Racism, Immigration, and Profit

Shamus Cooke

People are rightly confused about the issue of immigration — it is a complex phenomenon and many things need to be considered. Often times, there seem to be equally compelling arguments and statistics on either side of the issue, creating even more confusion.

Unfortunately, the immigration debate is often tinged or even marred by racism – usually subtly, sometimes openly. This feeling finds a receptive audience not because of prejudice, but out of fear. Indeed, racism cannot exist without fear. We believe that, at bottom, recent immigration-related topics — from ballot measures to border fences — directly or indirectly contain elements of racism and fear. Unraveling the basis for this fear, as well as those in charge of creating it, is essential if one is to make an informed decision on the immigration question. While doing this, we will attempt to uncover the deeper reasons that have created the atmosphere that has projected this issue on to center stage.

There are two main slogans that rally people against immigrants. Both contain elements of truth. The first is simple: “immigrants are illegal.” Crossing the border without proper documentation is in fact illegal in the United States, and becoming a citizen is becoming increasingly difficult for political reasons. Therefore, immigrants are given the loaded label of “criminal,” even though their crime is largely an administrative one — akin to a parking ticket. Because of their generally darker skin, Latino immigrants are easier to target and isolate than others. Negative feelings towards these people are encouraged and eventually accumulate; action is demanded to punish the “felons.” (The 2005 Sensenbrenner bill attempted to make undocumented entry into the US a felony.) Since it is impossible to know who is a citizen, documented, or undocumented, Latinos as a whole are often times labeled “criminals” — the subtle seed of racism has fully sprouted.

The second anti-immigration slogan is the more profound of the two, and is the real reason behind the intense interest in the subject: “They’re taking our jobs.” This motto is effective for many reasons. Some of them are true. If the surface is scratched, the real fear behind the slogan reveals itself: the average American worker is very nervous about the economy and the ability to make a living wage. The negative energy that emerges from this feeling must be channeled somewhere; something must be done, someone must be blamed. Immigrants are being made the scapegoats — the interest groups responsible for blaming them are infinitely guiltier for the problems the country is facing.

To put things in perspective, it should be noted that while there is a flood of immigrants entering the United States, there is a tsunami of dollars leaving it. The US has become an unpopular place to invest. Corporate flight is the now-infamous name for the phenomenon of large corporations and rich investors fleeing North America for cheap labor in China, India, and anywhere else where slave-wages are predominant. The same rich investors and their political representatives are also the ones responsible for writing corporate free-trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA that are largely responsible for the mass exodus of people from Mexico and Central America trying to avoid impoverishment and starvation. The same rich investors are the ones responsible for shifting the blame for these problems away from themselves and toward immigrants.

The immigration debate also serves as a convenient distraction device for a government — Republican and Democrat alike — that continues to wage an unpopular war, destroys civil liberties, and allows corporations to accumulate billions while the average worker is steadily impoverished. The specific groups that are the most consistent advocates of corporate greed are also the ones most eager to obsess about the immigration debate. These groups are typically conservative, corporate oriented foundations or business groups that channel millions of dollars into television ads, politicians’ hands, and think-tanks in an effort to artificially focus the countries attention on the immigration debate. They are able to publish books, finance radio stations, and promote speaking tours to advance their ideas.

While pushing their anti-immigrant agenda, these elite-driven groups are profiting handsomely from immigrant workers — directly or indirectly. The fact is that immigrant workers are good for corporate profits: they have no legal protection from being paid below minimum wage; or being paid at all! They have no way to defend themselves from unsafe working conditions, or being worked inhuman hours (it is safe to assume that an employer will call the INS if he suspects an immigrant of organizing a union).

Ultimately, employers use immigrants to compete with others for increasingly scarce jobs, lowering the wages of all. The conflicting interests of the mega corporations — using immigrants for profits versus using them as scapegoats — that has created hesitation in government, between those politicians who want laxer immigrant laws to boost corporate profits, against those who want immigrants blamed for every social issue under the sun (so that they are free to act as they wish).

The United States is in the middle of not only a deep economic crisis, but a vast social transformation: away from a manufacturing economy and towards a service economy. The result is that less wealth is produced and fewer jobs are available. Wages are consequently lowered; and competition for even low paying jobs intensifies. The corporations and politicians responsible for this do not want the political attention for it. Nor do they want to be held responsible for the economy’s deterioration, jobs being destroyed, and trillion dollar corporate bailouts.

Thus, the corporate demand for mass immigrant scapegoating will grow. The subtle racism behind the anti-immigrant campaign has already grown openly explicit. The anti-immigration movement, which began as a fringe group of white supremacists and ultra-right politicians, now has a gigantic bankroll and has grown to encompass popular television and radio personalities.

The phenomenon of large-scale ethnic scapegoating has a logic of its own. Statistics from the FBI suggest that anti-Latino hate crimes have risen by almost 35 percent since 2003. History teaches that, if allowed to grow unchecked, this type of phenomenon can reach “irrational” proportions. It is not an exaggeration to say that similar processes were at work — albeit on a larger scale — behind the extermination of the Jews under Hitler, the genocide in Rwanda, not to mention the more recent ethnic based slaughter in South Africa. The need, therefore, to understand this controversial subject is becoming imminently important.

To recognize the immigration issue for what it is — a classic example of the divide and conquer tactic — is the first step toward approaching the topic with an informed perspective. Employers benefit from a divided workforce, with the categories of “legal” and “illegal” being especially useful. In the same vein, the mega — corporations who control the government benefit from a divided society. They would rather we fight each other than question their rule or privileges. For the US worker, there can only be one effective response: to fight for equal rights for all working people in the country. The old saying, “an injury to one is an injury to all” has never been more relevant a slogan, nor as necessary to put into action, since the political polarization in the country will continue to match the rapid widening of economic inequality.

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action. He can be reached at portland@workerscompass.org