The comic strip adventures of Mr. Block first appeared in 1912 in publications of the Industrial Workers of the World. With his thick, cubic head, Mr. Block, the creation of IWW cartoonist Ernest Riebe, typified a classic type of US worker: scoffing at the idea of working-class solidarity, Mr. Block always sided with his employers against labor organizers, convinced that subservience would make him rich, happy, and possibly president of the United States. Ignoring warnings from Mrs. Block and other workers, in the last frame of each strip he ended up crushed by the bosses he had so loyally supported.
Mr. Block is alive and well a century later in the debate over immigration.
With undocumented immigrants making up four or five percent of the US workforce, the need for solidarity between foreign and native-born workers should be clear. The labor movement recognizes this; in the late 1990s the unions reversed their longstanding anti-immigrant policies and announced plans for organizing among out-of-status workers. But many native-born workers haven’t come along. Even people who have perfectly reasonable views on issues like health care, corporate globalization, and the war in Iraq echo the anti‑immigrant slogans of right-wingers like TV pundit Lou Dobbs.
Some progressives despair of changing the minds of people under the sway of the talk shows; the best we can hope for, many say, is to get some less repressive legislation through Congress by backing the “moderate” immigration policies of the Democratic politicians and George W. Bush.
But is the situation really so bleak? Our pessimism about addressing Mr. Block’s concerns is often self-perpetuating. Many progressives have never actually made the effort, and when they do, they frequently undercut their own case by using arguments from liberal economists and the employer associations.
“Immigrants just take jobs Americans don’t want,” pro-immigrant activists often say. This argument understandably fails to convince native-born workers, who see immigrants working behind counters or installing dry wall — jobs many citizens would be more than happy to get, at decent pay and with decent working conditions. And well-intentioned economists like David Card of the University of California at Berkeley don’t help when they ignore workers’ concerns about the downward pressure on wages from undocumented immigrants.
Economists are divided on the size of this downward pressure, but most agree that low-wage workers are the ones who suffer most; native-born high school dropouts may see their pay checks cut by as much as five percent, according to some economists. Professor Card dismisses this — from the vantage point of a secure middle-class job — with the remark that the loss is only 50 or 60 cents an hour.1
The irony of all this is that the wage issue is just where pro-immigrant forces have the strongest argument, if only they are willing to use it.
Facing the Wage Issue
If competition from low-wage undocumented workers tends to drive wages down for other workers, the obvious question is: why do these immigrants work for less? There are in fact a number of reasons, including lower expectations, lower educational levels, and a lack of English-language skills. But probably the main reason is simply the workers’ “illegal” status.2
Because of the immigration laws — a massive set of arcane regulations about which most citizens actually know nothing — out-of-status immigrants live in a shadow world where workers are scared to organize, to demand a living wage, to protest safety violations. And the calls to “enforce our laws,” when they are implemented, just aggravate the situation. Making entry at the border with Mexico more dangerous and expensive leaves the workers more vulnerable once they’ve finally arrived here. “Workplace enforcement,” advertised as a way to punish employers for illegal hiring, simply adds to the workers’ vulnerability. Immigrants are hardly more likely to form unions or go on strike when they know their bosses can call for dozens of armed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to mount a military-style operation in the factory and haul out workers in handcuffs.
Remove the “illegality” and the situation immediately improves, both for the undocumented immigrants and for those who work beside them. The Department of Labor estimated that undocumented workers who took advantage of the 1986 amnesty saw their pay go up by about 15 percent over five years. A new amnesty for the approximately seven million undocumented workers now in the country would probably provide an upward pressure on the wages of other workers in the same industries by one to five percent.3 For native-born workers, it is a straightforward matter of self-interest to oppose anti-immigrant measures — and in fact to call for a new and broader legalization program.
It’s true that Mr. Block isn’t going to be won over in the near future. His wooden head is too filled with disinformation and prejudices. But the sensible Mrs. Block and many other workers will respond to an honest, patient campaign to discuss the realities of the immigration debate.
This sort of campaign on immigration is in fact indispensable if we’re serious about progressive politics in this country. Throughout US history anti‑immigrant hysteria has kept workers divided and conquered. Historian Aviva Chomsky compares the problem to what happened in the old South, which was “far behind the North in labor organizing and the gains in workers’ rights” because of the “dispossession and disenfranchisement of African Americans.”4 White workers made progress mostly on the occasions when they overcame their own racism and organized with African Americans.
In the same way, native-born workers will need to overcome their xenophobia if they want unions in the workplace, and healthcare, decent schools and a decent environment in their communities. And right now there are obvious practical arguments for solidarity with immigrant workers, who seem to be much more active than their native-born counterparts. Despite the mounting repression against them, in 2006 immigrants organized what was probably the biggest May 1 demonstration in US history — and one of the biggest protests ever on the continent. Even Mr. Block might eventually see the wisdom of uniting with a force like that.
2 A 1999 study of male Mexican immigrant workers found that “undocumented migrants working in the non-agricultural sector earned wages that were 22 percent lower than those earned by documented migrants with similar characteristics”; wages were an additional 33 percent lower for agricultural workers. Julie A. Phillips and Douglas A. Massey, “The New Labor Market: Immigrants and Wages After IRCA,” Demography, Vol. 36, No. 2 (May, 1999), 244.
3 Raul Hinojosa Ojeda, Robert McCleery, Enrico Marcelli, Fernando de Paolis, David Runsten, Marysol Sanchez, “Comprehensive Migration Policy Reform in North America: The Key to Sustainable and Equitable Economic Integration,” North American Integration and Development Center, School of Public Policy and Social Research, University of California, Los Angeles, August 29, 2001, 28, 30, naid.ucla.edu/ImmigReform83001.pdf.
4 Aviva Chomsky, “They Take Our Jobs!” And 20 Other Myths About Immigration (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007), 27.
David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007).