Author’s new book urges rights for “illegal people”
on September 11, 2009
Longtime union organizer and photojournalist David Bacon remembers the first time he saw farm workers chased and dragged away by immigration officials in the mid-1970s.
“It was Coachella, a desert in southern California. We were organizing date farm workers,” the white-mustached, blue-eyed photojournalist and writer recalled last night. “The INS came in and people started running through the fields. I learned really quickly what the migra meant to people, how terrifying deportation was.”
At a nearby coffee shop an hour before a reading at Diesel Books, Bacon described his trajectory from union organizer to author of his new book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.
The Coachella raid — and other similar immigration raids — stuck with Bacon. He had grown up steeped in a culture of “interesting leftists” and union parents in northwest Oakland. “I consider myself part of the social movement I document,” Bacon said. Illegal People is his third book.
In Coachella, Bacon says, he had come to know some of the deported workers well. He says he was appalled to see them rounded up and shipped out merely for working, doing a difficult and exhausting job that paid poorly.
To Bacon, signing up workers into unions seemed the only clear way to advance better working conditions in the fields. Over the years, he watched time after time how some employers would intimidate workers who were trying to organize unions by threatening to call immigration on them.
He recalled one union election during which the employers called in the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as federal immigration authorities were then called. After some of the main pro-union workers were taken away, Bacon said, “you could really see the impact on everyone else. They would just hold their heads in their hands.” The union had to cancel the election.
Many of the workers Bacon organized were immigrants from Mexico –- people he says used to be farmers back home but had to leave their families when they could no longer make a living in the changing economy. After the 1994 signing of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the number of Mexicans displaced from their traditional livelihoods as farmers and small-scale producers rose exponentially.
Those people –- six million to date, Bacon says –- came to the US seeking work when they were left with no other options. Once they arrived, many with little more than the clothes on their back, they were desperate for work, and they had no labor rights.
Bacon argues that undocumented migrants subsidize the US economy by providing necessary labor cheaply: some pay taxes through made-up Social Security numbers, for example, but they can’t collect any benefits. They also enrich their home countries’ coffers by sending back remittances, sometimes supporting entire villages with US paychecks. In essence, Bacon says, employers benefit and the US and Mexican governments benefit – everyone benefits except the displaced workers themselves.
“Migration is an indispensable part of the global economy now, both producing and using migrant labor. The global economy could not function without migrant labor,” Bacon said.
Illegal People elaborates on that idea.
“The whole book is basically about illegality — a system of social inequality,” Bacon said at his reading last night, addressing a small but intent group in the back of the College Avenue bookstore.
He paused. “’Illegal’ is really all about social and political status,” he said. “Society is divided into those who have rights, and those who don’t.”
What our immigration policy doesn’t do is stop migration, Bacon said; it’s not really intended to. “Do we want to have an immigration policy that is based on the economics of providing cheap labor to corporations?” he asked the crowd.
He told stories of housekeepers fired for demanding a living wage in Emeryville, miners on strike along the US/Mexico border, and exiled social movement leaders from El Salvador. While reading the story of Luz Dominguez, one of the Emeryville housekeepers, Bacon’s face grew animated and he spoke with conviction. “What the book describes here is not just the humanity of the woman working at the Woodfin Suites,” he said, but also ” through her story, certain economic, political and social facts.”
Not everyone in the room appeared to agree.
A man in the crowd –- mid-50s, brown skin, thick Spanish accent, and a battered red-and-black cap -– was the first to raise his hand during the Q and A session. “Illegals are scabs,” the man said, clearly agitated. “You say they only work jobs nobody else wants, but I see them doing construction, working as machinists… The hiring halls don’t have work because they take it all, and illegals drive down wages.”
Bacon heard him out, then respectfully disagreed.
“There are a lot of people in unions who agree with you,” Bacon said. Capitalism produces competition among workers, he said; that is traditionally one way employers try to keep wages lower. “But part of what you said I think is very much not true,” he said. “When we look at raised wages, and what made conditions better in this country – when wages rose it was when unions organized to make them better. When unions are weak, wages go down.”
Bacon said he sees his book as timely — meant to intervene in and broaden the national discussion at a critical moment. In previous essays he’s written on NAFTA, Bacon says that what reformers should be working to change are the policies that lead to forced relocation and plummeting labor standards.
However, Bacon says the immigration reform movement is divided into two main camps: those who advocate for policy that would allow all immigrants the right to stay in the communities where they live and work; and those who “settle” for guest worker programs that would force workers to return to their home countries after their jobs end. The latter option, Bacon says, would certainly not quell illegal migration but could lead to a future of increasing job insecurity and greater inequality for all workers — immigrant or not.
“These are the choices we still have before us,” Bacon said. “That is the reason for the book. But also to say si se puede, yes, we can.”
And why should we care?
He posed a question to his audience: “If this was you, and you had lost your job, and your wife’s income was not sufficient to continue supporting your family, and that border was 50 miles north, what would you do?”
Lead image: An anti-NAFTA demonstration, photo courtesy David Bacon.
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