If Past is Prologue: Americans’ Future “Guilt” About Today’sUse of Low-Pay Immigrant Labor
Dwight D. Murphey
One of the major arguments made by those who support today’s massiveimmigration from Mexico and the Third World into the United States is that theimmigrants, and especially those who come in illegally, are “doing work Americanswon’t do.” What is not realized is that there is already an extensive literature, writtenmainly by activists for the immigrant ethnic groups themselves, that charges that thewidespread use of low-pay labor from an impoverished immigrant underclass is“exploitation.” The point of this article is that if precedents such as the widespreadelevation of Cesar Chavez to hero status are any guide to the forces at work within theUnited States, the day will almost certainly come when mainstream American societywill be caused by its opinion-makers in academia and the media to look back upon thecurrent use of immigrant labor as reason for shame rather than self-congratulation,much as Americans have already been caused, through similar alienation, to reevaluatemuch of their country’s history as carrying a heavy legacy of guilt.
Immigration, immigrant labor, low-pay labor, exploitation concept,Americans’ feelings of guilt, Cesar Chavez, Japanese-American relocation.In the United States, the debate over immigration is now as heated as it has ever been. Vast numbers of immigrants have come into the country, some legally andmillions of others illegally, since the 1965 legislation that took away the preference for Europeans and opened the doors to the Third World. Although it is correct to think thatmuch of this immigration has come from Mexico, the river has been fed by manystreams.Some of the immigration has been to fill high-pay jobs in, for example, engineeringand the computer industry. Most of it, however, has been to find employment inminimum wage, or even sub-minimum wage, jobs in primarily the agricultural,construction, manufacturing, hospitality and domestic-work sectors. Although garmentindustry workers have been supplanted by outsourcing in most of the United States,such work has become a major part of the economy in Los Angeles, where tens of thousands of Latinos, many of them illegal immigrants, work for sub-contractors,mostly Asian, who in turn produce garments for apparel manufacturers of manynationalities.
As one Latino columnist has said about low-pay work, “There’s alwaysa job waiting for those who will do the dirtiest jobs under the worst conditions for thelowest pay and the most paltry of benefits.”
The debate over whether the influx should be stopped, and over what to do aboutthe illegal immigrants already in the country, has many facets. One of the more
Dwight D. Murphey is now retired as a professor of business law at Wichita State University. He isAssociate Editor of this journal.
Rodolfo Torres and George Katsiaficas (ed
.), Latino Social Movements: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives
(New York: Routledge 1999), pp. 141-153. Article by Edna Bonacich.
Op-ed column by Ruben Navarette,
, January 9, 2004.