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Opinion: Despite What Trump Says, Immigrant and Citizen Labor Rights Are Inseparable

by Katherine Culliton-González and Amy Traub /
File photo of a job seeker looking for job opportunities at a CareerSource in Florida.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

From the day he launched his campaign with dire warnings about border-crossing “bad hombres,” Donald Trump has preyed on some Americans’ worst biases around immigration. Trump has since exhorted Congress to allocate tens of billions of dollars for a border wall, stepped up arrests of immigrants, separated Latino children from their parents, and pushed to expedite deportations.

While these measures were outrageously promoted as ways to protect safety, the administration also claimed that cracking down on unauthorized immigrants would benefit American-born workers. Yet workplace raids and immigrant arrests are having the opposite effect: encroaching on the rights of native-born workers as well as their immigrant counterparts.

This Labor Day, it’s clear that the ability of Americans to negotiate a fair return on their work is deeply intertwined with the rights of immigrant workers.

Across the country, stories are surfacing of undocumented workers subjected to increased scrutiny by immigration agents the moment they try to stand up for their most basic rights on the job. This spring in Boston, injured construction worker José Flores was arrested by immigration agents when he tried to file a workers’ compensation claim for payments he was entitled to under state law. His attorney told reporters that he believes the employer reported the worker to authorities to avoid costs associated with the injury and potentially to discourage other injured workers from making claims.

Meanwhile in California, the state labor commissioner reports that immigration agents have shown up at their offices seeking individual workers who were trying to hold their employers accountable for underpaying their wages. In these cases as well, there is evidence that the employer tipped off immigration authorities.

While undocumented workers may be the target, these immigration enforcement actions have great potential to harm the very workers Trump claims to stand for. After all, labor standards, from the minimum wage to workplace safety regulations, are most effective when they are universal.

Unscrupulous employers know that undocumented workers who are afraid to file a workers’ compensation claim or to report unpaid wages can be exploited with impunity. With so many opportunities to cut corners on safety and pay, the incentive to hire undocumented workers is magnified. And the motivation for any company to maintain a safe work environment, pay fair wages or abide by other basic workplace standards is reduced for all workers.

Trump ignores these facts in favor of the myth that immigrants “take jobs” from native-born Americans. A growing body of research finds the opposite: immigrants’ work and consumer demand creates jobs for U.S. citizens.

Not only is there no correlation between immigrants and unemployment rates, but a recent study finds that every new U.S. immigrant creates an estimated 1.2 jobs, most of which go to U.S. citizens. Notably, several studies have also shown that immigrants create a small “wage boost” to the vast majority of native-born workers.

When immigrant workers are no longer vulnerable, all working Americans benefit. Under President Reagan’s 1986 legalization policy, undocumented immigrants had the opportunity to become legal residents, and wages in the industries where immigrants worked rose for everyone.

The economic benefits of comprehensive immigration reform, which Congress has failed to enact, would put billions into the U.S. economy, creating additional jobs.

Rather than scapegoating immigrants, addressing the real causes of stagnant wages and poor working conditions that American workers face requires measures like raising a grossly inadequate federal minimum wage, implementing modernized rules on overtime pay, promoting basic workplace rights like paid sick leave and fair scheduling, and tackling the decline of labor rights that have made it more difficult for working people to form strong unions.

After all, it is exploitative employers—not working people who happen to be born in a different country—who benefit most from the rising economic inequality that leaves American workers struggling. But Trump’s phony populism has no room for these real solutions. Instead he panders to the worst prejudices of a base that accepts (and even cheers) the racial profiling of Latino U.S. citizens who are swept up in enforcement actions ostensibly aimed at targeting undocumented immigrants.

The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville demonstrates how harmful such prejudices can be. Rather than buying into the racially-inflected myth that immigrants are harming U.S. citizen workers, we should instead recognize that immigrant and non-immigrant workers share the same interest in a fair and safe workplace. This would help address the real problems faced by all of us trying to earn a living in America. And that is the message immigrant workers want to share as they lead Labor Day parades across the country today.

Katherine Culliton-González is Senior Counsel and Amy Traub is Associate Director, Policy & Research at Demos.

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