In Immigration Reform Debate, Labor Should Focus on Uniting the 99%

Coauthored by Jorge Cabrera, former Vice President of UAW Local 2865 and Organizer with UAW Local 5810, and Daraka Larimore-Hall, former President of UAW Local 2865.

Woven into our national conversation on immigration reform are divisive arguments pitting immigrants against U.S. workers – including workers of color.  These arguments aren’t just unfounded – they run counter to the goal of helping all workers organize against wage suppression and exploitation. As union members and immigrants’ rights activists, we think it’s time to re-frame the discussion.

Two recent articles by labor economist William Spriggs – a strong proponent of worker-centered immigration reform – demonstrate the importance of bringing more perspectives into the discussion. On one hand Spriggs recognizes the importance of pairing immigration reform with policies that foster job creation, and also rightly points out that previous periods of increased immigration such as the 1990s actually coincided with low unemployment. But Spriggs has also argued recently that immigrant workers on H-1B visas are encroaching on opportunities for African Americans in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) fields.  This unsubstantiated claim unfortunately feeds anti-immigrant sentiment and overlooks the roles that immigrants in high-tech have played in pushing for reforms that benefit all workers.  

While persistent unemployment facing people of color is a serious issue, the jobs picture is far more complicated than Spriggs suggests and he fails to show a causal link between H-1B demand and African American STEM employment. In fact, studies have found that cities with higher immigration rates have higher African American employment rates, and that two-thirds of African Americans support comprehensive immigration reform.

But more importantly, this line of argument perpetuates the view that US workers will be hurt by comprehensive immigration reform. While Spriggs’ provides historical context and nuance to this debate, it is important to respond on behalf of the thousands of high-tech immigrants we’ve helped organize for stronger workplace rights in UAW Locals 2865 and 5810, and many of who possess the same kinds of temporary work visas under discussion right now in Washington.

Immigrants are an indispensable and positive part of every sector of our economy. They toil in blue-collar sectors such as carwashes, as well as white collar sectors, such as University laboratories and classrooms. While too many lack union representation, many of them are proud union members and play a big role in the labor movement.

Our own experience – including successfully organizing a highly diverse and largely immigrant workforce – has shown us that the best way to improve conditions for all workers is to embrace immigrants and build unions to win strong contracts and raise standards.

There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about certain aspects of the Senate immigration bill and temporary visa programs that can disempower immigrant workers. However, we take a major step backwards when we promote the idea that immigrant workers in high-tech are holding back young people of color in today’s America, rather than racism, corporate greed and misguided public policy.

As Spriggs outlines, the history of US immigration policy is littered with xenophobic and nativist complaints about a group of workers coming in and “stealing” American jobs. We are hearing similar complaints again now, belying unfounded fears that a new generation of immigrants are not only taking our jobs, but that their children are taking our seats at our nation’s colleges and universities, as is the case with DREAMERS. Yet we are off the mark when we blame immigrant families for the problems with unemployment and our economy.

In our personal experience, we have seen how anti-immigrant movements often use dubious arguments about a strained economy to pit one community against another (Proposition 187 is one glaring example in California). Instead of blaming immigrant families who are also part of the 99%, we ought to embrace immigrant workers and organize against the corporate bosses who are creating this mess in the first place. We should also continue to be a leading voice in the fight for comprehensive, fair, and pro-worker immigration reform.

A key aspect of that should be increased protections for temporary workers on the job, as well as a clearer visa process that includes a pathway to citizenship. Another aspect, as Spriggs correctly notes, should be making job creation a top priority to ensure that immigrants boosting our economy get good jobs with a living wage and good benefits – ideally, with union representation. Without such jobs, our economy will continue to limp along as it has been for far too long.

We are proud, active participants in the work that the labor movement is doing every day to move this country closer to a progressive immigration policy. We look forward to continue to fight together, for the rights and benefits of every worker.

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