In response to President Trump’s immigration agenda, which pledges to seal the US/Mexico border, “A Day Without Immigrants” boycott/strikes have been organized across the country today. The protests call attention to the contributions immigrant communities make to US business and culture. Some businesses are closing for the day while others are staying open and giving a portion of the day’s proceeds to nonprofits that aid Latino communities.
As history professor Aviva Chomsky highlights in Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, the US economic system profits from the work that undocumented immigrants do. But the system exploits this much neglected working class, marginalizing the workers for their ‘undocumentedness’ even though they actually help sustain the job market.
The rise in undocumented workers over the past several decades has gone along with a rise in the invisible, exploited labor that they perform. The generally unacknowledged work that they do is a crucial underpinning to the standard of living and consumption enjoyed by virtually everyone in the United States. But, clearly, an economic system that keeps a lot of people unemployed and another group trapped in a legal status that restricts them to the worst kinds of jobs does not really benefit everyone.
Some have argued that the influx of undocumented workers depresses the labor market, lowers wages for less educated workers, and creates more competition for jobs at the lower end of the pay scale. Labor economist George Borjas has made this argument most persuasively, and many commentators who argue that we should restrict immigration base their arguments on his work.
Other economists, however, have found that the low-wage labor of undocumented immigrants actually increases the wages and employment of even low-paid citizen workers. By increasing productivity, low-paid undocumented workers can increase capital available for investment, hiring, and wages. Because undocumented workers add to the population, their consumption stimulates the economy. One recent study tried to document the expected economic impact of deportation versus legalization of the undocumented population of Arizona. The study found that legalization would be far more beneficial and deportation for more costly for American citizens.
Undocumented immigrants don’t simply “fill” jobs; they create jobs. Through the work they perform, the money they spend, and the taxes they pay, undocumented immigrants sustain the jobs of many other workers in the US economy, immigrants and native-born alike. Were undocumented immigrants to suddenly vanish, the jobs of many Americans would vanish as well. In contrast, were undocumented immigrants to acquire legal status, their wages and productivity would increase, they would spend more in our economy and pay more taxes, and new jobs would be created.
Two recent films, one a feature film and one a documentary, demonstrate this effect. A Day without a Mexican imagines that California awakens one morning to a strange fog, which has caused everyone of Mexican origin to vanish. Non-Mexicans stumble through their lives trying to fill in the gaps and realizing along the way how utterly dependent their economy and daily lives are on Mexican immigrants. In a moving scene at the end, after the fog lifts and the Mexicans reappear, the Border Patrol comes across a group in the wilderness at night. Flashing their lights, a patrolman asks, “Are you guys Mexican?” When the migrants confirm, the patrollers break into welcoming applause.
The film 9500 Liberty looks at a case in which the fantasy of A Day without a Mexican became a reality. In Prince William County, Virginia, a local ordinance in 2007 required police to stop and question anyone they suspected of being undocumented. Although the ordinance was eventually repealed, the acrimonious anti-immigrant mobilization surrounding it as well as fear of its implementation caused many immigrants to leave. As businesses closed, schools and neighborhoods emptied, and the housing market collapsed, the white citizen majority in the county became more dubious about the supposed benefits of expelling the undocumented.
Although the current system benefits many people in the United States, we must also recognize its fundamental injustice and think seriously about how it works and what steps could make it more just. If immigrants are being exploited by the current system, and if undocumentedness is one of the concepts that sustains inequality and unjust treatment, then we need to question undocumentedness itself.
The system benefits most Americans materially, given that Americans—even poor Americans—consume an extraordinary proportion of the planet’s resources. Only four percent of the world’s children are American, but they consume forty percent of the world’s toys. Despite the fact that many Americans are unemployed, in debt, and struggle to pay for health care and put food on their plates, they still consume more than their share. They do so because of the economic chain that links them to workers who are legally marginalized, either because they work in other countries or because they work illegally inside the United States.
Undocumentedness has everything to do with work and the economy. It is a key component of the late-twentieth-century global system. Every so-called industrialized country—or more accurately, deindustrializing country—relies on the labor of workers who are legally excluded to maintain its high levels of consumption. Like the United States, these countries rely on the legal conveniences of borders, countries, and citizenship to impose different rules for different people and maintain a legally excluded working class.
About the Author
Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State College. The author of several books, Chomsky has been active in Latin American solidarity and immigrants’ rights issues for over twenty-five years. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts.