Immigration: Whose Dilemma?

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Hector Ramos

ONCE AGAIN THE Simpson-Mazzoli-Rodino bill is being discussed by the House Judiciary Committee. It is scheduled to be discussed by the full House this summer. Two versions of the proposal have already been passed previously, including one just last year. Both those bills died, in one instance when the House voted down the Senate version, in the other when a House-Senate conference could not arrive at a common bill.

The Simpson-Mazzoli-Rodino bill is designed to “regain control of the border.” Its sponsors hope to stop “the flow of new immigrants,” especially Mexicans and Central Americans. In order to achieve that goal, the bill proposes to reinforce the immigration police and to deport “illegals” who have entered the country in the last five years.

The bill also would make illegal the hiring of undocumented workers. Until now, even though it has been illegal for the undocumented to work in the United States, it has not been illegal for employers to hire them.

Finally, the bill holds open the promise of legal residency for those who have been working continuously since 1980 or 1982. And it would create a guest worker program, in which the United States would contract with the Mexican government for a certain number of workers each growing season, sending them back when the crops have been picked. Needless to say, these workers would be deprived of any trade union rights during their temporary residency.(1)

In the last decade, a great number of papers have been written and many panels and conferences have been organized to discuss immigration issues, primarily the issue of “illegal” Mexican immigrants, but also, especially in the last several years, the issue of Central American refugees. Every single sector of U.S. society has taken part in the debate: Congress, business, labor unions, the government, the mass media, the church, political parties, minority ethnic and racial groups, movie stars, celebrities, and so on. Within each of these groups, important differences have emerged.


The U.S. government has a fundamental problem with respect to Latino immigrant workers. On the one hand, there are important economic and political reasons that insure the use of immigrant labor, regardless of the formal aspects of the law.

Yet a massive Latino immigration will inevitably create a racial, cultural, political and geopolitical challenge for the U.S. government as a result of the influx of people who, by virtue of their oppression, tend to be receptive to a progressive political agenda.

The contradiction between these two factors helps to explain why the government has been incapable of passing a law like Simpson-Mazzoli-Rodino after nearly a decade of calling for immigration reform. It also explains why there are many traditionally reactionary sectors that have an interest in seeing a limited and highly regulated legalization of the economic immigration crossing the Southern border.

Because of the economic crisis, the fall in the rate of profit, and the increase of international competition, the economy is undergoing a process of restructuring. This involves: (a) a reduction in the cost of production and attendant downward pressures on wages and benefits; b) a simplification and internationalization of the production process.

Inherent in this process is the need for larger numbers of unskilled workers. Capitalists find the Latino immigrant work force, particularly the Mexican work force, to have many desirable characteristics. They are able to use Latino workers effectively in jobs that are unskilled, high-turnover, low-wage, menial, and labor-intensive. Furthermore, the Latino workforce has neither legal nor trade union rights and is entirely flexible in terms of night shifts, overtime, or weekend work.

Therefore, the U.S. economy, far from reducing its reliance on the immigrant workers, has been increasing it. This restructuring of the labor force means that there is on the one hand an increase both in technical, specialized, well-paid work and on the other in poorly-paid unskilled work. Of course, this dual tendency occurs at the expense of semi-skilled work.

The simplification of the work process through increasingly sophisticated high-tech machinery has been to the detriment of the skills of the individual worker, who has had to pay for this gradual loss of control of the production process with reduced salaries and poorer working conditions.

In order to reduce wages, Capital has three alternatives: (a) break or weaken the unions; (b) move to regions in which cheap labor is plentiful and doesn’t enjoy union rights; and/or (c) recruit “illegal” workers who, because of their own situation, accept whatever working conditions and wages they are offered.

Meanwhile, at the level of the economic system, the proportion of unskilled, poorly-paid jobs being created is higher than that of skilled jobs. On the other hand, the educational, technical and professional level of the society as a whole is rising as are the wage expectations and social prestige of those who possess those skills.

The downward pressure on wages, social factors that determine which jobs are acceptable to whom, and the rising skill level of the U.S. population, help to explain at least in part why, despite the high level of unemployment, the immigration of undocumented workers continues to increase.

“Across the Sunbelt (Southwest) the idea of life without illegals is almost as alarming as the thought of life without sunshine,” says the Wall Street Journal in regard to the presence of illegal immigrants.(2) More important, President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors recently noted that “immigration to the U.S. increases total employment and output in this country as well as the per­capita income of the native-born population, and they provide a net fiscal benefit, using relatively fewer services and paying more taxes.”(3)

Therefore, Mexicans are coming to this country not just because they are “poor and hungry,” as the media say, but because they constitute an important link in the chain of production for the U.S. economy.(4)

Workers and Scapegoats

The observations by the Wall Street Journal and the Council of Economic Advisors are significant, considering that they constitute the first public acceptance by business groups and conservative economists of undocumented immigrant workers as representing “a net gain for the nation.” This acceptance is important because the mass media and the government have historically publicized the idea that undocumented workers are “a burden on the country,” an idea widely accepted by the great majority of U.S. citizens. In the fight for the right of the undocumented workers this myth bears reexamining.

Several business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau, and the California Roundtable, as well as the Heritage Foundation and some conservative economists (including the notorious Milton Friedman) accept the “net gain for the nation” concept and fear the passage of laws punishing businesses for hiring “illegal aliens.”

It is very likely that, if such laws were passed, sanctions against employees would not be enforced. However, the business world has never readily accepted laws which made their most practical functions illegal.

It is important to point out that the dividing lines over immigrations reform are drawn differently than on any other political issue. Some conservative sectors are on the same side as Chicano-Latino and leftist organizations. In a conference on immigration organized by the University of California, Mike Garcia, a labor organizer representing the Service Employees International Union commented, “I never imagined that I could be on the same side as the Heritage Foundation.” Later the representative of the Heritage Foundation replied, “This is the first time that we agree with the American Civil Liberties Union.”

But as part of this same general contradiction between sometimes counterposed economic and political necessities. Mexican and Central American immigrants also serve as the ideal demons whose exorcism will cure the social and political problems of this country.

Traditionally, the U.S. government, the union bureaucracy, racist and conservative policymakers, and organizations such as the Moral Majority, “U.S. English,” Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Zero Population Growth, and Population-Environment Balance, Inc. have accused Mexican immigrants of causing unemployment and helping to lower the level of social and medical services available to U.S. citizens. To the extent that social, economic, and political problems in the United States have worsened, the number of organizations that address the problem of the “illegals” has increased. These groups attribute almost every problem to the presence of the undocumented. The following advertisement was placed in the April 3, 1986 San Francisco Chronicle and other local newspapers by Population­Environment Balance, Inc., formerly known as The Environmental Fund:

“What do you think has caused our traffic jams? Our pollution? Increased crime? And higher taxes? Here’s what: . . . population growth. Most of this growth is due to immigration. And mostly to illegal immigration.”

In the current election campaign, conservative candidates, mostly from California, have linked “illegal aliens” to drug trafficking and “terrorism.” A television advertisement for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike Antonovich shows him standing on a bluff overlooking several hundred aliens massing on the other side of the border. The candidate then goes on to say that “illegal immigration cost American taxpayers billions of dollars a year, provides a conduit for drugs and may allow terrorists into the country.”

These campaigns have had their desired effect of causing a collective hysteria against immigrant workers. This is reflected in the popular demand for restrictive immigration legislation.

Political Potential of Latino Immigration

The Latino immigrant work force presents a challenge in both the long and the short terms for those in power. It represents a fundamental challenge to politically and ideologically racist U.S. institutions as well as for white U.S. citizens who are still impregnated with strong racist ideology. The numerical growth of minorities (Brown, Black, Yellow) is a challenge to this institutionally racist system.

Fear of this challenge is manifested by R.D. Mazzoli in his famous immigration reform proposal: “If the separation of language and culture exceeds a certain level, the unity and political stability of the nation, in time, would be seriously eroded. That unity comes from a common language and from a basic public culture formed by certain shared values, convictions and customs, that makes us distinctly Americans.”(5)

Immigration is also a challenge to conservativism in the United States. Because they do not have any legal protection, new Latino immigrants continue to be easily manipulated and used for reactionary ends, but once they become established in the U.S., they tend to become a liberal-progressive political force.

There exist objective and real possibilities for a strong political and organizational alliance of racial minorities, in which Latinos, given their increased strength racially, culturally, politically, and numerically, can play an important role. The germs of this already exist in the Rainbow Coalition, even though it is constrained by the framework of the Democratic Party.

Latinos also represent a challenge from the geopolitical point of view with respect to domestic and international policies. Domestically, Latinos are concentrated in the most important economic areas: the Sunbelt, Chicago, New York, and in a politically strategic and historically conservative area as well, the Southwest. The increasing growth of Latinos represents a threat and challenge to the conservative forces.

With respect to international geopolitics, Latinos are concentrated in the area of the border between the United States and Latin America. As conflicts between the United States and Latin America increase, Latinos constitute a more and more important political obstacle to U.S. intervention in Latin America. The Sanctuary Movement illustrates this point.

Since Mexico and Central America are geographically a part of the “U.S. security system,” the matter of immigration from these countries becomes a delicate political issue. It is in light of this fact that we must take seriously the declarations of the CIA, the INS, and rightwing organizations when they point out that “illegal aliens” represent a threat to the national security “greater than that of the Soviet Union.” Reagan himself points out in this regard, “We have lost control of our border and no nation can do that and survive.”(6)

The government and big business are in a dilemma with respect to Latino immigrants. Even if the House and Senate can agree on immigration reform, the problem of the “illegal aliens” will continue to haunt them for a long time.


  1. In the already approved Senate version, the legalization program for foreign workers residing in the United States since 1980 is conditional. If the flow of “illegal” immigration does not stop then there will be no legalization of any undocumented workers. Of course, given the need of the U.S. economy for cheap labor, the political situation in Central America, and the economic crisis in Mexico, it is inconceivable that the flow of immigration will actually be halted. In this sense, the legalization program continues to be only an empty promise.
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  2. The Wall Street Journal, May 7, 1985.
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  3. The New York Times, January 23, 1986.
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  4. The Mexicans who cross the border are not the most economically desperate. In order to take the risk of coming to the United States, an immigrant must have at least one thousand dollars, a sum that must be very difficult to accumulate, since the minimum wage in Mexico is only around $100 per month. These undocumented immigrants, having accumulated that much money, must then risk crossing the border at night through an unknown and inhospitable terrain.
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  5. San Francisco Examiner, May 18, 1986.
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  6. Newsweek, June 25, 1985.
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September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

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