In a statement released last week announcing the coalition gearing up for the legal battle against Arizona’s SB 1070, the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project’s Omar Jadwat states, “Arizona’s law is quintessentially un-American: we are not a ‘show me your papers’ country, nor one that believes in subjecting people to harassment, investigation and arrest simply because others may perceive them as foreign.” He continues, “This law violates the Constitution and interferes with federal law, and we are confident that we will prevent it from ever taking effect.”
But this is not the first time the US has enacted legislation that has led to widespread harassment and criminalization of immigrants and people of color. Similarly “un-American” legislation has sprinkled US history since the late 19th century. In her guest column at oregonlive.com from May 17, Washington State University Department of Women’s Studies and American Studies assistant professor Luz María Gordilla reminds us that:
“…At the end of the 19th century, the United States aggressively recruited Chinese labor while implementing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which curtailed all Chinese immigration to the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century and continuing until World War II, the United States recruited Japanese immigrants, again to promote economic growth by exploiting cheap labor. In another bout of xenophobic hysteria, the nation imprisoned not only Japanese immigrants but also Japanese-Americans.”
The 1924 Immigration Act targeting all Asian immigrants, as well as the Bracero program and “Operation Wetback” should be added to the list above in illustrating the hypocritical policy of recruiting immigrants to exploit their cheap labor and then enacting harsh anti-immigrant measures. While it is important to recognize this hypocrisy, it is even more important to recognize what is often overlooked by both the pro- and anti-immigrant camps: coupling exploitation of immigrants with anti-immigrant policy is the perfect recipe for workforce control.
When a workforce is exploited many times immigrant and native workers turn their efforts toward organizing. During the early 20th century, Japanese contracted workers, although not formally organized, developed innovative ways of avoiding labor competition and scabs before striking by working satisfactorily for a season and then, after being contracted and returning for a second season, would refuse to work if not given higher wages and shorter hours. The United Farm Workers began their historic campaign against poverty wages and working conditions in the grape fields of California when Filipino immigrant workers decided to strike in Delano and Chicano workers joined them. Immigrant workers in Florida have gained historic concessions from the retail food industry through the Campaign for Fair Food, and immigrant and African American workers have joined forces to demand fair development at Baltimore’s popular tourist destination, the Inner Harbor.
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But when workers find themselves exploited on the job and terrorized in the community, it’s a different story entirely. Immigrant workers often find themselves stuck between poverty working conditions on one side and criminalization on the other, causing them to question whether organizing will get them deported. The 1924 Immigration Act, ending Asian immigration and preventing Asians and Asian Americans from participating in most aspects of US society, effectively ended the power of Japanese and Japanese American field workers to demand better hours and higher wages. The combination of Operation Wetback in 1954 and relaxing regulation concerning housing and wages in the Bracero program created a controlled, unorganized workforce that California growers regularly used to break strikes and keep wages down. The UFW only began enjoying widespread victory after the end of the Bracero program in 1964. In 2007, when workers at a Tar Heel, NC, Smithfield poultry packing plant began organizing, the employer began working closely with ICE officials and facilitated a raid where 21 workers were arrested. In August 2008, the largest single shop raid in ICE history—where 389 workers were detained—disrupted both a UFCW union drive as well as a Dept of Labor investigation into child labor at an Iowa Agriprocessors meatpacking plant. Workers, living in fear and recoiling from organizing, are subjugated to low wages, disrespect, and control, while employers benefit from those exploitative working conditions and an unorganized workforce.
Pro-immigrant forces need to see the connection between workplace exploitation on one hand and the criminalization of immigrants on the other. Harsh anti-immigrant measures not only open the door for widespread violations of civil rights and threaten our civil liberties, as groups such as the ACLU have argued, but also create a climate of fear in which workers are less likely to fight for their rights on the job. From this perspective, we can see that immigrant rights are also workers’ rights and human rights.
The criminalization of immigrants, whether in 1882, 1942 or today, is a gross violation of human rights. In our organizing we must reject the notion that comprehensive immigration reform, as proponed by the Center for American Progress and Senator Schumer, can somehow include increased border militarization and criminalization of immigrants. We must maintain that all people, regardless of country of origin, deserve a living wage and a voice on the job and in the community, and that all people have the right to live and work without fear.
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