Monday - Jul 22, 2019

What Trump can and can’t do to immigrants

by David Bacon

While the government officials developing and enforcing U.S. immigration policy will change on Jan. 20, the economic system in which they make that policy will not. As fear sweeps through immigrant communities in the United States, understanding that system helps us anticipate what a Trump administration can and can’t do in regard to immigrants, and what immigrants themselves can do about it.

Over the terms of the last three presidents, the most visible and threatening aspect of immigration policy has been the drastic increase in enforcement. President Bill Clinton presented anti-immigrant bills as compromises, and presided over the first big increase in border enforcement. George W. Bush used soft rhetoric, but sent immigration agents in military-style uniforms, carrying AK-47s, into workplaces to arrest workers, while threatening to fire millions for not having papers. Under President Barack Obama, a new requirement mandated filling 34,000 beds in detention centers every night. The detention system mushroomed, and over 2 million people were deported.

Enforcement, however, doesn’t exist for its own sake. It plays a role in a larger system that serves capitalist economic interests by supplying a labor force employers require. High levels of enforcement also ensure the profits of companies that manage detention and enforcement, who lobby for deportations as hard as Boeing lobbies for the military budget.

Immigrant labor is more vital to many industries than it’s ever been before. Immigrants have always made up most of the country’s farm workers in the West and Southwest. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 57 percent of the country’s entire agricultural workforce is undocumented. But the list of other industries dependent on immigrant labor is long—meatpacking, some construction trades, building services, healthcare, restaurant and retail service, and more.

During the election campaign, candidate Donald Trump pledged in his “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again” to “begin removing the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country” on his first day in office. In speeches, he further promised to eventually force all undocumented people (estimated at 11 million) to leave.

In a society with one of the world’s highest rates of incarceration, crimes are often defined very broadly. In the past, for instance, under President George W. Bush federal prosecutors charged workers with felonies for giving a false Social Security number to an employer when being hired. He further proposed the complete enforcement of employer sanctions—the provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that forbids employers from hiring workers without papers. Bush’s order would have had the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) check the immigration status of all workers, and required employers to fire those without legal immigration status, before being blocked by a suit filed by unions and civil rights organizations.

Under President Obama, workplace enforcement was further systematized. In just one year, 2012, ICE audited 1600 employers. Tens of thousands of workers were fired during Obama’s eight years in office. Given Trump’s choice of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, greater workplace enforcement is extremely likely. Sessions has been one of the strongest advocates in Congress for greater immigration enforcement, and has criticized President Obama for not deporting enough people. Last year he proposed a five-year prison sentence for any undocumented immigrant caught in the country after having been previously deported.

Industry Needs Immigrants

Both deportations and workplace firings face a basic obstacle—the immigrant workforce is a source of immense profit to employers. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that, of the presumed 11 million people in the country without documents, about 8 million are employed (comprising over 5 percent of all workers). Most earn close to the minimum wage (some far less), and are clustered in low-wage industries. In the Indigenous Farm Worker Survey, for instance, made in 2009, demographer Rick Mines found that a third of California’s 165,000 indigenous agricultural laborers (workers from communities in Mexico speaking languages that pre-date European colonization) made less than minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage is still stuck at $7.50/hour, and even California’s minimum of $10/hour only gives full-time workers an annual income of $20,000. Meanwhile, Social Security says the national average wage index for 2015 is just over $48,000. In other words, if employers were paying the undocumented workforce the average U.S. wage it would cost them well over $200 billion annually. That wage differential subsidizes whole industries like agriculture and food processing. If that workforce were withdrawn, as Trump threatens, through deportations or mass firings, employers wouldn’t be able to replace it without raising wages drastically.

As president, Donald Trump will have to ensure that the labor needs of employers are met, at a price they want to pay. The corporate appointees in his administration reveal that any populist rhetoric about going against big business was just that—rhetoric. But Hillary Clinton would have faced the same necessity. And in fact, the immigration reform proposals in Congress from both Republicans and Democrats over the past decade shared this understanding—that U.S. immigration policy must satisfy corporate labor demands.

During the Congressional debates over immigration reform, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) proposed two goals for U.S. immigration policy. In a report from the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, Senior Fellow Edward Alden stated, “We should reform the legal immigration system so that it operates more efficiently, responds more accurately to labor market needs, and enhances U.S. competitiveness.” He went on to add, “We should restore the integrity of immigration laws, through an enforcement regime that strongly discourages employers and employees from operating outside that legal system.” The CFR, therefore, coupled an enforcement regime—with deportations and firings—to a labor-supply scheme.

This framework assumes the flow of migrating people will continue, and seeks to manage it. This is a safe assumption, because the basic causes of that flow have not changed. Communities in Mexico continue to be displaced by 1) economic reforms that allowed U.S. corporations to flood the country with cheap corn and meat (often selling below the cost of production—known as “dumping”—thanks to U.S. agricultural subsidies and trade agreements like NAFTA), 2) the rapacious development of mining and other extractive concessions in the countryside, and 3) the growing impoverishment of Mexican workers. Violence plays its part, linked to the consequences of displacement, economic desperation, and mass deportations. Continuing U.S. military intervention in Central America and other developing countries will produce further waves of refugees.

While candidate Trump railed against NAFTA in order to get votes (as did Barack Obama), he cannot—and, given his ties to business, has no will to—change the basic relationship between the United States and Mexico and Central America, or other developing countries that are the sources of migration. Changing the relationship (with its impact on displacement and migration) is possible in a government committed to radical reform. Bernie Sanders might have done this. Other voices in Congress have advocated it. But Trump will do what the system wants him to do, and certainly will not implement a program of radical reform.

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