Reclaiming the Narrative: Immigrant Workers and Precarity

Against the Current, No. 215, November/December 2021

Leila Kawar

Immigrant Labor and
the New Precariat
By Ruth Milkman
Polity Press, 2020, 200 pages, $22.95 paper

THE TERM “ESSENTIAL workers” has been broadly applied during the COVID-19 pandemic, designating not only healthcare providers but also frontline workers in the food, construction, and home-based care sectors. These are all occupations characterized by low-wage and insecure employment with little possibility of job promotion. Importantly, they are all also occupations sustained by immigrant labor.(1)

Indeed, as Ruth Milkman points out in Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat, both the unauthorized “illegal aliens” who are the focus of contemporary political controversy and the larger population of foreign-born workers with legal status are concentrated in occupations and industries at the bottom of the labor market that are “poorly paid, physically demanding, menial, and often dangerous.” (20)

In the 21st-century United States, the boundaries defining such immigrant-dominated “brown collar” jobs have come to be taken for granted by workers and employers alike.(2) Without explicitly mentioning the pandemic context, Milkman’s book shines a timely light on this segment of the U.S. labor force — one that’s been both officially as well as popularly designated in COVID-related measures as “essential” to the continuity of the country’s economic and social functioning.(3)

Published in the heat of the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, Milkman’s book takes aim at what it identifies as an “immigrant threat narrative” that then-President Trump and his supporters relentlessly promoted. It is a narrative that portrays low-wage immigration as undermining the working and living standards of the U.S.-born working class.

In challenging this narrative, Milkman seeks to demonstrate that the line of causality in fact has operated in the opposite direction, insofar as it was the “three D’s” of deregulation, deindustrialization, and de-unionization that degraded work in occupations previously filled by U.S.-born workers.

In this context, with non-college-educated U.S.-born workers being frustrated in their expectations of finding a good job due to circumstances largely beyond their control, immigration provides a scapegoat. This is the key takeaway from Milkman’s analysis.

In building this counter-narrative on the relationship between labor degradation and immigrant workers, the book lays out a compelling account of post-1980s U.S. labor market changes through three key case studies drawn from the residential construction, building services, and meatpacking sectors. It then goes on to examine other low-wage brown-collar occupations, such as domestic work, personal care services, and back-of-the-house restaurant work.

Here, as Milkman acknowledges, the relationship between labor market conditions and immigration was somewhat more complicated.

Yet in these occupations as well, it was not immigration that was the driver of change; rather, demographic changes created greater demand for these services at the same time that civil rights policies expanded employment possibilities for African-American and other U.S.-born workers of color previously confined to these jobs.

Wake-Up Call to Progressives

Milkman devotes space to elaborating the singularly explicit restrictionism of Trump immigration era policies. Along similar lines, other immigration policy analysts positioned on the left and center-left of the political spectrum have likewise noted the unprecedented zeal with which the Trump Administration targeted both family-based and irregular immigration.

According to one such policy commentary, “No administration in modern U.S. history has placed such a high priority on immigration policy or had an almost exclusive focus on restricting flows, legal and unauthorized alike, and further maximizing enforcement. This marks a major departure in how immigration is discussed and administered in the United States, pushing the issue into conversations and communities where it previously received scant attention.”(4)

Yet in distinction from center-left immigration policy commentary, Milkman suggests that the Trump era should be viewed as a wake-up call to U.S. progressives on immigration policy issues. She offers an especially critical assessment of labor’s record in recent years, arguing that most union leaders did little to challenge the wave of Trump era deportations and other anti-immigrant policies, even as these created acute fear and insecurity for immigrant communities and led to a marked decline in immigrant worker activism compared to the 1990s and 2000s.

Similarly, while acknowledging that worker centers and a few local unions did seek to challenge Trump-era policies to some degree, Milkman views these as essentially damage control tactics rather than the sort of proactive approach needed to power an immigrant labor movement over the long-term.

If policies enacted during a single presidential term were able to do so much damage, such that cohesion among the various strands of the immigrant labor movement deteriorated in a relatively short space of time, then this for Milkman is evidence that existing progressive immigration initiatives have been missing a key ingredient.

She suggests that this key ingredient is a compelling policy narrative that not only explicitly addresses working class Americans tempted by the countervailing “immigrant threat narrative,” but also takes as a core concern the rapid growth of precarity at the bottom of the labor market that impacts all workers, immigrant or U.S.-born alike.

Moreover, she suggests that there may be a political opening for such a narrative to take hold because Trump administration officials and other like-minded proponents of the “immigrant threat narrative” are riding a wave of working-class frustration but are not addressing its actual causes.

As should be clear from the above descrip­tion, Milkman’s book is an instance of politically-engaged academic writing. Drawing on its author’s expertise as a distinguished sociologist who serves as the Academic Director of the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat develops an account of policymaking that is informed by the latest scholarship in such interdisciplinary social science fields as labor studies and migration studies.

At the same time, it styles its sociological analysis as the conceptual and empirical foundation for addressing a concrete political and policymaking challenge for progressives that its author has diagnosed.

Milkman explains the growth of a sizable immigrant precariat as resulting from neoliberal labor degradation, relying on a mix of existing scholarship and journalistic sources to support this explanation empirically.

As regards its desired political intervention, this analysis works to elaborate a progressive counter-narrative on immigration, i.e. a story with the intellectual and affective potency to redirect the voting public’s anger away from scapegoated immigrant workers and towards, in Milkman’s words, “the employers who deliberately outsourced or degraded formerly well-paid blue-collar jobs and the business interests promoting public policies that widen inequality.” (160)

Towards a More Progressive Policy?

To what extent does this social and political analysis maintain its relevance now that Donald Trump and his provocateur senior advisor on immigration, Stephen Miller, no longer occupy the White House?

Unlike some pro-immigration Trump critics, Milkman takes care to acknowledge that the “immigrant threat narrative” that she identifies as underlying the Trump administration’s record on immigration both preceded and extends beyond any single political actor and his supporters.

Indeed, she devotes space to criticizing not only labor leaders who were “missing in action” from efforts to defend immigrant workers but also self-identified liberals who were seduced by the narrative that Trump wielded with such apparent success.

Hillary Clinton is one of those who, in Milkman’s view, “faltered” in this respect by making public comments that suggested taking a harder line on irregular migration was a political necessity. And self-identified progressives John Judis and Andrea Nagle are likewise criticized for having ventured down the path of calling for restrictive immigration policies in a bid to win back working-class voters. (165-66)

Milkman’s conceptualization of the “immigrant threat narrative” as a set of ideas that cuts across political parties is one of the book’s strong points, giving its analysis a relevance beyond the immediate context in which it was written.

Indeed, as shown by the disheartening tenor of recent immigration policy rhetoric offered by European centrist and center-left political figures, the seduction of the immigrant threat narrative for self-identified liberals remains far from depleted.(5)

We might then ask whether the prescriptive portion of Milkman’s analysis shows signs of gaining traction among the U.S. progressives who are the core intended audience for her book. To what extent have progressive commentators and politicians embraced the task of building a cohesive immigrant labor movement and developed messaging that wins over the hearts and minds of working-class voters?

Following Trump’s electoral defeat, Milkman has joined other progressive scholars and public officials endeavoring to proactively shape the Biden Administration’s approach to immigration policy.(6) These efforts have included calls for expanding legal channels for immigration, as well as proposals centered on some form of rolling legalization for irregular migrants.

Beyond these concrete immigration policy reform proposals, Milkman and others have called on labor leaders to devote themselves to educating U.S. workers about the challenge of depleted labor protections that they share with immigrant workers.(7)

Yet it remains an open question whether a White House and Congress under Democratic Party control will expend political capital with the deftness necessary to advance this progressive vision on immigrant worker issues.

Certainly, the Biden administration has adopted a new tone, issuing guidance that federal agencies should use the term “undocumented non-citizen” rather than “illegal alien.”(8) Moreover, there are some early signs that the administration intends to craft executive orders and legislative proposals to advance policies aiming to benefit low-wage immigrant workers.

To give one concrete example, bargaining for home care workers, an immigrant-dominated occupational sector, was hardwired into the expanded Medicaid coverage provisions of the American Jobs Plan unveiled in March 2021 as part of the Biden administration’s initial $2 trillion infrastructure package.(9)

Likewise, an April 2021 Biden administration executive order mandating a $15 minimum wage for federal contractors built on proposals developed in prior progressive campaigns, most notably SEIU’s “Fight for Fifteen” that successfully mobilized immigrants and other low-wage workers in the fast-food sector.(10)

Finally, at the top of the U.S. labor movement’s current legislative wish-list, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act includes a provision that would prevent an employer from using its employee’s immigration status against them when determining the terms of their employment.(11)

Of course, with a Senate filled by a minority party intent on using every instrument available to preserve the status quo on labor issues, a compelling public narrative is unlikely to be enough in the short term to secure passage of the PRO Act and other pro-labor legislation.

What about plans to reform the job conditions experienced by low-wage foreign workers entering the United States on temporary or seasonal work visas?

Currently, employers may legally obtain low-wage, flexible foreign labor through the H-2A visa program for farmworkers and H-2B visa program for work in seasonal jobs such as in landscaping, forestry, and food processing. Although not among the sectoral case studies discussed in Milkman’s book, these so-called “guest workers” are clearly part of policy discussions addressing the contemporary immigrant-dominated precariat.

U.S. employer demand for temporary work visas has grown over the past decade, in part because guest workers have come to be viewed as a substitute for an undocumented labor force in relative decline over the same period, and a growing industry of intermediaries is helping employers locate, recruit, and transport low-wage workers from migrant countries of origin.(12)

Particularly for H-2A migrant workers employed in farm labor, the pandemic has brought increased public attention both to the daily vulnerabilities they encounter on the job(13) and to the resulting health risks for surrounding communities.(14)

Moreover, as the result of pandemic-related travel restrictions, industry sectors particularly reliant on H-2A migrant labor, such as wheat production, have been forced to scramble to fill positions.(15)

Yet even as the pandemic has demonstrated the structural dependence of the U.S. food supply chain on low-wage migrant labor, progressives have not yet been able to set forth a clear agenda for guest worker policy reforms.

The industry-friendly Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would offer a path to citizenship for some undocumented farmworkers, has been criticized by progressive commentators for provisions that arguably preserve and expand an exploitative system of labor contracting which allows workers to be deported and blacklisted for protesting their unsafe working conditions.(16)

Further undermining organizing initiatives in this immigrant-reliant sector, the growing and packing industry scored a victory with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning a 1970s California regulation on the grounds that allowing labor representatives to meet with farm workers at work sites unlawfully intrudes on their employers’ property rights.(17)

A Global Issue

The United States is not the only country in which the ongoing economic-precarity- faced-migrant worker has been a topic of policy debate.

Across the globe, from Europe to Canada to Malaysia, the pandemic has highlighted the shortcomings in a system that already left migrant workers isolated and vulnerable, while also exposing the economically-sustaining role of these low-wage workers.(18)

An aspect of Milkman’s analysis that deserves explicit mention is that it is focused on the U.S. policy context. One place where this is evident is in the chapter she titles “The Eclipse of the New Deal,” which details how processes of deindustrialization, de-unionization and deregulation in the 1970s and 1980s radically restructured the construction, building services and meatpacking industries and argues that the rise in immigrant “brown-collar” jobs in these sectors was a consequence of this labor market transformation. (62-103)

Yet a linear causal story about the rise of “brown-collar” jobs in these industries may be specific to the U.S. context. In Europe, where the social welfare state was arguably much more developed, policy decisions were made as early as the late-1950s to import temporary foreign labor to fill racialized low-wage jobs in these industries.(19)

Milkman’s focus on U.S. policy is also visible in her claim that structural changes in migrant-sending countries were substantially less important than the success of business interests in degrading labor conditions in formerly-unionized industries, which created unprecedented U.S. demand for precarious low-wage foreign workers.

This is a debatable claim, which seems to underplay the role of shifts in the international political economy in propelling the surge in low-wage migrant workers who entered the labor markets of developed economies through largely irregular channels starting in the 1980s.(20)

Of course, if Milkman’s sociological analysis at times appears rather stylized, then it is because the book’s underlying aim is to develop a narrative for policy action. On the one hand, this is a strength of the book as a work of progressive scholarship intended for a public audience.

On the other hand, we might reflect on whether a narrow domestic policy focus might have the unintended disadvantage of discouraging the creative coalition-building across borders that could strengthen an immigrant worker movement in the long-term.

Indeed, some of the most exciting migrant-led campaigns in recent years have embraced calls for “undoing border imperialism,” which not only speak to the experience of immiserated working-class Americans but also aim to build solidarity with decolonial and anti-racist movements across the globe.(21)

Building a movement with the capacity to change the status quo on immigration policy requires that progressives expand their political horizons. Pulling together the labor and immigrant rights strands of this movement, as Milkman’s book aims to do, is certainly a promising first step in this direction.


  1. “Covid-19: Immigrant Workers Are Essential in Securing U.S. Food Supply Chain.” New American Economy Research Fund, April 16, 2020.
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  2. The term “brown-collar” jobs refers to low-wage occupations that are racially stereotyped as best suited to Latinx immigrants. See Catanzarite, Lisa M. 2002. “Dynamics of Segregation and Earnings in Brown-Collar Occupations,” Work and Occupations 29(3): 300-45.
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  4. Pierce, Sarah and Andrew Selee. Immigration under Trump: A Review of Policy Shifts in the Year Since the Election (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2017).
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  8. Rose, Joel. “Immigration Agencies Ordered Not to Use Term ‘Illegal Alien’ Under New Biden Policy,” NPR, April 19, 2021.
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  12. Gordon, Jennifer. 2017. “Regulating the Human Supply Chain.” Iowa Law Review 102: 445-504.
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  13. Roos, Meghan. “With COVID-19, Nearly Half of U.S. Farm Workers Are ‘First in Exposure, Last in Protection’.” Newsweek, April 14, 2021.
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  14. Costa, Daniel, and Philip Martin. “Coronavirus and Farmworkers: Farm Employment, Safety Issues, and the H-2A Guestworker Program.” Economic Policy Institute, March 24, 2020.
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  15. Weinraub, Mark, and Julie Ingwersen. “U.S. Farmers Scramble for Help as COVID-19 Scuttles Immigrant Workforce.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, July 2, 2020.
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  16. Bacon, David. “Is the Abandonment of Guest Worker COVID Protections a Taste of Things to Come?” Capital & Main, April 30, 2021.
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  17. Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, No. 20-107, June 23, 2021.
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  18. Timmerman, Ruben I. “COVID-19 Exposes the Realities of Europe’s Neglected Essential Workers.” December 2, 2020. Follett Hosgood, Amanda. “Life Was Already Tough for Migrant Farm Workers. The Pandemic Made It Worse”, May 20, 2021. “Putrajaya mulling temporary work permits for undocumented migrants, says PM,” Malay Mail, October 30, 2021.;;
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  19. Castles, Stephen and Godula Kosack. 1972. “The function of labour immigration in Western European Capitalism,” New Left Review 73.
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  20. Bacon, David. Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008). Caulfield, Norman. NAFTA and Labor in North America. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010). Martinez, Oscar J. “Migration and the Border, 1965-1985” in Mark Overmyer-Velásquez (ed) Beyond La Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migration (NY: Oxford University Press, 2011): 103-121.
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  21. See, for example: Walia, Harsha. Undoing Border Imperialism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2013).
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November-December 2021, ATC 215

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