The dynamic role of immigrants

Immigrants have played an unimpeachable role in the economy and culture throughout United States history. PHOTO: dignidadrebelde
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I am the son of immigrant and native-born parents. My dad had a green card but never chose to become a citizen. He never spoke of it, and I never knew why he remained a Mexican national. But I do know that being an immigrant colored his experiences in the United States.

Woven into the nation’s fabric. According to the World Population Review, the U.S. has the largest immigrant population of any country in the world and one of the most diverse. An estimated 15% of the populace are foreign-born, about 50.6 million people — from just about every country in the world. Not surprisingly, Latin Americans make up over 40% of all migrants.

Furthermore, a 2012 Brookings Institution article “What Immigration Means for U.S. Employment and Wages” noted that, “Although many are concerned that immigrants compete against [native-born workers] for jobs, the most recent economic evidence suggests that, on average, immigrant workers increase the opportunities and incomes of Americans.”

And in further response to those who claim immigration hurts the economy, a 2023 analysis by Marketplace.org stated, “Inflation occurs when you have demand for goods and services growing faster than their production.” And, “Immigrants … do an awful lot to increase production, and that keeps inflation lower.”

In the U.S., new arrivals reinforce an aging workforce that is suffering from a reduction of workers due to retirement along with an overall decrease in the birth rate. It is widely known that capitalist profits depend on the low-paid labor of immigrants.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, as of 2018, “Fully 36% of workers in the farming, fishing, and forestry fields are immigrants without a college degree, as are 36% of building and grounds cleaning and maintenance workers, 27% of hotel workers, and 21% of home healthcare industry workers.”

The taxes they pay support and fortify Social Security and Medicare. And many undocumented workers often can’t or won’t access services for fear of deportation.

I am a union man, like my dad. He was a life-long Teamster. I was a labor militant and shop steward. I’m a retired member of American Federation of Government Employees. There is no doubt in my mind that immigrants, along with native-born people of color, women, youth and the LGBTQ+ community, are the backbone of the push to unionize — particularly in historically low-wage jobs.

Throughout my life, I have always worked alongside or in the same job classification as immigrants. My last place of employment was at the Veterans Administration Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle, Washington. I worked as a nursing assistant, in housekeeping, and in other positions over the decades.

Hospitals have a large number of people of color and immigrants on staff — from nurses, to doctors, researchers, lab techs, housekeepers, kitchen and clerical staff. Without the skill and dedication of these workers, the U.S. healthcare system falls apart.

The Covid-19 pandemic saw foreign-born workers on the front lines. More than a few died. They were the essential bodies that kept hospitals, grocery stores, and child care, agricultural, food service, janitorial, construction, hotel and a hundred more industries going.

For a short time in 2020, these critical workers were praised for their dedication by the public at large. But after the crisis supposedly ended, and as the economy softened, the scapegoating began in earnest again. Today, immigrants are often vilified. And those attempting to enter the U.S. without papers are caged or turned away by the brutal Border Patrol.

Cornerstones of society. Regardless of their legal status, immigrants have organized demonstrations, pickets, and boycotts in the fight to unionize against unsafe and exploitive conditions — from poisonous pesticides to inadequate housing, sexual harassment and abusive treatment by growers. Those working in the farm industry still battle for safe and humane conditions.

Across the U.S. and the world, women from Iran and Afghanistan expose the deadly misogyny of the Islamic theocracy and the Taliban, respectively. Palestinians in the U.S. raise consciousness of the terrorism of Israel’s Zionist government.

Africans and Latin Americans protest the intolerable situations in their mother countries that forced them to come to these North American shores, horrors often caused by U.S. imperialism. Asians and Pacific Islanders stand up against the bosses as well as bigots who attack their communities.

Though not immigrants, it’s important to recognize the many Africans who were enslaved and forced here over 400 years ago. They shaped the U.S. then, and their descendants continue to do so today. As did and do the Native people and tribes whose land and lives were stolen by colonization.

Everywhere you go, immigrants are a tremendous force for social change. All their issues intertwine with those raised by the majority of workers here, like climate change, reproductive freedom and LGBTQ+ rights. The U.S. is strengthened by the vitality of these newcomers.

The influence of immigrants is felt in all aspects of society — art, music, food, education, architecture and more. The contribution of immigrants to literature is illuminating and profound. The struggles and barriers they have to overcome are depicted in books we read and films we see. Carlos Bulosan wrote the classic memoir America Is in the Heart, that looks at the racist abuse he and other Filipino migrant workers faced. Their experience as second-class citizens mirrors that of Mexicanos and resonated with me.

People migrating to the United States are an integral part of this nation’s tapestry. A salute to the resilient power of immigrants!

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