If Past Is Prologue: Americans' Future "Guilt" about Today's Use of Low-Pay Immigrant Labor

Article excerpt

One of the major arguments made by those who support today's massive immigration from Mexico and the Third World into the United States is that the immigrants, and especially those who come in illegally, are "doing work Americans won't do." What is not realized is that there is already an extensive literature, written mainly by activists for the immigrant ethnic groups themselves, that charges that the widespread use of low-pay labor from an impoverished immigrant underclass is "exploitation." The point of this article is that if precedents such as the widespread elevation of Cesar Chavez to hero status are any guide to the forces at work within the United States, the day will almost certainly come when mainstream American society will be caused by its opinion-makers in academia and the media to look back upon the current use of immigrant labor as reason for shame rather than self-congratulation, much as Americans have already been caused, through similar alienation, to reevaluate much of their country's history as carrying a heavy legacy of guilt.

Key Words: Immigration; Immigrant labor; Low-pay labor; Exploitation concept; Americans' feelings of guilt; Cesar Chavez; Japanese-American relocation.

In the United States, the debate over immigration is now as heated as it has ever been. Vast numbers of immigrants have come into the country, some legally and millions of others illegally, since the 1965 legislation that took away the preference for Europeans and opened the doors to the Third World. Although it is correct to think that much of this immigration has come from Mexico, the river has been fed by many streams.

Some of the immigration has been to fill high-pay jobs in, for example, engineering and the computer industry. Most of it, however, has been to find employment in minimum wage, or even sub-minimum wage, jobs in primarily the agricultural, construction, manufacturing, hospitality and domestic-work sectors. Although garment industry workers have been supplanted by outsourcing in most of the United States, such work has become a major part of the economy in Los Angeles, where tens of thousands of Latinos, many of them illegal immigrants, work for sub-contractors, mostly Asian, who in turn produce garments for apparel manufacturers of many nationalities.2 As one Latino columnist has said about low-pay work, "There's always a job waiting for those who will do the dirtiest jobs under the worst conditions for the lowest pay and the most paltry of benefits."3

The debate over whether the influx should be stopped, and over what to do about the illegal immigrants already in the country, has many facets. One of the more persuasive arguments made by those who look on the immigration favorably is economic: that the newcomers are "doing work Americans won't do" (or "don't want to do"). Many employers and individuals seeking domestic help welcome the presence of a vast pool of inexpensive workers. In so doing, they are by no means exceptional, given the history of economic systems. Low-pay labor has been typical, not atypical, in human societies from time immemorial. Until the beginning of the anti-slavery movement in England in the late eighteenth century, slavery was an accepted institution almost everywhere; and the equivalent of slavery has come in many forms, such as peonage in Mexico and serfdom in Russia. It is doubtful, however, that today's Americans who use low-pay immigrant labor see themselves as part of this tradition. Rather, the statement that "immigrants are doing what Americans won't do" is usually said in the most upbeat fashion, with the intimation that it is a happy fact for which the society can be thankful.

This is a felicity enjoyed in both the pocketbook and psyche of those benefiting, but it comes by way of ignoring several realities and storm clouds. The benefits are indeed widespread - to businesses and consumers, who are able to produce and consume cheaply. But there are costs, some severe. …