All Points

Wage Slaves

By William Deresiewicz | March 25, 2012


The last years of his life, my father started listening to right-wing radio. (I blame All in the Family. When the show began, he was a liberal; by the time it was over, he thought he was Archie Bunker.) There was one issue in particular that really used to get him going. “Those illegal immigrants,” he’d say. “It’s a scandal!”

It’s the 1920s all over again in our national discourse about immigration. Too many people with the wrong color skin, taking jobs from real Americans and muddying up the national gene pool and the national culture. What Latinos are now, Jews and Catholics were then. That many of the former are here illegally, while most of the latter were not, is a technicality. They are all part of the same phenomenon, one that goes back a long way before the 1920s. The American economy has always depended on a large class of underpaid workers, and it probably always will.

Before the immigrants came the slaves. Slaves were not paid, of course, but their work was not free, either. The cost of their upkeep, however meager, was a form of wage or labor cost for the masters. After the Civil War came the great tide of immigration from Europe and then, a little later, the Great Migration from the South, huge new pools of workers who had none of the protections we take for granted now, immiserated labor for the northern factories. When the Ku Klux Klan was at its height in the 1920s, some of its strongest redoubts were the urban centers of the Midwest.

The National Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed the right of collective bargaining, was not passed until 1935. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a federal minimum wage, outlawed child labor, and mandated a 40-hour work week, was not passed until 1938. The Occupational Safety and Health Act was not passed until 1970. The upsurge of illegal immigration in recent decades can be seen as an adjustment, by employers, to the new regulatory environment. So, of course, can outsourcing. Most of our immiserated workers now are overseas, at places like Foxconn. But many jobs cannot be outsourced: washing dishes, building houses, cutting grass, picking crops, taking care of children and old people, cleaning houses.

Illegal immigrants don’t take jobs Americans won’t. They take jobs Americans won’t—actually, can’t—under those conditions. They work below the minimum wage and without the protection of occupational health and safety laws or even the most theoretical rights of collective bargaining. Basically, they exist as if the New Deal never happened. Their enforced docility and legal defenselessness are precisely what make them attractive to employers. If they work so hard, it’s not because they have a stronger work ethic than Americans; it’s because they have no choice.

Attractive to employers, and thus, indirectly, to us. Or not so indirectly. When I moved to Park Slope in 1993, I was amazed at how many mixed-raced couples the neighborhood seemed to have, because there were so many black women pushing white babies. (I’m a little slow on the uptake.) As for my father, this is what I used to reply. “Dad,” I would say, “the woman who takes care of you is an illegal immigrant, remember? That’s why you hired her—because she’s cheap.” All in the family, indeed.

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