Attacking Migrants Does Not Help Labor: A reply to Nagle

Nate H and Marianne Garneau respond to Angela Nagle’s “The Left Case Against Open Borders.”

Angela Nagle’s recent article on why leftists should support migration restriction is politically inhumane and abysmally researched. It wouldn’t be worth engaging with, but for the fact that some people in leftist milieus are taking it seriously. So, we offer some thoughts.

The gist of Nagle’s argument is that immigration depresses wages and undermines workers’ bargaining power by flooding the labor market with low-wage workers. Therefore, she claims, leftist calls for “open borders” are an empty moralism disconnected from any real economic analysis or political strategy with regards to the working class, and if those calls were to succeed they would hurt the working class. The fact that anti-immigrant rhetoric is usually racist does not justify leftists’ embrace of migration flows, at least if they care about strong unions and workers’ rights. Nagle cites support for immigration among the business sector and right-wing think tanks to argue that leftists’ support for this position makes them “useful idiots” serving capitalists despite themselves.

While it is true that employers can sometimes use migrant labor to lower the floor in the labor market, the inhumanity of Nagle’s approach is her belief that the solution lies in restricting immigration, rather than in empowering migrant workers to prosecute their full legal and political rights.

Employer enforcement of immigration restrictions: E-Verify

Nagle’s most practical suggestion, and the one seemingly getting the most traction among leftists, is her repugnant call for the stricter use of E-Verify, the federal employment verification system, which she says would “place the burden of enforcement [of immigration policies] on employers instead of migrants.”

As a counterpoint, people should read this report by the National Employment Law Project. The gist is that E-Verify brings a host of negative effects along with it, including increased racial discrimination against those presumed to be immigrants, an increase in off-the-books employment, where workers are more vulnerable, and denial of lawful employment due to database errors. Migrant workers, it is well documented, are subject to rampant abuse ; the above report argues, from evidence, that more E-Verify will intensify and exacerbate that. This means that the policy proposal Nagle wants the left to support would actually defeat her stated goal of raising the floor in labor markets.

The clear alternative to bolstering E-Verify is to increase migrant workers’ real access to rights — both by conferring legal status, and by limiting employers’ ability to use immigration status to retaliate against migrant workers who try to access their rights.

Nagle postures as if her view is different from the right-wing “build the wall” rhetoric, but she’s either confused or trying to confuse readers. Trump’s literal-mindedness helps her here, as if the only border wall must be a physical barrier. E-Verify amounts to a virtual wall around all legal employment that drives migrants further into illegal jobs. That was the goal of the policy: to basically deputize employers into enforcing migration restriction. The policy has had the result of simply rendering migrants more vulnerable. Further enforcement would exacerbate that problem.

The real consequences of employer enforcement

What does Nagle think happens to a person whose employer is no longer legally allowed to employ them? They get fired. What happens to structurally legally unemployable people? They turn to the black or grey market, where pay and conditions are even worse. Perhaps over time that poverty and misery drives migrants out of the country, as Nagle apparently wants in her article, but it’s wickedly inhumane.

At Tom Cat Bakery in New York City, the Department of Homeland Security cracked down on the employer and gave them a deadline by which they had to prove all of their workers had the legal right to work. What did the employer do? Not facilitate this for them; not give them legal assistance; not sponsor them for visas or permits, but (sit on that request for a few weeks and then) turn to their workforce and demand papers. Many had been working there for years, some for more than a decade.

Demanding work papers is always a trap, because desperate workers will submit anything they can get their hands on, so as to continue earning a paycheck to support their family, and the wrong kinds of documents can land them serious legal trouble, such as a felony charge for identity theft.

When workers at Tom Cat didn’t submit by the deadline, they were simply thrown out of work. A massive campaign was launched by Brandworkers, a non-profit worker center, to at least get them some severance pay. That campaign included workers publicly speaking out against the injustice that had been done to them and Tom Cat’s ingratitude for their decades of collective service. It has been only very modestly successful.

This is the reality of the policy Nagle euphemistically claims would make “employers, not immigrants (…) the primary focus of enforcement efforts.” If Nagle had her way, these workers would now be blacklisted from any other employment… or they could go home to countries they haven’t seen in decades, probably without their kids.

Raising the floor

Again, the real answer seems very simple, conceptually speaking, at least for the U.S.: demand that migrant workers have the same robust access to the same set of labor and employment rights that non-migrant workers have — which they currently, by design, do not. Remove the situation wherein migration status trumps access to those rights. Then demand more rights and higher pay for all workers. Raise the floor.

This does not strike us as complicated but somehow Nagle and her fans manage to miss it. The problem is not migration, but state facilitation of the specific vulnerability of migrants to employer abuse.

An example of this legal process of making migrants vulnerable can be found in the Hoffman Plastic vs. NLRB case, which went to the Supreme Court. The case concerned whether an undocumented worker, who was laid off for union activity, was entitled to back wages in the way that workers typically are under the law. The court found 5-4 that he was not. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent, an excerpt of which can be found here . He noted that reducing migrants’ access to NLRA remedies incentivizes employers to especially exploit migrants.

There is nothing fundamentally low-wage about migrant work. Migrant workers are paid less because they are more politically vulnerable. Even in spite of that vulnerability, migrant workers will struggle to raise their wages and working conditions. End the state’s facilitation of migrants’ specific vulnerability to employers, and the things Nagle is really complaining about — the erosion of workers’ rights and economic power — will be fixed.

What socialists should target is the capitalist state’s constitution of migrants as a vulnerable population. Instead, Nagle calls for greater state targeting of migrants themselves. It is particularly ironic that Nagle does some purely moralistic tap dancing about how migrants shouldn’t be mistreated…in a way that has zero connection to the rest of the argument, which effectively advocates for their mistreatment. That is ironic because she accuses the left of moralizing about immigrants in an empty way, disconnected from politics.

On reducing immigration flows

Allowing migrants full rights, and demanding higher wages, would reduce employer demand for migrant labor, because then employers would no longer be able to use migration to bore holes in the floor. Justice Breyer himself recognized this, and we grant it as well. In our view mobility should be a right — we count ourselves as in favor of no borders, not just open borders. Still, this is a much more sensible and humane tack than trying to directly restrict migration, as Nagle proposes.

Nagle’s other strategy for restricting migration involves getting into the political economy of why people migrate. She suggests fixing conditions in the “sending” countries, which means re-organizing the global economy and ending imperialism.

We’re for both, but it’s somewhat amusing for her to advocate for these from a posture of being a hard-headed pragmatist while overlooking removing the legally constructed vulnerabilities of migrants. Removing those vulnerabilities — closing the gaps between migrants and non-migrants in terms of access to rights — would allow migrants to form a constituency better able to advocate for the well-being of the places they migrated from (and in some cases migrate to and from multiple times as sojourners). Her gesture of caring about the people left behind in those places becomes somewhat empty when it would be worse served by her policy proposals and better served by migrants’ increased access to economic rights. If conditions for migrants were improved, that would be another constituency that could join the struggles for those larger restructurings of global politics and economy.

A shallow view of labor history

Nagle’s article involves a lot of posturing along the lines that “the old left understood this need to restrict migration because it was in touch with unions” (we paraphrase). This posturing is both shallow and ahistorical with respect to the labor movement.

It’s true that there was a trade unionist politics of restricting labor markets. The AFL, to its great discredit, backed laws to exclude Chinese migrants. Nagle cites such approaches approvingly without mentioning any of the specifics, which is either atrociously poor writing or intellectually dishonest. She writes that “trade unions have often opposed mass migration” and cites with apparent approval trade union support for “the first law restricting immigration in 1882,” namely — but unnamed in her article — Chinese exclusion laws. These laws were no different, in any politically significant sense, from Trump’s calls to build a wall.

Nagle continues, writing of trade union support for racist policies, that unionists

…saw the deliberate importation of illegal, low-wage workers as weakening labor’s bargaining power and as a form of exploitation. There is no getting around the fact that the power of unions relies by definition on their ability to restrict and withdraw the supply of labor, which becomes impossible if an entire workforce can be easily and cheaply replaced.

Trade unionist support for that policy was likely in part the result of straightforwardly racist ideas about Chinese people being allegedly biologically and/or culturally inferior. But it was also the result of the political-economic vision of trade unionism, which, Nagle rightly notes, centered on controlling who had access to the labor market. But the article is misleading for pretending that this was the sensible union position.

Instead, that was always — always — the conservative wing of the labor movement, at least in the U.S. To the left was industrial unionism, which centered on organizing the employees and controlling the point of production through occupations. While trade unionism tended toward stopping work by withholding labor, industrial unionism tended toward stopping work by seizing production. (Joe Burns has recently called for a revival of the latter in his very good Reviving the Strike.) The latter vision pushed unions to organize the workers, rather than restrict who could become a worker. Trade unionism’s leverage was stopping production because no one would go into the workplace, while industrial unionism’s leverage was stopping production by taking and holding the shopfloor.

Some of this was about ideas: many of the trade unionists who backed racist laws were, in their hearts and minds, racist, and many industrial unionists were, in their hearts and minds, socialists and internationalists. But, again, the political economy, so to speak, of each form of organization encouraged certain practices irrespective of the minds of the individuals. The industrial unionist approach recognized that wages aren’t just a matter of the supply and demand or labor, as Nagle suggests. They are a political battle over share of profits.

All that is to say that Nagle postures in a “bah! this newfangled identitarianism! back to the old left and the old labor movement!” kind of way, a posture we’re sympathetic to when done well, but there was another, better old left and old labor movement. The people she aligns herself to as their historical heir were the enemies of that better left, just as her positions now are the enemies of a renewed left worth having.