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After the ‘day without immigrants’

The marches and strikes by 'illegal' workers should be an inspiration to all Americans.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

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It wasn’t the biggest walkout in American history but it was significant. From New York to Chicago, in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, hundreds of thousands of people left work to attend rallies in support of pro-immigration reform.

Almost everywhere there was something. There were gatherings in smaller cites and towns in Kansas and South Carolina, South Dakota, Arkansas and Georgia. There were immigrants from all over Latin America. There were people from India and the Middle East, Africa and China, but the vast majority were from Mexico. They waved the Mexican flag and sang the new, controversial (and much more lyrical) Spanish language version of the American national anthem.

Across the country businesses closed or reduced their hours to accommodate the day of action. Areas such as construction and agriculture were particularly affected. Houses were not built. Lawns remained uncut, gardens unweeded and crops languished in the field. Major poultry processors and meat packers like Pilgrim’s Pride Corp and Tyson Foods Inc were forced to cut back production or halt operations altogether. Even some McDonald’s locations were forced to shut down except for their drive-thrus.

More striking than the relatively mild economic disruption was the degree of tacit support among employers who depend on illegal immigrants for their workforce. Many accepted the fact that their employees would not turn up for work and did not penalise them, while others actively encouraged their workers to attend. There is a growing consensus that something should be done to safeguard the supply of immigrant labour.

There are an estimated 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the USA. They are agricultural workers, builders, cleaners and landscapers. They work in restaurants and food preparation, in warehouses and manufacturing. They don’t enjoy the same rights or entitlement to benefits that legal workers do, but the employment system has evolved to include them as a matter of practicality. The Internal Revenue Service allows them to pay taxes using a specially issued identification number. This can be used to gain access to banking services, loans and even mortgages. In areas with large immigrant populations some health benefits are provided regardless of legal status. Many raise families, buy homes and build lives with a degree of permanency that speaks volumes about the centrality of undocumented workers to the American economy.

Unfortunately none of the reforms on offer is particularly satisfactory. President George W Bush favours establishing a guest worker programme and offering illegal workers who are already living in the USA a ‘path to citizenship’. The guest worker programme would grant temporary legal status to Mexican workers for up to six years but offers no possibility of obtaining permanent residence or a green card. The permit rests with the employer, so workers would not be free to leave their positions and would be deported if they were fired.

Republican opponents of the Bush plan argue that it rewards people who have broken the law and is unfair to workers who immigrated legally. Some conservatives go even further, preferring simply to round up all 11 million illegal immigrants and deport them. They also – rather surreally – want to build a giant wall along the US-Mexico border to keep immigrants out. Democrats and liberals generally agree that undocumented workers should be granted legal status, but do not wholeheartedly support new immigration because they worry that a permanent pool of low-waged workers would have the effect of keeping wages low for everyone.

In fact, the only solution that makes sense is to abolish immigration controls between Mexico and the USA altogether.

Opening the border would make it possible for workers to come and go without jeopardising their livelihoods. Some would settle in the USA but many others would return home. Rather than seeing immigrant workers as a threat to jobs and wages, or the inevitable victims of unscrupulous employment practices, Americans should help them gain the leverage they need to make employers pay their entire workforce – immigrants or native born – decent wages.

This week showed that immigrant workers are far from vulnerable. Their aspiration to improve their lives to the point of taking serious risks to come to the USA, their determination not to accept their fate, and their willingness to use their collective muscle to drive their message home, are things that all American workers could do with more of.

Nancy McDermott is a writer based in New York.

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Topics Politics

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