Falsehoods about immigrant workers

Historians call the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 a tragic part of our history. With this act, Chinese workers were denied citizenship. Despite the words on the Statue of Liberty and the principles of democracy, it remained in effect until 1943.

But unprincipled politicians continue to use fear and hatred as tactics to remain in power. The November elections unmasked many of them.

In its statement of support for the 2003 Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride, the AFL-CIO called for “(1) legalization, including the right of immigrant workers in the United States to live and work in this country and become its citizens; and (2) the right of immigrant workers to unite their families in the United States if they wish.” In a Nov. 16, 2004, speech at Columbia University, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney noted that immigrant workers — documented as well as undocumented — are disproportionately represented in dangerous industries such as construction, manufacturing and agriculture.

“It is shameful,” he said, “that in 2002, foreign-born workers suffered 69 percent of the workplace fatalities in our country, even though they make up just 15 percent of our workforce.” He called for “a rational and fair immigration policy that respects the rights of all workers; we need a path to full citizenship for workers who’ve been contributing so much to our nation.”

Opponents of immigrant rights claim that the undocumented cause low wages, unemployment and shortages in government services. These charges are both false and hurtful to all workers.

These arguments fail to address several important points. Employers use nonunion work to depress wages, whether the nonunion worker is an immigrant or not. In fact, immigrants have a much higher percentage of trade union membership than U.S.-born workers — the percentage for all nonwhite workers is also higher than the percentage for white workers.

Undocumented immigrants have legal problems that most other workers do not have. Many lose their jobs because of their undocumented status. When they are forced to work in nonunion jobs, employers do use their lower income to depress wages. However, deportation and walls are not a solution to maintaining and raising wage rates. Strikes and negotiations raise wages. A path to citizenship for undocumented workers and their families would further trade union unity and strengthen unions; deportation would weaken the labor movement. If we are sincerely interested in the wages of U.S. workers, citizenship and trade union membership would be an immediate solution.

It is not undocumented workers who plan for the economy to run at less than full capacity. Undocumented workers do not promote layoffs. Undocumented workers do not oppose extensions of unemployment insurance, civil rights, public works and legislation to stop runaway shops. Undocumented workers do not stand in the way of minimum wage increases, strengthened labor standards and OSHA enforcement. Nor are they responsible for policies like NAFTA and other “free trade” agreements that rob workers in other countries of their livelihoods. However, those same policies, which harm immigrants and also depress the standards for our country’s native-born workers, are the very policies of the Bush administration.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that between 1998 and 2008, the number of jobs will have increased by 20 million, but the number of workers will have increased by just 17 million. Our economy needs 500,000 new workers each year and is constantly searching for workers. U.S. layoffs are primarily caused by corporate downsizing and capital flight to other countries where wages are lower.

Immigrants add about $10 billion each year to the U.S. economy. That does not include the additional contribution of immigrant-owned businesses or the impact of highly skilled immigrants on overall productivity.

The total net benefit (taxes paid over benefits received) to the Social Security system in today’s dollars from continuing current levels of immigration is predicted as nearly $500 billion for the 1998-2022 period and nearly $2 trillion through 2072.

However, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for most social programs such as welfare, food stamps, Medicaid and disability protection. Except for pre-natal care, they are deprived of government-provided medical treatment, except in emergencies. Undocumented workers contribute to the well-being of citizens but do not qualify for the entitlements that they work to support.

U.S. global economic and military policies enrich Wall Street but are responsible for lowering the standard of living and damaging the stability of poor and less developed countries. That causes increased pressure on people in these countries to immigrate to wealthier nations like the U.S. in an attempt to support their families. When workers do make the arduous trip to come here and contribute to our nation’s economy, offering citizenship would be an act of justice.

Lou Incognito is a retiree and social justice activist in Philadelphia.