers into the fold, as a thirty-year strategy of soft-restrictionism has amply demonstrated. Workers’ rights cannot be advanced unless we do away with any sort of restriction on their basic freedom to live and work where they wish. Anything less, including amnesty, contributes to the construction of immigration as a “problem,” and perpetuates the cycles of anti-immigrant politics in which we are now caught.

About the Author

Suzy Lee is a member of the Catalyst editorial board and director of the human rights program in the Human Development department of Binghamton University.

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