The following is a transcription of Richard Wolff’s remarks on immigration from the August 16th installment of Wolff’s Economic Update (audio here). The view he is expressing, that immigration and “immigration reform” serves the interests of economic elites by creating increased competition for available employment, while often ignored, is neither new or original. What needs to be better understood is his observation that the charge of “racism” against workers concerned about the threat which immigration poses to their livelihoods is often cynically exploited by the same elites who benefit from an increased labor surplus. Worse is when self-described leftists parrot the same charge thereby doing the work of the ownership class though much more effectively as it is delivered in good faith from supposed friends of the working class rather than its enemies.
The issue I want to discuss now is the economics of immigration. And I’m going to use the United States as an example although what I’m going to say applies to many other countries that are experiencing an immigration process in their society.
The vast bulk of immigration into the United States for most of its history has been working people. People who leave a country because the economic conditions for them are difficult, getting a job is difficult, working on a farm is difficult, the income you earn is really not enough the prospects for you are very poor, you can’t support a family or you can’t support them the way you wish you could, you would like to offer a better life for your children than is available.
And so you hear about economic conditions in the United States and you make a wrenching decision to yank yourself out of the family you’re part of, the community you’re part of, the church that you’re part of, the friendships you’re developed, the neighborhood, and go to another country often whose language you don’t speak, whose customs you’re not familiar with, whose religion may be different from your own, and so on. A very difficult, a very painful, a very frightening decision, mostly made for a better economic chance.
Yes, there are some people who come because they’re politically persecuted, or persecuted because of their ideas, and that’s important but the bulk of people who have come to the United States are coming because they want something very unsurprising: they want a better economic deal-a chance to work, a chance to earn an income, a chance to live a reasonable life.
That tells you why they leave where they come from. Why do they come here?
Those folks would not come to the United States, or any other country, unless they were told by somebody, and told repeatedly-you don’t make this kind of wrenching decision based on one idea that somebody tells you over a drink some night-they only come if they are told and retold that there is an employer waiting for them. That there’s a job waiting for them. That they can earn a living; that their labor is desired.
Or if they’re a child of someone, that they’re the child of somebody whose labor is desired.
This gives us a clue to one of the key causes of immigration: the desire of employers to have either more workers that are available in their own country or workers whom they can pay less money to than the ones they have in their own country. One or the other or both things have to be true if employers are going to send out repeated messages directly and indirectly to countries from which people are leaving that you ought to think about coming here to the United States for example, or to Britain or to Canada or to Sweden or to wherever we’re talking about.
That means that one of the economic drivers of immigration, is the employer, corporations, those who want to see the workers come because they need more workers or they need cheaper workers or they need both. They’re not very interested in whether or how these workers get along with other people, whether they can find good or mediocre or awful housing, good or mediocre or awful education for their children, safe or not so safe neighborhoods-that’s really secondary.
They want to know whether they can get these workers to come here to work, preferably for less than they’ve had to pay workers who’ve been here a while or who were born in the United States.
So the more the merrier you might say is the attitude of the employer class toward immigration.
Now let’s look at it from the point of view of the workers already here-either born in the United States or been here for a while although having come as immigrants at some earlier point.
They look upon immigrants very differently. And that’s not because they’re different people, but because their situation in the economy is different. So for them, they say to themselves, first, oh my goodness! all these immigrants are coming and they’re going to compete with me for my job.
Number two: these folks are poor. They are coming from a place where they’ve gotten by with much less than we expect here in the United States so I’m afraid they will be willing to work for less than I’m willing to work for. And that they’re going to therefore be the choice of my employer at my expense.
Number three: if these are poor folk and they crowd in as poor folk usually do into the housing they can barely afford, we’re going to get a number of folks like this who may become dependent on government assistance of one kind or another and that’s going to come out of taxes on me because that’s the way our American tax system works: the rich get out of their share, the corporations who want these people won’t pay the extra taxes but I will be required to pay the extra taxes to support the public services for a person who may threaten my job. Plus i don’t want crowded neighborhoods near me, it makes life hard in the schools.
You can see where the arguments go: the point here is not whether these arguments are accurate or not. In some case they are, in some cases they aren’t.
But the point is that workers are in a fundamentally different structural position than are employers when it comes to the immigration of adult people who come looking for the job that the employer would prefer to give at a lower wage than whoever it is he is employing now.
And so we have here set up an ugly and unattractive struggle. And it gets more ugly and unattractive because there are groups in our society-and I don’t want to justify them or excuse them in any way-who are hateful towards immigrants-not for reasons of economics, they don’t like the religion of the people coming in; they don’t like the skin color. That is, they’re racists or bigots for various reasons.
They now find, these folks, who are always there to some degree, but they now find a new audience among the working class folks who are worried about immigrants not because of their color or their religion about which they care little or nothing. But they want someone to push back because they are fearful of what immigration will mean for them economically.
So they’re begins to be a coming together of the working class opposition to immigration-anxiety about immigration-and the racist or bigoted groups that are set against them. Meanwhile-and that gets ugly-there’s another kind of ugliness. The people at the top-the corporate leaders, the wealthy, the people who attend to them-their servants-directly and indirectly-begin to reproach the working class as if its opposition to immigration were racist or bigoted. As if your average working person had some moral lapse that a big wealthy person could reproach them for.
This is really ugly now. You are now casting the working class, whom you had endangered with immigration, whose risks at immigration you are precisely pursuing, because it advantages your profits. But instead of facing what threat you represent to working people you dismiss them all as racist and bigoted, which they never were and which they aren’t now.
I told you it gets ugly.
Well, what should we do? Let’s look for a minute historically at what has happened and then we can talk about what we ought to do.
Most of the time the employers win. We know why that is: they’ve bought the two political parties, you can see it being played out in Washington now as the Republicans and Democrats fiddle and faddle over immigration legislation-they never quite make a decision-mean time, millions and millions of people come to the United States, more or less able to continue to do so, often under terrible conditions, particularly recently with the children, but this is an old story.
What I’m saying to you is the corporations win. They control enough of the political system that when they want heavy immigration from poor places they get it.
For most of the history of the United States, it was poor people from Europe who came here. Since the second World War the Europe movement has slowed and largely collapsed but we get now from Latin America and from Asia and Africa a growing flow again, in the main, poor people. People looking for work, even those with degrees who come from higher levels of income in other countries, they also come looking for work. And they are also prepared to work for lower than the comparable salary or wage in the United States.
Workers have occasionally fought back with enough political muscle to stop immigration. Or to slow immigration. Or to limit immigration. But that’s been rare.
The victors have mostly been the corporate elite. And so we’ve had immigration. And so we’ve had an endless succession of tensions in our community of divisions in our working class along ethnic lines that are not so different from the lines between native born, recent immigrants and long ago immigrants.
With all the tension and all the injustice and all the pain and hurt that that has meant particularly for the immigrants but for everybody else involved.
Is there a better way? is there a solution? And the answer, as always is, of course there is.
If we want, and it ought to be “we” who make the decision democratically-if we want to open our nation, past and presents and future, to immigrants from other countries, then we ought to do so but provide the mechanism so that their arrival is not a threat to the people here but is in fact a blessing and a benefit as it brings more diversity, more variety, into the food, the dress and the ways of thinking of the American people-it enriches us with the cultures of diverse populations rather than threaten our working people. And the way you do that is, no one here loses a job or lowers their income because of their coming. An immigrant comes in and he or she will be provided with a job-an additional job-not a substitute job, at a decent income that’s comparable to what people here get, so that there’s no question of what people here are getting being reduced because of the competition from an immigrant.
You bring in immigrants without threatening the American working class and those immigrants will not have epithets shouted at them, will not have their children driven away, they’ll be welcomed for the diversity and the difference that they bring to enrich this society. You want immigration to work better, then do it properly. And who should pay for it? Of course, the people who wanted the immigrations in the first place. You want more workers? Fine. You want more workers for less? No, that’s not available. Let’s bring immigrants in if we need more workers, fine, bring them in in a way that enriches their lives and ours. And make those who benefit by having an available labor force pay the freight for making it work properly. No more folks at the top giving lectures on racism when the exacerbation of racial tension is precisely what they’ve produced by bringing poor people in to replace workers in this country. Anything else is insincere, duplicitous and dangerous in more social ways than I can count.