Overview: Migrant Labor and Contested Public Space

Social Justice, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Overview: Migrant Labor and Contested Public Space


Editors

WHEN THE ISSUE OF UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS ARISES IN THE UNITED States, THE Mexican border dominates public discussion due to media depictions and an intense anti-immigrant lobby. How immigration policy and the tenor of this polarizing issue will change under the Obama administration is still unclear. President Obama's campaign promise to put millions of undocumented immigrants on the pathway to citizenship may be postponed until his second term, disappointing Latino leaders and immigration advocates. Early signs, according to Adalberto Aguirre, are that employer sanctions and work verification will be promoted, along with methods for border security that do not necessarily criminalize immigrants. However, economic crises often strengthen pressures to deport undocumented workers and to emphasize law enforcement over worker and human rights. As Adalberto Aguirre, Jr., and Jennifer K. Simmers show, the 700-mile fence Congress approved along the U.S.-Mexico border has become a monument in the built environment that shields politically acceptable behavior (e.g., U.S. citizens) from threats (e.g., an invasion of Mexican border crossers). Border crossers from Mexico into the United States are perceived as illegal or illegitimate. Thus conceived, a militarized border takes the form of National Guard postings in "Operation Jump Start," pilot-less drone aircraft, and other variations on an electronic battlefield. Stopping the movement of Mexican bodies across this transnational and transcultural space robs it of the opportunity to perform as a cultural expression for crossers and residents.

Today, even the AFL-CIO maintains that such barriers will not discourage impoverished people from attempting undocumented entry, but will instead push the problem from one location to another. For nearly a century, mainstream labor organizations and the parties representing them associated themselves with nationalist principles and an imperial agenda, refusing to organize the immigrant sector of the labor force. Indeed, business unionism constituted a core constituent of the anti-immigrant lobby. Tanya Basok's article documents the shift of organized labor to a moderately pro-migrant position. Part of the change is accounted for by the rise of individuals to positions of power within unions whose families have experienced the humiliations associated with undocumented status. There has also been a growing recognition that it is in the interest of unions, whose clout has diminished markedly over the last three decades, to protect this growing segment of the workforce.

Loren Redwood's article on immigrant workers in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast reveals the limited reach of labor's new direction. Bush administration policies aimed at rebuilding the Deep South after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita lured low-wage Latino workers (documented and undocumented) with promises of plentiful and lucrative employment in cleanup and construction projects. The article details the significant demographic implications of this policy, as well as the appalling work conditions and criminal employer practices it facilitated. Carol Cleaveland and Laura Kelly's essay, "Shared Social Space and Strategies to Find Work," demonstrates the tensions that arose in the city of Freeport due to an influx of Mexican migrants hoping to find work in landscaping and construction as part of New Jersey's housing and development boom. …

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