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In his 2016 article “Yes, Immigration Hurts American Workers,” Harvard economist and right-wing darling George Borjas highlights an incident at a chicken processing plant in Georgia. “A decade ago,” he states, the plant “was raided by immigration agents, and 75 percent of its workforce vanished over a single weekend.” Unable to continue exploiting unauthorized immigrants, the company was forced to recruit Americans at higher wages. Borjas offers one way of interpreting this incident: low-skilled immigrants will work in worse conditions for lower pay, so limiting immigration would create better jobs for unskilled U.S. workers. This is a tempting view, popular even among policymakers; Borjas boasts that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton agree with parts of his argument.
But is immigration really a key driver of the reversal of fortune U.S.-born workers have experienced since the 1970s? The timing may seem to suggest as much. Soon after the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 ended four decades of highly restricted immigration, the economic status of non-college-educated workers began to spiral downward, and inequality in income and wealth grew dramatically. There is extensive evidence that the deteriorating situation of the U.S. working class and the growth of low-wage immigration are tightly interconnected. But in reality, the line of causality runs in the opposite direction from what the threat narrative implies. Immigration was not the cause of the massive shifts that began in the 1970s, such as the growth of economic inequality and labor degradation, but rather a consequence of those developments.
The primary driver of labor migration, past and present, is economic demand. While conditions in sending countries can spur emigration, immigration materializes on a large scale only in response to employers’ search for new sources of labor. The 2008 financial crisis is a case in point. From the 1970s up to the Great Recession, immigration grew in direct response to rising demand for cheap and pliable labor. But once the U.S. economy imploded—and jobs in sectors such as construction and low-wage service industries evaporated—the number of unauthorized immigrants crossing the border abruptly dropped.
In manufacturing industries that once offered high-wage blue-collar employment to non-college-educated U.S. workers, millions of jobs have vanished over the past half century. Some of those jobs were outsourced to other parts of the world; others were rendered obsolete by new technology. No one suggests that immigrants are to blame for those developments. But in many other sectors, jobs did not disappear; instead they were degraded by neoliberal business strategies such as expanded subcontracting, deregulation, and efforts to weaken or eliminate labor unions. As those developments unfolded starting in the 1970s, many U.S.-born workers abandoned the newly undesirable jobs, and employers recruited immigrants to fill the vacancies. In contexts where migrants did not arrive on their own in sufficient numbers, employers sent recruiters to Mexico and other parts of the global South to find them—often with blatant disregard for immigration laws and regulations, which until recently were notoriously poorly enforced. In this way, both authorized and unauthorized immigrants entered the bottom tier of the labor market to take jobs Americans won’t do.
Demand for immigrant labor expanded not only in jobs degraded by the economic restructuring that began in the 1970s but also in paid domestic labor and other service jobs. Here the key driver was not job degradation but instead rising income inequality: the increasingly prosperous professional and managerial classes devoted a growing part of their disposable income to purchasing services from housecleaners, nannies, and home care and elder care providers. In this period affluent households often included two adults with long working hours, while changing expectations of parenting and the aging of the population stimulated growing demand for paid care work. Yet the traditional labor supply for domestic work was evaporating, as the civil rights movement opened up lower-level clerical and service jobs and other new opportunities to African American women and Latinas. Thus U.S.-born women of color began to shun paid domestic work just as demand for it began to soar, which led households to hire immigrants instead.
These dynamics have remained largely invisible to the public, as the threat narrative has distracted attention from the actual causes of declining working-class living standards, and from the forces driving migration itself. Non-college-educated U.S.-born workers have every reason to be enraged by the degradation of previously desirable types of employment, rising inequality, and declining living standards, but their anger has been profoundly misdirected. The influx of immigrants did not generate these shifts; the real culprits are employers.
Employer Attacks on Unionism and the Immigrant Influx: The Case of Meatpacking
One example of an industry in which managerial opposition to unionism was the key driver of change is meatpacking. In that industry the low wages and poor working conditions infamously depicted in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle were eliminated in the 1930s and 1940s, when unionization utterly transformed the industry. However, they began to reemerge in the 1970s. By the late 1960s, 95 percent of meatpacking workers outside the South were union members, and wages had risen to 115 percent of the national manufacturing average. At that time the vast majority of the industry’s workers were U.S.-born whites and African Americans. Collective bargaining agreements provided them with health insurance, pensions, and grievance procedures, while shop stewards enforced strict limits on managerial control over line speeds and other working conditions.
That began to change, however, when a group of “new breed” meatpacking firms led by Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) introduced a series of cost-cutting measures that later became standard practice across the industry. First was the shift to “boxed beef” in the 1960s, which automated boning and cutting operations previously performed by skilled butchers. IBP also pioneered relocating slaughterhouses from urban centers closer to the sources of livestock, aiming to reduce transportation costs and take advantage of the low wages and weak union presence in rural areas.
Organized labor was anathema for IBP from the outset, although initially the union managed to follow the work as it moved to grain belt states such as Iowa and Nebraska. Yet even in IBP plants where the union gained a foothold, the company extracted wage cuts and productivity increases that involved dramatic speed-ups in the pace of work. “Management truly ran the plants,” one IBP official boasted. Like its other innovations, the company’s hostility to unionism rapidly spread across the industry. As economist Charles Craypo noted, “Old and new [meat]packers alike had to imitate IBP’s anti-union model once its competitive efficiency was evident.” From 1979 to 1990, real wages in meatpacking fell 30 percent; by 1990 they were 20 percent below the U.S. manufacturing average.
Led by IPB, meatpacking employers devoted considerable energies to cost-cutting and union-busting, but they did not initially shift to a foreign-born workforce. They began recruiting immigrant labor only as labor shortages developed in the rural communities where packinghouses were relocated. Management did not anticipate that U.S.-born workers would increasingly abandon the industry after the union had been defanged and pay and conditions thereby degraded. As Faranak Miraftab noted in her ethnographic study of a packinghouse in rural Illinois, “It was the lowering of wages and the increasing harshness of working conditions that turned the industry to ethnic and minority labor, rather than the other way around.”
Some groups, such as African Americans in Chicago, may have been displaced as production moved away from urban areas, but more often U.S.-born workers voluntarily exited, or declined to enter, the industry in the 1970s and 1980s. The typical dynamic is illustrated by a unionized pork-packing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, that closed down in 1981 and then reopened as a non-union IBP operation the following year; fifteen years later it had grown into the world’s second-largest pork-processing plant. Initially IBP hired U.S.-born workers in the Storm Lake area, but a labor shortage developed as turnover spiked upward to as much as 100 percent annually. Under the previous owner, this plant had a stable workforce, but after IBP cut wages and sped up production, workers voted with their feet. Only then did the company recruit Latinx immigrants, along with Asian and African refugees.
Similarly, a packinghouse that IBP built in Lexington, Iowa focused its initial hiring efforts locally. Management had projected that local women, mostly “single mothers or farm wives,” would be 60 percent of the processing workers, and the company even built an on-site day care center with this in mind. But after the plant began operating, turnover soared, and soon “the local supply of willing workers” proved inadequate. Only then did IBP begin to recruit workers from farther afield. “The majority of jobs in the meatpacking industry are unattractive to native-born workers,” a study of the packinghouse concluded. Although the timing of the transition from U.S.-born to immigrant labor varied from plant to plant, the overall pattern was consistently driven by de-unionization. As Jackie Gabriel concluded, “Workers’ bargaining power, as well as wages and working conditions, in the meatpacking industry declined prior to the rapid incorporation of Latino immigrants.”
By the early twenty-first century, immigrants, many of them undocumented, had become the dominant workforce in meatpacking. It is impossible to determine precisely the extent of unauthorized employment in the industry, but estimates range from 20 to 50 percent. Indeed, slaughterhouses became a key target of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in the 2000s. The largest workplace immigration raid in U.S. history was Operation Wagon Train, on December 12, 2006, when ICE agents simultaneously entered six Swift meatpacking plants, detaining more than 1,300 workers for immigration violations, most of whom were deported. Other industries employed as many unauthorized immigrants, but meatpacking was a favorite target for raids because workers were so conveniently concentrated in large plants—unlike far-flung residential construction sites or office buildings cleaned by immigrant janitors. Borjas’ example of a chicken plant is telling: when the plant started recruiting U.S. born workers (along with Hmong refugees) for higher wages after the ICE raid, it faced turnover of 300 percent, and once again turned to Latinx workers, hired through a contractor.
Similar processes took place in other industries in which U.S.-born workers had historically dominated the workforce. In residential construction and janitorial work, just as in meatpacking, employers’ deliberate efforts to weaken or eliminate unions led to falling wages, the loss of health and pension benefits, and deteriorating working conditions. In response, U.S.-born workers abandoned the jobs affected, and employers recruited immigrants to fill the vacancies.
Deregulation and Subcontracting: The Case of Trucking
In other settings labor degradation was not the direct result of an employer anti-union offensive but instead was driven by deregulation, which indirectly spurred union decline. Consider the trucking industry after the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which eliminated decades-long price regulation and rules governing entry to the industry. Soon after the law took effect, unionization plummeted over the next two decades, from 60 to 25 percent. Drivers’ wages went into free fall, and those no longer covered by union contracts lost health insurance and pension coverage, sick pay, and paid vacations. As working conditions deteriorated, the industry devolved into what Michael Belzer aptly calls “sweatshops on wheels.” U.S. truck drivers’ real earnings fell 21 percent between 1973 and 1995, nearly twice the average decline for blue-collar workers in that period.
Deregulation led to a shift away from standard forms of employment and greater use of owner-operators and “independent contractors.” Drivers (U.S.- and foreign-born alike) were often genuinely attracted by the idea of “being my own boss,” and many therefore embraced the status of independent contractor. But as they soon discovered, the downside was that they were forced to absorb all the costs of owning and maintaining their trucks and were vulnerable to unpredictable fluctuations in fuel prices, fines for overweight loads, traffic bottlenecks, and other factors beyond their control. Moreover, as independent contractors, they were no longer covered by minimum wage or overtime laws or other basic employment protections.
These changes affected the entire industry, but short-haul trucking from the nation’s ports experienced the most dramatic upheaval, whereas in long-distance trucking the union maintained a precarious foothold. At the ports, despite their independent contractor status, drivers typically work for only one firm, which dispatches them to pick up specific containers. Paid by the load, not by the hour (as they were prior to deregulation), they receive no compensation while waiting to receive their cargo at the ports—waits that can consume many hours. Many earn less than the legal minimum wage, and in some cases their expenses actually exceed their revenues.
As deregulation transformed port trucking from a well-paid, unionized occupation into a poorly paid, highly precarious one, many U.S.-born drivers abandoned that segment of the industry; some shifted into long-haul trucking and others into new lines of work. As a logistics trade publication reported in 2005, “As long as [port] trucking paid as well as flipping burgers, the ‘chrome and cowboy’ aspects of the job were reason to be driving, However, today fast-food jobs look increasingly attractive. . . . Qualified drivers are migrating to better-paying jobs in truckload, construction and other sectors.”
Rising Inequality and Immigrant Employment in Paid Domestic Labor
In contrast to industries such as meatpacking and trucking, paid domestic service was never extensively unionized or regulated; indeed, the jobs in this poorly paid, low-status, female-dominated sector have long been at the bottom of the labor market. But it too shifted from a U.S.-born to an immigrant workforce starting in the 1970s, as African Americans and other U.S.-born women of color abandoned the field once the civil rights movement opened up better employment opportunities to them. In the same period, demand for paid domestic workers began to expand, as the growing polarization of income and wealth made in-home services increasingly affordable for the affluent. As the relative cost of domestic help fell, Daniel Schneider and Orestes P. Hastings show, highly educated, higher-income women began to perform less housework and outsource more household services than less privileged women; over time this class gradient increased in tandem with growing income inequality. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett calculated that in 2014 the top 1 percent in the U.S. income distribution spent about 20 times more on child care than the middle class (defined as the 60th to 90th percentile) and the top 10 percent spent over four times more. Spending on other types of domestic work was similarly top-heavy, especially in urban settings. “The top income groups have the option to have someone else mop their floors, mow their lawn, and water their plants, while the data suggest that lower income groups do these chores themselves,” Currid-Halkett concludes.
Domestic labor had been a declining occupation during the first half of the twentieth century, and especially after New Deal policies led to a sharp reduction in income inequality. But in earlier historical eras, domestic service was by far the largest female occupation in the United States, and one in which European immigrants were often employed. In the late nineteenth century, the field was dominated in northern cities by Irish and German immigrants, although in smaller towns outside the South, the majority of servants were U.S.-born well into the twentieth century. Foreign- and native-born white women alike gradually abandoned domestic service as they gained access to factory jobs and later to sales and clerical work, however. “Sometimes women were willing to accept lower wages [in other types of work] simply to avoid service,” historian David Katzman notes, for domestic work had “the lowest status of any widespread occupation in American society.”
In the first half of the twentieth century the field became increasingly dominated by African American women, whose labor force participation rates were higher than those of white women and who were excluded from most other types of work, even in the northern and midwestern cities to which so many descendants of former slaves had migrated. By 1950 the proportion of African American women workers who were domestic servants was ten times that of white women. At that time job opportunities for African Americans and other women of color remained highly restricted, and domestic service was often their only option.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the wider effects of the civil rights movement opened the doors for women of color to clerical and sales jobs and to other occupations from which they previously were excluded. Anti-discrimination efforts were particularly effective in the public sector, in which an upsurge of unionization also improved pay and working conditions in this period. By 1980 less than 5 percent of all employed African American women were in domestic work, down from 39 percent in 1960. In that twenty-year period, occupational segregation between Black and white women declined precipitously, with a dramatic effect on earnings: in 1960, African American women’s average hourly earnings were about 65 percent of white women’s, but by 1980 that figure was 99 percent. Yet job segregation by gender remained largely intact, so even as racial barriers fell, most African American women remained confined to traditionally female occupations. Nevertheless, from 1960 to 1980, African American women with twenty or more years of work experience “had the largest increases in relative earnings of any gender-experience group over the period,” economists Francine Blau and Andrea Beller found.”
Just as the labor supply of African Americans in domestic service was being depleted, however, demand for labor in the occupation began to rebound, reflecting growing maternal labor force participation and the aging of the population. In 2012 “in-home workers,” including agency-based direct-care aides, nannies, and house cleaners, 90 percent of them female, accounted for 3 percent of the nation’s employed women—double the 1980 level. By that time domestic work had become a major source of employment for female immigrants: in 2012, 7 percent of all foreign-born women, and 11 percent of those with a high school degree or less, were in-home workers. That year 62 percent of all U.S. “maids and housekeeping cleaners” were foreign-born. The immigrant share is even higher in large cities. For example, 81 percent of New York City’s house cleaners, nannies, and home care aides were foreign-born in 2016.
Beyond the Threat Narrative
The threat narrative that blames immigrants for the declining fortunes of U.S.-born workers is more than a set of ideas. It has facilitated draconian policy initiatives with vast ramifications for the nation’s foreign-born population, and for U.S. politics more broadly. Not for nothing was Obama tagged “deporter-in-chief.” Later the Trump administration promulgated a Muslim travel ban, limited admissions of refugees and asylum-seekers, and separated families at the border.
The immigrant rights movement was thrown on the defensive—not only by Trump’s policies but also by his success in galvanizing white working-class political support by demonizing immigrants. Advocates challenged Trump’s policies in the courts, with some success. Biden’s efforts at immigration reform have yet to bear fruit.
Against this backdrop some prominent liberals have come to believe that the only effective way to counter the legacy of Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric is for his opponents to embrace restrictive policies. Shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, for example, Hillary Clinton—who had supported liberal immigration reform policies during her presidential campaign two years earlier—declared, “If we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.” David Frum echoed that warning in more hyperbolic language in an article entitled “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will.”
Other commentators have ventured still further down this treacherous path. For example, in his 2018 book, liberal political analyst John Judis confessed his personal sympathy for Trump’s nationalist agenda and explicitly invoked the immigrant threat narrative: “Enormous numbers of unskilled immigrants have competed for jobs with Americans who also lack higher education and have led to the downgrading of occupations that were once middle class,” he wrote, adding, “Without control of borders and immigration, it is very hard to imagine the United States becoming a more egalitarian society.” Similarly, left-wing sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, responding to the growing momentum of right-wing populists in Europe, lamented what he sees as left-wing “anti-statism dressed up as anti-nationalism” in Germany. “By fighting for deregulation of national borders to allow for open and open-ended immigration,” he declared, “the Left abandons a central element of its historical pro-regulation agenda, which importantly involved restricting the supply of labor.”
On this side of the Atlantic, Angela Nagle has promoted this position as well, hearkening back nostalgically to the days when U.S. trade unions embraced restrictive immigration policies while noting (accurately) that the primary supporters of open borders are free-market ideologues such as the Koch brothers, along with employers reliant on cheap labor. Historically, she notes, U.S. unions took the opposite view:
They [unions] saw the deliberate importation of illegal, low-wage workers as weakening labor’s bargaining power and as a form of exploitation. There is no getting around the fact that the power of unions relies by definition on their ability to restrict and withdraw the supply of labor, which becomes impossible if an entire workforce can be easily and cheaply replaced. Open borders and mass immigration are a victory for the bosses.
Although this perspective remains alive and well in some sectors of the U.S. labor movement, the AFL-CIO renounced it explicitly in passing a historic 2000 resolution supporting comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. In any case, relatively few U.S. progressives actually advocate “open borders.” Instead most recognize that there are compelling economic reasons to support generous immigration policies: while immigration does expand the labor supply, as commentators such as Nagle and Judis emphasize, it also creates additional economic demand and thus generates more jobs. In addition, the relatively youthful immigrant workforce contributes to the sustainability of Social Security and Medicare, an increasingly urgent issue as the population ages. Indeed, the expert consensus is that immigration has minuscule negative impacts on U.S.-born workers, and that those are more than outweighed by its economic benefits.
Ultimately, however, liberals who support restrictive immigration policies focus less on economics than on politics, and specifically on the susceptibility of U.S.-born workers to right-wing populist appeals. If Democrats want to regain support from the white working-class swing voters who helped fuel Trump’s 2016 electoral victory, in this view, they must adopt a kinder and gentler version of immigration restriction, renouncing the most draconian and cruel elements of the Trump administration’s policies while retaining the goal of severely limiting immigration. Often this kind of narrative is accompanied by an ethical component, an appeal at a bipartisan disapproval of “rule-breaking.”
A new approach should explicitly challenge the immigrant threat narrative. By highlighting the history of employers’ strategies to systematically reduce wages and undermine the labor movement, and the history of the elite-sponsored public policies that have led to expanded inequality, we can make a compelling case that U.S.-born workers and immigrants share common interests. This counternarrative can help expose the fallacies of xenophobic ones while simultaneously acknowledging the moral bankruptcy and corruption of the existing political system. This approach dovetails with Steve Phillip’s efforts to focus resources on voter registration and electoral turnout efforts in Latinx and African American communities, whose numbers greatly exceed those of the white working-class swing voters whose defections are so often lamented.
The common interests of all working people are served by rejecting racism and xenophobia, rebuilding the labor movement, pressuring employers to upgrade jobs, and demanding public policies to reduce inequality.
Editors’ Note: This essay is adapted from Ruth Milkman’s chapter in Immigration Matters: Movement, Visions, and Strategies for a Progressive Future (New York: The New Press, 2021), with the permission of the publisher.
Ruth Milkman is a sociologist and the director of UCLA's Institute of Industrial Relations. Her essay is drawn from her book L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement.
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