Cultural Crossroads: Corporatists vs. Racists — and Labor is Left Behind

The corporatist Republicans ("amnesty!") are fighting with the racist Republicans ("fence!"), and it provides an opportunity for progressives to step forward with a clear solution to the immigration problem facing America.

Both the corporatists and the racists are fond of the mantra, "There are some jobs Americans won't do." It's a lie. Americans will do virtually any job if they're paid a decent wage. This isn't about immigration — it's about economics. Industry and agriculture won't collapse without illegal labor, but the middle class is being crushed by it.

Thirty years ago, the reason why United Farm Workers' Union (UFW) founder César Chávez fought against illegal immigration, and the UFW turned in illegals during his tenure as president, was because Chávez, like progressives since the 1870s, understood the simple reality that labor rises and falls in price as a function of availability.

As Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia notes: "In 1969, Chávez and members of the UFW marched through the Imperial and Coachella Valley to the border of Mexico to protest growers' use of illegal aliens as temporary replacement workers during a strike. Joining him on the march were both the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale. Chávez and the UFW would often report to the INS suspected illegal aliens who served as temporary replacement workers, as well as who refused to unionize.

Working Americans have always known this simple equation: More workers, lower wages. Fewer workers, higher wages.

Progressives fought — and many lost their lives in the battle — to limit the pool of "labor hours" available to the Robber Barons from the 1870s through the 1930s, and thus created the modern middle class. They limited labor-hours by pushing for the 50-hour week and the 10-hour day (and then later the 40-hour week and the 8-hour day). They limited labor-hours by pushing for laws against child labor (which competed with adult labor). They limited labor-hours by working for passage of the 1935 Wagner Act that provided for union shops.

And they limited labor-hours by supporting laws that would regulate immigration into the United States to a small enough flow that it wouldn't dilute the unionized labor pool. According to Wikipedia: "The first laws creating a quota for immigrants were passed in the 1920s, in response to a sense that the country could no longer absorb large numbers of unskilled workers, despite pleas by big business that it wanted the new workers."

Do a little math. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are 7.6 million unemployed Americans right now. Another 1.5 million Americans are no longer counted because they've become "long term" or "discouraged" unemployed workers. And although various groups have different ways of measuring it, most agree that at least another five to ten million Americans are either working part-time when they want to work full-time, or are "underemployed," doing jobs below their level of training, education, or experience. That's between eight and twenty million un- and under-employed Americans, many unable to find above-poverty-level work.

At the same time, there are between seven and fifteen million working illegal immigrants diluting our labor pool. If illegal immigrants could no longer work, unions would flourish, the minimum wage would rise, and oligarchic nations to our south would have to confront and fix their corrupt ways.

Compassionate Versus Ethical

Between the Reagan years — when there were only around 1 to 2 million illegal aliens in our workforce — and today, we've decreased from about 25 percent of our private workforce being unionized to around seven percent. Much of this is the direct result, as César Chávez predicted, of illegal immigrants competing directly with unionized and legal labor. Although it's most obvious in the construction trades over the past 30 years, it hits all sectors of our economy.

Democratic Party strategist Ann Lewis just sent out a mass email on behalf of former Wal-Mart Board of Directors member and now US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. In it, Lewis noted that Clinton suggests we should have: "An earned path to citizenship for those already here working hard, paying taxes, respecting the law, and willing to meet a high bar for becoming a citizen." Sounds nice. The same day, on his radio program, Rush Limbaugh told a woman whose husband is an illegal immigrant that she had nothing to worry about with regard to deportation of him or their children because all he'd have to do, according to the new law under consideration, is pay a small fine and learn English.

The current Directors of Wal-Mart are smiling.

Meanwhile, the millions of American citizens who came to this nation as legal immigrants, who waited in line for years, who did the hard work to become citizens, are feeling insulted, humiliated, and conned.

Shouldn't we be compassionate? Of course. But there is nothing compassionate about driving down the wages of any nation's middle class. It's the most cynical, self-serving, greedy, and sociopathic behavior you'll see from our "conservatives."

There is nothing compassionate about being the national enabler of a dysfunctional oligarchy like Mexico. An illegal workforce in the US sending an estimated $17 billion to Mexico every year (second only in national income to that country's oil revenues) supports an anti-democratic, anti-worker, hyperconservative administration there that gleefully ships out of that nation the “troublesome” Mexican citizens — those lowest on the economic food-chain and thus most likely to present "labor unrest" — to the USA. Mexico (and other "sending nations") need not deal with their own social and economic problems so long as we're willing to solve them for them, at the expense of our middle class. Democracy in Central and South America be damned; there are profits to be made for Wal-Mart!

Similarly, there is nothing compassionate about handing higher profits (through a larger and thus cheaper work force) to the CEOs of America's largest corporations and our now-experiencing-record-profits construction and agriculture industries.

What about caring for people in need? Isn't that the universal religious/ethical value? Of course.

A few years ago, when my family and I were visiting Europe, one of our children fell sick. A doctor came to the home of the people we were staying with, visited our child at 11 pm on a weeknight, left behind a course of antibiotics, and charged nothing. It was paid for by that nation's universal health care system. We should offer the same to any human being in need of medical care — a universal human right — in the United States. But if I'd applied to that nation I was visiting for a monthly unemployment or retirement check, I would have been laughed out of the local government office. And if I'd been caught working there, I would have been deported within a week. Caring for people in crisis/need is very different from giving a job or a monthly welfare check to non-citizens. No nation — even those in Central and South America — will do that. And neither should the United States.

The True Cost of Illegal Immigrant Workers

But if illegal immigrants won't pick our produce or bus our tables won't our prices go up? The most recent mass-emailed conservative variation of this argument, targeting paranoid middle-class Americans says: "Do you want to pay an extra $10,000 for your next house?" The answer is simple: Yes.

But wages would also go up, and even faster than housing or food prices. And CEO salaries, and corporate profits, might moderate back to the levels they were during the "golden age of the American middle class" between the 1940s and Reagan's declaration of war on the middle class in the 1980s. We saw exactly this scenario played out in the US fifty years ago, when unions helped regulate entry into the workforce, 35 percent of American workers had a union job, and 70 percent of Americans could raise a family on a single, 40-hour-week paycheck. All working Americans would gladly pay a bit more for their food if their paychecks were both significantly higher and more secure. This would even allow for an increase in the minimum wage, as it did from the 1930s to the 1980s.

But what about repressive régimes? Aren't we denying entrance to this generation's equivalent of the Jews fleeing Germany? This is the most tragic of all the arguments put forward by conservatives in the hopes compassionate progressives will bite. Our immigration policies already allow for refugees, and should be expanded. It's an issue that needs more national discussion and action. But giving a free pass to former Coca-Cola executive Vincente Fox to send workers to the US — and thus avoid having to deal with his own corrupt oligarchy — and to equate this to the Holocaust is an insult to the memory of those who died in Hitler's death camps, and to those suffering in places like Darfur under truly repressive regimes. There is no equivalence.

It's frankly astonishing to hear progressives reciting corporatist/racist/conservative talking points, recycled through conservative Democratic politicians trying to pander to the relatively small percentage of recently-legal (mostly through recent amnesties or birth) immigrants who are trying to get their relatives into this country by means of Bush's proposed guest worker program or the many variations thereof being proposed. It's equally astonishing to hear the few unions going along with this (in the sad/desperate hope of picking up new members) turn their backs on César Chávez and the traditions and history of America's Progressive and Union movements by embracing illegal immigration.

Every nation has an obligation to limit immigration to a number that will not dilute its workforce, but will maintain a stable middle class — if it wants to have a stable democracy. This has nothing to do with race, national origin, or language (visit Switzerland with it's ethnic- and language-dived areas!), and everything to do with economics.

Without a middle class, any democracy is doomed. And without labor having power — through control of labor availability — in relative balance to capital/management, no middle class can emerge. America's early labor leaders did not die to increase the labor pool for the Robber Barons or the Walton family; they died fighting to give control of it to the workers of their era and in the hopes that we would continue to hold it and inspire other nations with the same idea of democracy and a stable middle class.

The simple way to do this today is to require that all non-refugee immigrants go through the same process to become American citizens or legal workers in this country (no amnesties, no guest workers, no legalizations) regardless of how they got here; to confront employers who hire illegals with draconian financial and criminal penalties; and to affirm that while health care and the right to provide humanitarian care to all humans is an absolute right for all people within our boundaries regardless of status — a paycheck, education, or subsidy is not.

The Republican (and Democratic) corporatists who want a cheap labor force, and the Republican (and Democratic) racists who want to build a fence and punish humanitarian aid workers, are equally corrupt and anti-progressive. As long as employers are willing and able (without severe penalties) to hire illegal workers, people will risk life and limb to grab at the America Dream. When we stop hiring and paying them, most will leave of their own volition over a few years, and the remaining few who are committed to the US will obtain citizenship through normal channels.

This is, after all, the middle-class American Dream. And how much better this hemisphere would be if Central and South Americans were motivated to stay in their own nations (because no employer in the US would dare hire them) and fight there for a Mexican Dream and a Salvadoran Dream and a Guatemalan Dream, and so on. This is the historic progressive vision for all of the Americas.

Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show carried on the Air America Radio network and Sirius. His next book, due out this autumn, is Screwed: The Undeclared War on the Middle Class and What We Can Do About It. Visit for more information. This article was originally published on Wednesday, March 29, 2006 by