Conversations: In the Land of Immigrants

Published in the Fall 2007 issue of SSA Magazine

With both tensions and rhetoric rising on immigrations issues over the last several years, the failure to pass the federal Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill this summer has already impacted immigrant communities across the country. Perhaps the biggest news is a proposed crackdown by Homeland Security on "no match" letters, which flag invalid employee Social Security Numbers, with bigger penalties to firms that continue to employ workers. As this issue was going to press, a federal court was starting to hear a case against the policy brought by several labor unions and immigrant rights organizations. For this issue's Conversation, Virginia Parks, an assistant professor at SSA whose fields of special interest include urban labor markets, immigration, and community organizing, sat down with Juan Salgado, executive director of the Instituto del Progreso Latino, a community organization in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood dedicated to meeting the needs of Latino immigrants, and Lars Negstad, research director for Local 1 of UNITE HERE, which represents more than 14,000 hospitality workers in Chicago.

Salgado: Since the effort to get a comprehensive immigration bill failed, the number of anti immigrant local ordinances is escalating. We've seen an increase in ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids, not just in the traditional places like meat packing plants, but more here in Chicago. And probably the most damaging of all is the Homeland Security announcement on Social Security no matches.

Negstad: In the past, there would be occasional no-match letters from the Social Security Administration that employers often would file away, and there wasn't a lot of follow-up. Sometimes employers would use them to scare workers. In fact, four or five years ago, in a meeting with local elected officials and management from one hotel corporation, essentially the message was kind of a "don't-ask, don't-tell" policy about immigration status, and the company really settled down. The climate has definitely changed in just the last few months.

Salgado: And people are fearful, and that's having devastating consequences in our community: psychological, emotional, economic, and in our churches and community organizations and unions. I don't think we have an idea what this will do in the long run. A mom just came in to our office yesterday with a letter that basically stated that—even though she's a citizen, even though her children are citizens—her husband has no right to be in this country anymore because he entered the country without authorization. He has to return to Mexico for 10 years before he can return again. And what will that family do? What will her 15- year-old son do without his father? Think about this multiplied throughout our communities.

Parks: Right. We've shifted the burden of responsibility to individuals. It's been very effective on the part of people who are anti-immigrant to say, "It's these people or this person who decided to break the law and cross the border." But really, it's all of our responsibility. We have created, politically and economically, a system that demands this low-wage work but puts these people at great risk.

Salgado: The United States of America went out and created the global economy. We were the ones proactive in the NAFTA agreements and the CAFTA agreements and creating all of those open markets. But we didn't deal with the labor end of it.

Negstad: Madeline Talbott of ACORN once wrote a really great letter about immigration that said it's just simple. You put a rich country next to a poor country and people are going to move from the poor country to the rich country. So to punish individual workers, who are just trying to make a better life for their family, is just unconscionable and outrageous.

Parks: We really have to step back and understand that we've created a political and economic system that is creating a whole separate class of people in our society. And it's a moment where we have to recognize what the full consequences of that are. Our current path to reform won't just affect one hotel on Michigan Avenue that all of a sudden has half of its workers gone. It will bring our entire economy to a grinding halt. And it will create incredible instability in our communities and incredible instability politically, I think. Salgado: Immigrants have subsidized this whole country's well-being in many, many different ways and not just by doing the low-wage work. The reason immigrant workers are so successful is that they show up a half hour early and they're willing to stay two hours late and all those kinds of things, and that's the truth. Start from the fact that they have to finance their own way to this country, and they have to do it through coyotes, which means they have to pay $2,000 to $3,000 per person to cross the border and risk their lives.

Then they finally get here and, you know, they've got to make a new life for themselves. What Lars said earlier— that "don't-ask, don't-tell" policy that permeated the country for many, many years—that allowed people to establish roots and make this their home. Think about the institutions in Chicago. Where would the Catholic Church be today if it were not for the influx of immigrants? What would that mean to the city of Chicago?

Negstad: Or even the population of Chicago.

Parks: Yes. Chicago's population was declining for decades, but in 2000 we saw the population of the city growing, and it was primarily due to immigration I mean the very health and vibrancy of our cities depend on immigrants, people who are willing to live and work here. You need immigrants here as consumers. They keep our economy going.

Negstad: There's one thing I want to touch on too: the hatred for immigrants. It's connected very directly to the insecurity and fear of working-class people who are seeing manufacturing jobs disappear, seeing wages go down, seeing health care benefits or pension benefits just come off the table. And that fear is so intense that it's very easy for demagogues to get in there and tap into that and say, here's a solution, scapegoat the immigrants—particularly the Spanish-speaking immigrants, because they're pretty visible. I think it must be very similar to the intense hatred directed towards African Americans for such a large and shameful part of our nation's history.

Parks: At all points in the history of the U. S. when there has been a move to include more people, there's always a battle. And this is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, that at this period of time, I think there's this great insecurity given the inequality that we're experiencing. This country is as inequitable as it was during the Gilded Age.

So it's interesting that at a point in time when Americans have so little, it becomes so important for them to keep other people from having what little they have. People see it as a zerosum game; that if we let these immigrants in, somehow they'll take away from what I have. And yet what you've been saying Juan, is that we have what we have because of immigrants. They contribute to this growing economy so that jobs that people do have— even those that may not pay well or have much security—are partly due to a growing immigrant population.

Salgado: It also brings us back to the reality that we're obviously still dealing with race in America. This whole issue has turned into an issue largely of Mexicans and of Latin Americans. There's this fear that somehow we're going to be radically different than other immigrant groups. But we dye the river green here for the St. Patrick's Day parade.

Parks: Yet we don't fear the Irish. Now we've accepted them as part of American society.

Salgado: And so there will come a day when Mexican culture is accepted. And it already is. I mean, people love to eat in our restaurants, right? They love to listen to our music. It's already happening. And so there's this natural progression. I have to say that the fact of the matter is, we are integrating like no other immigrant group ever has. For Mexican Americans of my generation, you're more likely to marry someone who isn't Latino than someone who is. In my entire family, every one of my younger cousins—there are about 15 of them—none of them are married to Mexicans.

Parks: According to a classic argument in sociology, that's considered the end point of assimilation: actually marrying outside of the ethnic group. The other side of this fear is cultural, a fear that somehow an immigrant group is so different, they will never understand our society, what we hold dear, what's most important. And yet what we know, from looking across history, that people assimilate—whether they want to or not—largely because they have children. This is borne out in the literature time and time again: Even people who say that they're going to come for 10 years or 20 years and go back, don't, because their kids grow up as Americans and their kids aren't going back to Mexico.

Salgado: The only major threat to any kind of immigration and assimilation is isolation.

Parks: That's a really a good point, and I think we need to consider the political consequences of that. That's what we're doing right now. We're forcing isolation upon a particular group of people based on no other factor than their status.