Yves here. Obama’s plan to give 4 million illegal immigrants temporary suspension from deportation has amped up the intensity of the already-heated debate over immigration and competition for US jobs from foreign workers.
This Real News Network interview with Bill Barry, who has organized documented and undocumented workers in the textile industry, makes an argument at a high level that many will find hard to dispute: that the fight over immigration reform and the status of undocumented immigrants diverts energy and attention from the ways in which a super-rich class is taking more and more out of the economy, to the detriment of laborers. Barry also argues that getting rid of undocumented immigrants would not produce much in the way of wage increases. The experience of Alabama, which implemented an extremely aggressive immigration law, would tend to confirm Barry’s argument. Farmers, for instance, weren’t able to find substitutes for migrant workers, even when they offered higher wages. What it would take to get US natives to take those jobs was more than what those employers were willing to pay. The same is likely true for many of the other backbreaking jobs performed by undocumented workers, such as working in meatpacking plants.
However, the experiments we’ve had to date, such as in Alabama, haven’t played out over time. The law was substantially revised so that farmers and other low-wage employers who were having trouble replacing their undocumented workers were spared the choice of restructuring their business. If farmers faced a permanent order with no migrant workers, what would happen? I’d expect to see wage increases but also consolidation and renewed efforts to use capital in the place of labor. But I’m not in that business and I very much welcome the input of readers who know the economics of various types of farming. Clearly, in the case of H1-B visa, the presence of a guest worker program is keeping tech wages down and perhaps more important, eliminating entry-level positions for US graduates. So I’m not persuaded that the picture is quite as sunny or as simple as Barry suggests.
Barry points out how employers have deskilled jobs, making it easier for them to treat their employees as disposable, and have also moved to more flexible scheduling, which makes it harder for workers to earn enough to get by. The means that the immigration question is probably not the best point of entry for approaching the fallen status of US workers.