The labour of others

KA Dilday
5 April 2006

There are a few passages that I will always remember from my time as an editor at the opinion page of the New York Times. Some were just beautifully crafted, managing to distil the essence of a debate to a few sentences. The following is one of them, written by Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea, about Mexican illegal immigrants to the United States:

"The recently arrived are surprised to find that Americans resent them. After all, President Bush, they believe, welcomes them. Fast-food outlets and roofing companies and farms and textile mills and motels eagerly hire them. They are even more startled to find that the ones who have come before them and who have put in a few years here, resent them even more. And the 'legal' Mexicans revile them." ("Borderline Holiday", 24 December 2004)

This one short passage captures all of the emotions, contradictions and complexities of the immigration bill that is shape-shifting its way through the United States congress at the moment.

President Bush is a champion of an expanded guest-worker programme, something that is most useful to businesses that receive a supply of cheap labour – the aforementioned farms, textile mills and fast-food outlets. There are already several guest-worker programmes in place in the United States, including one for technological labour and one for agricultural labour. What is now being debated is whether they should be expanded and whether the guest-worker programme should be a route to citizenship (a recognised route, as many who come on these programmes already see them) and whether people who immigrated illegally should be legally recognised, documented and permitted to stay.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During this period of the fellowship, she will be travelling between north Africa and France.

Also by KA Dilday on openDemocracy:

"The freedom trail" (August 2005)

"Art and suffering: four years since 9/11" (August 2005)

"Rebranding America" (September 2005)

"Judith Miller's race: the unasked question" (October 2005)

"France seeks a world voice" (December 2005)

"A question of class" (January 2006)

"Europe's forked tongues"
(February 2006)

"The worth of illusion" (March 2006)

If you find KA Dilday's writing enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Yet meanwhile, as Urrea makes clear, the more illegal immigrants arrive, the more they are resented by many American citizens whose grumblings in California, the state with the largest percentage of illegal immigrants, led in 1994 to the passage of a bill (Proposition 187) denying basic social services to those in the country illegally. It was approved by California voters but overturned by a federal court.

Today in congress, the shadow of that bill and the sentiment that inspired it looms. Battered and bruised, the bill morphs with each new blow, yet it is slowly making its way to becoming law. There is no clear delineation among party lines, Democratic or Republican as to who falls on what side of each particular aspect. There are the liberal Democrats who believe that allowing these invisible immigrants to be visible legally will protect them from abuse and allow them to live a decent life. There are Democrats from low-income areas who believe that illegal immigrants reduce wages for their constituents by creating a ready supply of cheap labour. There are the Republicans who know that cheap labour helps the wealthy business owners who support them make more money. And then there are the relentlessly ideological Republicans who believe that the bill will reward law-breakers.

I have a friend, an aide in the United States Senate who has been trying to help shepherd this bill through. I told her that from afar, I have been impressed by the profundity and passion of the debate on this topic, and that the stories that congress people tell about their own familial history of immigration have been quite moving. She is not impressed. She says that while many of the congress people have a touching story about their mother or grandfather emigrating from a European country, the public sees this as a bill about Mexicans; it is a bill about work and it is a bill that questions whether it is fair to import people as a source of cheap labour and tell them to go home when we are done with them. In this way, the bill is emblematic of the social issues in many countries like France and Germany, where foreigners feel they have been invited to fill labour shortages yet rejected legally and socially.

The rules of the game

In the United States, at this particular instant, the bill also raises moral questions of charity and what that means. It has become an accepted part of life that people in wealthy countries have an obligation to donate to the poor. It is part of every humanist tradition and an essential part of most religious ones. But it seems that most people like their charity to be a choice, and to have it applied afar. The scenario that Jean Raspail depicted in the novel em>The Camp of Saints, in which thousands of Indians come by boat and are given refuge on the French Riviera is the secret (or not-so-secret) nightmare of many of those who would cal themselves liberals. I myself have conflicting feelings about this labour bill. Should people who entered the United States illegally have the right to stay, while others who follow the proper channels wait for entry to the US in their home country?

I certainly believe they have the right to safe working conditions and social programmes while they are here. And without the right of visibility before the law, there is every possibility that they can become slaves. This bill does not take away that possibility however. It might even increase it as immigrants may be willing to put up with anything for the requisite years until they become long-term residents and eligible to stay legally. This possible outcome has not escaped some of the members of congress who have proposed giving amnesty to illegal immigrants who testify against employers for underpaid and unsafe working conditions, since the real villains in this scenario are usually the employers.

At the heart of this debate is the harsh reality of life. It is only sometimes that life rewards those who play by the rules. For example, the United States has a president who rarely worked hard, did poorly in school and had no significant job before he became governor of a sizeable state. What he had was a fortunate birth and a charming personality. (I stand firm on this one; even people I know who are radically opposed to everything he stands for say this grudgingly after meeting him.)

Legal immigration is particularly interesting to me as I came to France for a temporary stay and followed all of the proper channels. I know several fellow Americans who simply entered, theoretically for the three-month term allowed without obtaining a visa, and have remained in France for years. As I waited for my visa in the United States, I wondered what would happen if I didn't get it. I would have been furious at myself for following the rules when I could have flouted them like so many others. But I am black and I also knew the likelihood that I would be stopped and asked to show my papers was greater than in the case of my white friends.

However, in one way I am like George W Bush. I had a "fortunate" birth. It was always pretty likely that I would get my visa. In the United States, I once asked my sister why so many immigrants appeared to be so aggressive (a massive generalisation, I know). And she said: "it's probably because it is the aggressive ones who make it here." And we all hear about these stories, those without "fortunate" birth ripping apart their legs scaling fences in Morocco, walking hundreds of miles across deserts, plodding across violent rivers on the Mexico-United States border with a baby strapped to their back.

These are the flaws of civil society both local and global. People obey the laws in hopes that others will obey them. But obeying the law isn't always the most prudent course of action for the individual in a world where life in some places is nasty and brutish. For those with a family to care for obeying civil codes may even be immoral. It is often those who ignore the rules who prosper. Just as this is a truism of legal and illegal paths to immigration, it is true of corporate life in industrialised countries and it is truism of the professional world.

In the United States congress, they are of course debating the hard cold profit line but on a more profound level, what they are debating is whether humanism – care and compassion for the individual – is more important than protecting principle, than admitting the ugly truth of civil life: that often it is those who act beyond its codes who are rewarded. And that for some, the global society we have created makes this the only alternative.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData