Debate Magazine

The Importance of Criminalizing Immigrant Labor

Posted on the 06 February 2013 by Alanbean @FOJ_TX
The importance of criminalizing immigrant labor

Christian Parenti

By Alan Bean

If you think the immigration debate will be sane and smooth, consider these paragraphs from Christian Parenti, one of the most thoughtful and responsible authorities on crime and punishment in America.  Lots of big words, but if you want to understand the immigration debate read and re-read these words until you get his drift.

I have been told that the extreme anti-immigrant legislation proposed in the last session of the Texas Legislature was beaten back by a coalition comprised of immigrant rights activists and business owners.  The owners didn’t want their supply of cheap labor drying up.  But how will they react if their workers are no longer subject to deportation?

“What keeps agricultural labor so amazingly inexpensive, unorganized, and efficient, if not a pervasive culture of fear among immigrant laborers?  To the extent that raids ‘reproduce’ a supply of poorly remunerated agricultural labor, then the economic damages suffered by individual employers are simply the diseconomies and political externalities of maintaining the interests of employers in general.

It is axiomatic that owners of capital need labor to be inexpensive relative to the price of labor’s product if profits are to remain healthy, and that impoverished people, driven by desperation, will generally labor for lower wages than people with some degree of social power and wealth.  But sometimes poverty is not enough.  In many dangerous and dirty low-wage labor markets–such as food processing, agriculture, and apparel manufacturing–employers seem to prefer not just poor workers, but criminalized workers.  A labor supply of undocumented, ideologically demonized, and literally hunted immigrants is to American capitalists what drugs are to America’s consumers: an essential import.”

The usefulness, if not necessity, of criminalizing immigrant labor became apparent in the wake of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which gave green cards to 1.2 million undocumented farm workers.  As soon as these laborers received this slightest of legal protections, the vast majority of them evacuated the fields in search of better employment.  As soon as these migrant laborers were ‘legal’ they had a degree of upward mobility; poverty alone was not enough to ‘keep them down on the farm.’  Only police terror can assure that.  To remain passively trapped at the very bottom run of the labor market, immigrants must be legally and ideologically constructed as criminals.”  (Lockdown America, pp. 153-154)


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