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Published by: dwightmurphey on Mar 11, 2012
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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.
Key Words:
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,
Wichita Eagle
, January 9, 2004.
 persuasive arguments made by those who look on the immigration favorably iseconomic: that the newcomers are “doing work Americans won’t do” (or “don’t wantto do”). Many employers and individuals seeking domestic help welcome the presenceof a vast pool of inexpensive workers. In so doing, they are by no means exceptional,given the history of economic systems. Low-pay labor has been typical, not atypical, inhuman societies from time immemorial. Until the beginning of the anti-slaverymovement in England in the late eighteenth century, slavery was an accepted institutionalmost everywhere; and the equivalent of slavery has come in many forms, such as peonage in Mexico and serfdom in Russia. It is doubtful, however, that today’sAmericans who use low-pay immigrant labor see themselves as part of this tradition.Rather, the statement that “immigrants are doing what Americans won’t do” is usuallysaid in the most upbeat fashion, with the intimation that it is a happy fact for which thesociety can be thankful.This is a felicity enjoyed in both the pocketbook and psyche of those benefiting, butit comes by way of ignoring several realities and storm clouds. The benefits are indeedwidespread—to businesses and consumers, who are able to produce and consumecheaply. But there are costs, some severe. Because the purpose of this article will beto focus on certain aspects that are seldom thought of, we will for the most part leave toothers an examination of the more frequently discussed negative effects, such as theoffsetting social and infrastructure costs (such as to the health care, welfare and judicialsystems) and the impact on indigenous labor, which is either displaced or sees itsremuneration brought down to the level determined by the immigrant competition. Neither will we discuss here the vitally important issues of balkanization and loss of national identity.The focus in the present article will, rather, be on the moral and ideological costs.These have received little attention. We have just mentioned how most Americans,whose mental world is preoccupied with the practicalities of daily life and who havelittle historical awareness, don’t see their contemporary conduct in a long-term context.If one were to ask them about slavery, peonage or serfdom, they would unanimouslyexpress their abhorrence. There is a mental disconnect, of sorts. But this disconnect isat least debatable, since anyone who argues that today’s hiring of immigrants in low- pay jobs in the United States is equivalent to slavery, peonage or serfdom will findreasonable people who will dispute his premise.What is clearer as a “moral or ideological cost” is something that will surprise mostAmericans, but that should be apparent if precedents are any indication. The precedents point to forces that are still at work in American society. The surprisingcost is this: that most Americans will in a few years come to see the conduct of today’sAmericans as deeply shameful. The mainstream of Americans themselves—of whatever ethnicity—will perceive the present period as having been racist andexploitive. They will then consider the argument about “jobs that Americans won’t do”contemptible. The happy gloss will be off.Americans are already given to feel guilt over the pre-Civil War history of theUnited States, as having been deeply stained by slavery; and there is a similar repudiation of the post-Civil War period up to the advent of the Civil Rights Movementin the 1950s, as having embodied “white supremacy.” As an example, we see thatmajor league baseball before the Jackie Robinson era (when in the late 1940s blacks
were integrated into the sport) is often looked upon today as having been perverselyincomplete and unrepresentative, with the thought that perhaps the exploits of BabeRuth or Lou Gehrig should be marked with an asterisk.The sense of guilt stems from a dramatic shift in “point of view.” Americans before the Civil War would hardly have thought their society defined by slavery; rather,they tended to see it as a “great experiment in liberty” to which slavery was aregrettable exception. Thomas Paine boasted optimistically that “we have it in our  power to start the world over again.” Later, white post-Civil War Americans thoughtof blacks as peripheral to what seemed to them a satisfactory, albeit not perfect, socialorder. Blacks lived in pockets that had little to do with the country’s self-perception.To understand these tectonic shifts in perception, including the shift that willcondemn what is today accepted as so natural about the employment of low-payimmigrant labor, it is essential of grasp certain features in the dynamic that has so long propelled American society toward rapid social and ideological change. This dynamichas had several components, most particularly:(1) the long-term presence of an alienated intellectual and artistic subculture,which since early in the nineteenth century has found much to criticize (or, quitecommonly, to excoriate) about American life;(2) that subculture’s long-standing search for allies to give it weight in its cultural, political and economic struggle, a search that at one time caused its members to provideideological support for what they hoped would be a militant working class;(3) the subculture’s gradual disillusionment with the working class as an ally, andits shift after World War II to seeking allies among racial and ethnic minorities instead;(4) the post-1965 influx into the United States of a very sizeable Third Worldimmigrant population that is not easily assimilable with the population of overwhelmingly European origin that existed before; and(5) at the same time, the relative
of an
alienated intellectual, academic,literary and artistic subculture that would champion the mainstream (even as perhaps itwould criticize and seek to uplift it). Because of the relative absence of an intellectualculture “appropriate to itself,” the “silent majority” has long been a principal fact inAmerican life;(6) because of the presence of the alienated intellectual subculture and the absenceof an appreciable unalienated one, the moral and intellectual weakness of the averagemiddle-class American, who readily adopts the attitudes and intellectual fashions thatare given to him to believe.One result of these factors has been a reinterpretation of American history througha perspective that has combined (1) the intelligentsia’s alienation with (2) seeing theworld through the eyes of the minorities, now called “the peoples of color.” Thischange in point of view has been acquiesced in by the erstwhile mainstream, which hasaccepted the premises of the new point of view and has not found it within itself todefend—and to defend precisely
as moral 
 —its earlier beliefs. In the face of eachsocial change, its spokesmen have largely vanished, and those remaining have beenmarginalized and ignored to the point of irrelevance.Because these elements in the dynamic of American social change are still present,and are being added to by the continuing growth of ethnic minorities throughimmigration and their high birth rate, there is reason to expect that the present will

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