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Op-Ed: Unite with Newly-Arriving Immigrants to Abolish the Underclass

Calls for more immigration to lower wages and stem inflation or those for less immigration distract from the real problem: the criminalization of undocumented workers that is dividing the working class.

Tosh Anderson, John Antush & Margaret Lee Mar 27, 2023

In response to the arrival of nearly 40,000 asylum seekers cynically bussed from border states to New York City, Mayor Adams  issued Emergency Executive Order 224 in October, “directing all relevant city agencies to coordinate their efforts to respond to the asylum seeker humanitarian crisis and construct the city’s Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers.” The City projects costs of more than $1 billion related to asylum seekers in this fiscal year alone and is pushing for expedited work permits. In October, Mayor Adams quipped, the “irony” is “we’re telling 21,000 working-age people that they can’t work” when there’s not enough workers to fill available jobs. The strategy put forth by Democrats led by the Biden Administration and Mayor Adams, calls for a pathway to citizenship for the newly-arrived migrants to address what they say is a labor shortage — but it really is a refusal by workers to accept jobs with deteriorating conditions. Meanwhile, New Yorkers from every background, including undocumented immigrants, are wary of the newcomers and resent the amount of government support this newest migration wave is being given as they see their own working and living conditions worsen. Let’s not get fooled into blaming newcomers for these systemic problems caused by the government’s failures.

Longtime Lower East Siders fighting to stop luxury development question the housing resources the City is providing the new arrivals: “Why are they giving housing to migrants when we are getting pushed out of our homes?” Others ask, “Why is there money for the newcomers, when NYCHA won’t repair my apartment?” One worker who has been waiting eight years for the Attorney General to settle a class-action wage-theft case against Domino’s Pizza reflects bitterly, “I’ve been here more than 20 years. The government hasn’t helped me get papers.” Along with his coworkers, he is owed hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet elected officials tell them that if the government enforces the labor law to stop wage theft it will hurt immigrant and small-business owners. 

We can either unite with the newly-arrived and organize together — or tomorrow compete with them for jobs, housing, and services as our enemy. 

Many home care workers have been organizing to end the racist violence of 24-hour shifts that are forced on them by their agencies, their union, progressive politicians and the Governor, who have opposed their calls for change. They are owed billions in stolen wages for unpaid hours, but elected officials tell them the 24-hour workday must continue or the homecare industry will go bankrupt. They are left wondering, “why is this government, which exploits us and violates our rights, giving so much to these migrants?” 

Working people all want and need the same things: good affordable housing, secure jobs, safe workplaces, communities with schools for all students to learn and thrive, clean air,  green spaces and quality healthcare. But the government’s so-called solutions to working people’s problems only benefit business and developers and bait workers to turn on each other in a fight for crumbs, fueling racism. Despite more than $1 billion being stolen from New York workers in wage theft each year, politicians refuse to pass the SWEAT bill, legislation that will stop wage theft, and continue to protect law-breaking employers rather than workers, including those newly-arriving. City Council members calling for support for migrants are silent on ending the racist violence of the 24-hour workday for immigrant women workers. The City has funneled more than $1 billion to the Hotel Association of New York to house homeless people during the pandemic, and now these hotels are being used to house asylum seekers. 

Rather than supporting community-led solutions to the housing crisis and opening up the tens of thousands of warehoused rent-stabilized apartments to working people being priced out of their neighborhoods, Mayor Adams and his developer friends claim that more luxury development is the answer to the problem. 

Despite the current 40-year-high inflation rate that is making life even more unaffordable and punishing U.S. workers, corporate profits continued to increase last year to $2.08 trillion, surging by more than 80% over the last two years, from roughly $1.2 trillion to more than $2 trillion. The new migrants are pushing back against their conditions — being housed in prison-style barracks in Brooklyn Terminal or served rotten food in hotels, just like workers are fighting wage theft, displacement and the 24-hour workday. Instead of giving in to cynicism from getting squeezed, we should follow the example of workers who dare to struggle!

“Labor shortage” is a euphemism for business’ demand for more cheap labor, i.e. to pit newcomers against others to drive down our conditions. 

The newly-arriving immigrants are just the latest group of immigrants in the country’s history to fill the role of a desperate workforce brought in to serve as super-exploited disposable workers while they are lauded as “hard-working immigrants” and kept poor, tired, injured and living a slow death. Packed into shelters and hotels or living in tents, they are subject to the same systemic racism and exploitation reflected in the government’s message to workers that we should accept wage theft and a 24-hour workday, high rents, degrading housing conditions, homelessness, and displacement. If we do not unite as a class, including with the newly-arrived, to hold the government accountable, the city’s ruling class will continue to drive conditions down and deepen our collective exploitation. We can either unite with the newly-arrived and organize together — or tomorrow compete with them for jobs, housing, and services as our enemy. 

To unite working people we must demand an end to the criminalization of undocumented workers. Stagnant wages, longer work hours and union-membership decline will persist as long as some workers have no rights. “Labor shortage” is a euphemism for business’ demand for more cheap labor, i.e. to pit newcomers against others to drive down our conditions. Right on cue, President Biden’s response to the migrant crisis, the parole family-sponsor proposal, like George W. Bush’s temporary visa program proposal, only distracts from the root cause of the systemic exclusion of undocumented workers from basic rights — the employer sanctions provision. This 1986 law has created an underclass of criminalized undocumented-immigrant labor, dividing the working class, enabling bosses to crush our organizing and creating super-profits for the few. 

In his comments the Mayor is promoting (with a wink) the common practice of hiring new immigrants, including the undocumented. Small and large employers among the city’s construction and service sectors rely on exploiting a steady stream of new immigrants, often through subcontractors, accumulating superprofits. Employers see the newly-arrived as cheap labor to sustain profitability through the sweating of immigrants working long hours for low wages, while landlords gouge them with high rents. The political payoff to those in power is evident from the way publicity around the migrants has diverted popular anger away from both political parties and the state and towards the immigrants, our fellow workers.

Calls for more immigration to drive down wages and stem inflation (by the Democrats) or calls for less immigration (by the Republicans) distract from this fundamental problem. National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS), a New York City-based labor-advocacy group of which we are each members, will unite with anyone who will fight for a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented workers and to abolish the employer-sanctions law that criminalizes them. Only then, when all workers have equal rights to organize, will working people be able to improve conditions, unite to change our conditions, and end racism and exploitation.

Learn more about what is causing the great divide among American workers so we can unify to get what we all need in our lives. 

Tosh Anderson, John Antush and Margaret Lee are members of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS)

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