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Author and former labor organizer David Bacon unpacks how temporary legal status won’t get at the root of the issue of getting legal status for workers in order to fight for fair wages and better working conditions

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Thursday night, President Obama addressed the nation to lay out to his executive action on immigration. In 2015, more than 4 million undocumented immigrants will be able to apply for a temporary legal status. But in order to qualify, they must be undocumented parents of a U.S. citizen or legal resident. Also, they must prove that they’ve lived in the U.S. for at least five years.

But what most are focused on is the political theater happening between Republicans and Democrats over the issue.

But here at The Real News, we want to get a better sense of what this immigration battle is really all about, specifically around the issue of wages.

Here to help us unpack this complex issue is our guest, David Bacon. David is an award-winning photojournalist, author, and immigrant rights activist who has spent over 20 years as a labor organizer. His most recent book is The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration. And he joins us now from Oakland, California.

Thanks for being with us, David.


DESVARIEUX: So, David, let’s hear a little bit of what President Obama had to say in his speech last night about what he hoped to accomplish with this executive action. Let’s take a listen.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: But today, our immigration system is broken–and everybody knows it.

Families who enter our country the right way and play by the rules watch others flout the rules. Business owners who offer their workers good wages and benefits see the competition exploit undocumented immigrants by paying them far less. All of us take offense to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America.


DESVARIEUX: So, David, something that I heard the president say, the word exploit, how people exploit undocumented workers. And you have people who are, quote-unquote, playing by the rules and paying what they would say [is] a decent wage. And then you have others that are using sort of this shadow labor force to exploit them. So this point, really, about wages, I want to ask you about how a section of the economy, this undocumented workforce, is essentially cheap labor. And at the end of the day, is what we’re seeing being discussed about immigration really about how we are dehumanizing a population? Do you think this is more about our system? Does it speak more to what capitalism does? And in whose interest is it to keep this sort of undocumented population in the shadows?

BACON: Well, I think you’re hitting it on the head here, Jessica. In many ways, the hidden argument here is about wages and work, because the 11 million people who have come to the United States and are living here without papers are overwhelmingly working people, work for living. And as the president said, they play by the rules. In other words, they contribute their labor to the economy of this country, and they do so as a very, very low-wage labor force. I think that actually if you total up the differences in wages between undocumented labor and the average wage for working people across the board, U.S. employers are getting a subsidy of about $80 billion a year by this kind of unpaid or this low-paid labor.

So what we really need is an immigration reform that does two things. It first of all looks at what is motivating people to come to the United States to begin with, and secondly, a reform that is going to give people the ability to organize, to assert themselves, and to change this status.

When we look at it through this prism, President Obama did do one important thing, and that is that he lifted the immediate threat of deportation from about 4 million people. If we go by our experience with the DREAMers, not all of those people are going to apply, because they’re going to have to turn over their information to the immigration authorities without a real–especially without a permanent guarantee that people are going to be able to continue living here with their families.

Nevertheless, relief from deportation is something that people have been demanding. President Obama’s responding to a movement in the streets, demonstrations and hunger strikes at detention centers and sit-ins and so forth. So it’s clear that people want and need this.

It is limited, though, because we need it, actually, for 11 million people, and his order is only going to cover less than half of those people.

That being said, though, there are other parts of what the president is proposing that is going to make it harder for people to organize. For instance, he’s proposing to actually increase immigration enforcement on the border. That’s going to make it more dangerous and more risky for people to cross. But it’s not going to keep people from crossing. So what is going to happen is that the number of people who die in the attempt is going to go up. And right now it’s at about 400-500 people a year. That’s going to increase. And at the same time, the civil and human rights of people living in border communities are going to be even further eroded than they are today.

This is a typical kind of trade-off, you know, that Obama is trying to appear tough by saying, we’re going to beef up the border, without really looking at what the consequences of that are.

We know that more people are going to cross because of another thing that President Obama did not do, and that is he did not take a look at the roots of migration, why people are coming here to begin with. In fact, right after the election, the president said that he would cooperate with Republicans in negotiating yet another new free trade agreement, this Trans-Pacific Partnership. What we know from our experience with the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Central American free trade agreement, that these agreements, they throw millions of people literally into poverty, at which point they have to choose between survival, which means [inaud.] leaving home and migrating, or going hungry, or suffering other kinds of crises in their communities of origin, much of which is due to the changes that these treaties bring about.

So we need an immigration policy that looks at the roots of migration and that instead of undermining people’s standard of living in other countries, that actually helps to reinforce it, so that migration can become something that is voluntary.

The other aspect of the president’s proposal that is kind of a low-wage proposal, if you want to look at it that way, is what he has done for high-tech industry. High-tech industry–Microsoft Corporation, Google, the rest of them–have been demanding a source of more low-paid, high-tech workers, engineers and so forth. And the president has said that he is going to link now the expansion of this deferred action from deportation to a labor program, which will guarantee even more workers for Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is not interested in paying high wages. They want to pay low wages, and they see that they can manipulate our immigration system by having a visa program that ties people’s presence in the United States to their employment. In other words, when people lose their employment, they have to leave. Some of them are guestworker programs, and there are other kinds of programs that are like that, but they’re all low-wage programs.

So really the president is not doing what needs to be done as far as ensuring that we live in a high-wage economy, either by ensuring that undocumented people, all undocumented people have a real legal status, a resident status, that makes it much less risky for doing things like joining unions, and at the same time kind of pending before the demand by employers for yet more low-wage labor.

DESVARIEUX: David, I’m so glad you mentioned unions, because the working-class voters, and specifically white working-class voters, often they tend to side with Republicans on this issue, thinking that essentially this undocumented community that now becomes legalized is going to somehow be a threat to their employment. So I want to speak specifically to that issue. Is there truth behind that? And can you point to any specific statistics or data that either contradicts that point of view or supports it?

BACON: Well, we do live in a racist society. There is no question about that. And so there are many people in our society, working people among them, who have racist attitudes towards people of color, including towards immigrants, especially from Latin America and Asia.

However, I think that the assertion–especially coming from the Tea Party, the Republican Party–that white working-class people reject equal status for immigrants, I think that really is a false image, in my opinion. My experience as a union organizer is that really most white working people support the idea of equality, support the idea of equal rights, go to school with the children, their children go to school with the children of immigrants. And what’s more important, they wind up in workplaces which are very mixed workplaces. I live in California, which has probably about half of the undocumented immigrant population in the United States, and my experience is that in union organizing efforts, white working-class people and immigrants and African-Americans and people of different nationalities can find ways of working together.

One of the most important examples of that is what took place at the largest meatpacking company in the world. And they’re a huge meatpacking plant in the South, in Tar Heel, North Carolina, where Smithfield Foods tried to pit African-American workers against Mexican immigrant workers, including undocumented people, and got the cooperation of the immigration authorities in several immigration raids in the plant, the firing of people for not having papers. And yet, in the end, it took a 16-year struggle against one of the most fiercest antiunion campaigns in recent labor history, but African-American workers and Mexican immigrants in this plant were able to make common cause with each other, which included their ability to say to each other that everybody needed higher wages, everybody needed better conditions, and everybody had a right to stay in the plant and to struggle for them. And eventually they were able to bring the union in. So that’s kind of a success story that shows [crosstalk]

DESVARIEUX: But, David, that sounds like a difficult fight, because I would assume that folks who are undocumented are going to be more hesitant to sort of rock the boat, to join a union, things of that nature. Essentially my question is: isn’t it to the benefit of either elites, even Democratic- or Republican-leaning elites, to kind of want the shadow economy to exist, and essentially if there is a pitting against each other of undocumented workers and working-class people, that they essentially need to be coming together to fight for better wages if that is the end goal? And the Republicans do a very good job at splitting this section off, and the Democrats are sort of placating and giving them sort of temporary relief, but they’re not actually getting legalized status. And at the end of the day, that’s what people need to be fighting for. Do you agree with that sort of take?

BACON: I think that you’re right that people do need to continue fighting until everybody in this country has a genuine legal status that affords people basic human and labor rights. And I think that, for instance, our labor movement today is in favor of that. We’ve gone through periods in our history when our labor movement has been much more, I guess you would say, nativist or even racist in its orientation. That is not true today. Our labor movement has called for an amnesty program for all undocumented people in this country for basic labor rights. And in the statements that AFL-CIO president Trumka made when he was commenting both on the possibility that Obama was going to take action and on the action itself, he also warned about these low-wage guest-worker programs that were being coupled together with the amnesty. And so this is really, essentially, a bad idea. So I think that this is kind of what our labor movement today here stands for.

The Republican Party clearly does not care what our labor movement has to say. They listen very much not only to employers, but to the most right-wing section of employers in this country. The Democratic Party is a bit more of a mixed bag. It listens, tends to listen more to employers and be very open to their arguments for guestworker programs and for low-wage programs. But there are Congress members, like Raúl Grijalva from Arizona, who has been very much of a champion of the rights of immigrants and the rights of workers and their right to join unions.

I think that we need to continue to advocate a much broader kind of legalization program than what the president has put on offer here, essentially, something that would be much more inclusive, that would include everybody, and that would also give people a permanent kind of status.

One of the dangers in what the president has done here is that if the Republicans capture the White House–or an anti-immigrant Democrat–in 2016 with an anti-immigrant Congress, they can undo this executive order very easily, at which point those people who have applied and received his deferred deportation status are going to be very, very vulnerable to deportation. So this is really kind of a stopgap measure, and we need to kind of complete the change from 11 million people without rights, people who are undocumented and, as you say, are vulnerable to employer pressure because of their lack of status–although I do want to say that there are many strikes and there are many organizing drives organized by undocumented people themselves, and whole unions, like janitors and hotel workers, that are built on the labor of immigrant workers here. So it’s not just that people are vulnerable. People do struggle. But people do need rights. They do need basic legal status. And while what the president is doing is a step in that direction, it is only a small step, and the rest of the steps need to be taken also.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. David Bacon, always a pleasure having you on. Thank you so much for joining us.

BACON: Thank you, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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David Bacon is an award-winning photojournalist, author, and immigrant rights activist who has spent over twenty years as a labor organizer. He is an associate editor at Pacific News Service, and writes for TruthOut, The Nation, The American Prospect, The Progressive, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. Bacon covers issues of labor, immigration and international politics. He is the author of The Children of NAFTA, Communities without Borders, Illegal People and Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. His most recent book is The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration.