To Combat Xenophobic Hate, End Immigrant Worker Exploitation

Hatred of immigrants as people and exploitation of immigrants as workers go hand in hand. The antidote to both is the same: solidarity.

A woman places flowers as Mexican and US flags fly at a makeshift memorial honoring victims outside Walmart, near the scene of a mass shooting which left at least 22 people dead, on August 6, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. Mario Tama / Getty Images

A few days ago, a white native-born man walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and murdered twenty-two people with an assault rifle. His manifesto made it clear that he was targeting Latino immigrants and children of immigrants, believing that they threatened to “replace” the native-born population. “If we can get rid of enough people,” the shooter wrote, “then our way of life can be more sustainable.”

We have reason to be concerned that racist, anti-immigrant hate crimes will escalate as the Trump presidency wears on. “When Mexico sends its people,” said Donald Trump on the campaign trail in 2015, “they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In 2018, he said of immigrants, “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”

So far, hate-motivated murder of immigrants is thankfully still relatively rare. But a more common type of brutality characterizes working-class immigrant life: exploitation. Exploitation is deeply implicated in xenophobic violence, and our strategy to combat bigotry must confront it directly.

Divide and Conquer

Two days after the shooting in El Paso, Bernie Sanders held a town hall in Vista, California, with immigrant workers. One speaker, Jose Gonzalez, described life in the strawberry fields. “Long days, long hours in the scorching heat, with no access to water, not even a bathroom,” he said.

Gonzales went to night school to learn English, and he managed to find work outside the fields. “Not everyone is lucky,” he continued. “Some die trying to cross the border. Those who are lucky enough to make it have a hard time. Some are taken advantage of when they come to work, and they get paid below the minimum wage.”

“We get tricked with immigration to don’t say nothing, don’t fight for nothing, don’t get paid.”

One study found that 34 percent of undocumented immigrant workers were refused minimum wage. Eighty-four percent don’t get paid their mandated time and a half when they work overtime. And that’s just wages: for undocumented immigrant workers, poor working conditions are a near-universal reality.

Hate is often intimately connected to exploitation, but it hardly gets any clearer than in this scenario. The process goes like this: capitalism relies on low wages, which yield high profits, and on some degree of unemployment, without which capitalists would have dramatically reduced leverage over workers. When native-born workers buy the capitalist line that there naturally aren’t enough good jobs, wages, or benefits to go around, immigrants can be made out as a threat to native-born workers.

Thus, native-born workers can be persuaded that immigrants are competition and need to be kept out. But immigrants come anyway, and they are denied political rights thanks to exclusionary policies that native-born workers can be convinced to support.

Without political rights, immigrant workers naturally fear repercussions for any self-advocacy, and this makes them more easily exploitable. They can be compensated less than native-born workers, which can put downward pressure on wages for native-born workers, too.

“Unauthorized workers are often afraid to complain about unpaid wages and substandard working conditions because employers can retaliate by taking actions that can lead to their deportation,” writes Daniel Costa in the New York Times. “This gives employers extraordinary power to exploit and underpay them. When the immigrants’ wages are suppressed, so are the wages of U.S. workers competing for similar jobs.”

Costa explains that immigration’s effects on wages for native-born workers depend on whether those workers are high- or low-wage, and the overall state of the economy and the labor market. It’s complicated. But when it comes to xenophobia, racism, and anti-immigrant hate, the facts don’t matter — only the perception that immigrants threaten to “overwhelm” the native-born population.

That perception can be taken advantage of by politicians like Donald Trump for electoral gain. And when politicians seize that opportunity, they also broadcast anti-immigrant sentiment, fanning the flames of xenophobic hate and increasing the likelihood of tragedies like we saw in El Paso.

The Antidote Is Solidarity

Because they are inextricable, we need a strategy that not only repudiates anti-immigrant bigotry but resists exploitation of immigrant workers. We need this strategy for the sake of both immigrant and native-born workers. As Suzy Lee writes, “Whatever downward pressure an influx of immigrants has on wages, it is dwarfed by the economic consequences of a weak and divided working class.”

To combat anti-immigrant hate, we must resist the creation of a separate, hyper-exploitable immigrant section of the working class. That means demanding the extension and protection of immigrants’ political and labor rights.

This process must begin with laws prohibiting discrimination based on country of origin, including at the workplace. California recently passed laws prohibiting employers from issuing threats to workers based on immigration status, and making it easier for workers to sue when they have faced retaliation and coercion. The state also passed a law expanding the definition of “criminal extortion” to include threats against workers related to immigration status. We need these laws nationwide, and we need to broadly enforce them.

But ultimately they will never be enough, as long as the basis for such threats still exists. Eventually, in order for political rights to be fully extended to immigrants, we must naturalize all existing residents and completely dismantle the detention and deportation machine.

In order to extend immigrants’ labor rights, we must reverse the trend of de-unionization. We need the resurgence of an organized labor movement embracing both immigrant and native-born workers, fighting side by side. That movement must make no distinction between workers born here and workers born abroad. A worker is a worker, and an injury to one is an injury to all.

In the end, the antidote to exploitation is also the antidote to hate. That antidote is solidarity.