By Joel D. Eis
(Editor’s note: The following is the second in a series of op-ed pieces that can provide talking points to strengthen the information base of those who seek to make others more aware and to expose the undependable ideas from the Right. These are good, informative tools to move fence sitters.)
It is important that readers of these talking points take the time and energy to share these ideas upward within whatever organizations they are working with so that a strong united ideological and strategic front is developed.
This is a little chat about understating our neighbors.
Traditional liberal thinking assumes that new immigrants, primarily working class, will ally themselves automatically with progressive policies and candidates because we seem to be sensitive to their needs.
It ain’t necessarily so.
These desperate people come from countries where the acts of attending a political meeting, marching in a demonstration, signing a petition—even picking up a pamphlet and reading it— is seen by the men in power as a sign they are troublemakers. Registering to vote can get them a visit from a death squad.
Even after arriving here, they are painfully aware of how fragile their situation is. If they are green carders, they can lose that privilege with an arrest for something as small as a traffic violation. They try to remain invisible. They have no guarantees that anyone will go to bat for them. Our political openness scars them to death.
These new Americans arrive with a focus on economic survival. Just like our grandparents and ancestors, they came here for a better life for their children and freedom from political oppression and violence. However. they have no knowledge of the history of American politics.
They have no knowledge of who it was who fought for the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, the end of child labor, worker’s compensation or unemployment insurance. They have no understanding of who was behind the New Deal of the 1930s, the progressive activism of the 1960s.
Knowledge of victories in the courts for due process and fairness in labor, racial and feminist issues are not part of their shared history. They have no idea how these cornerstones were achieved by the progressive forces in America. They have no idea who their real friends are.
They therefore arrive in our towns and cities as wet clay to be molded by the rhetoric of the present. White and Black communities might see Koreans, Cambodians and Japanese as looking similar. We then presume they feel some sense of connection. This is not the case. Their alliances are based on language affinity.
Many of these hard-working communities are very conservative. For example, the Asian community is particularly hard-nosed about the homeless and crime. There is nothing warm or fuzzy about how many of them feel about capital punishment for violent crimes.
We make the same assumption of inherent alliances between Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Brazilians and Chileans. Hard as it might be to face, this is a colonialist—dare I say, somewhat unaware—perception from outside their world. They do not have any sense of affinity to each other, aside for the shock of learning that American racism throws them into the same boat.
What they do share, however, are needs as a collectively oppressed group, especially when it comes to the question of immigration policy. Most recently arrived immigrants vote conservative on immigration policy.
We assume that our humanitarian concerns give them a sense of solidarity with newer people coming here to seek homes and jobs, just as they did. The assumption that they feel sympathy for the next wave is not even close. If we thought that our jobs were threatened by new arrivals I do not think we would be so open-hearted either.
Once immigrants arrive here—either legally or illegally—they look over their shoulders and see the thousands behind them, more desperate, more frightened, with nothing to lose. Once these new Americans have a good job, or a series of part-time jobs, they still have no protection, no seniority, no rights and no union.
What they have can be taken—or they fear it can be taken—from them at any time by a racist capitalist system that will seek the lowest wage output for the highest prophet. They are caught in the middle so they do what they can to protect themselves. They have no room for the luxury of abstract “humanitarian concerns.”
Persons with a family and questionable documents can lose their job to a “wetback” willing to work for a lower wage. The boss at their restaurant, factory, care facility, farm or construction site can hire an illegal who will work for 50 cents or a dollar an hour less.
This very real threat alone keeps the current worker from objecting to lower wages, forced overtime, lack of medical insurance and no unemployment insurance contributed. Making an official complaint or joining a union is not even in their universe.
The threat of deportation back to the shadow of the death squads hangs over their heads every minute of every day. This de facto intimidation serves the bosses, any bosses, all bosses. The boss can also be a Latinx or an Asian exploiting their own community. Greed knows no color line.
The current/recently arrived immigrant communities see any increased liberality to immigration policy as a threat to their family’s security. Therefore, out of fear and self-preservation, many of them have a “close the door behind me” attitude. I have been told by kitchen and construction workers that many of them voted for Donald Trump, who is tough on letting in more immigrants.
It’s the same as the situation in the 19th century with the threat of freed slaves taking White men’s jobs being used to keep them down. History is repeating itself.
What can be done? What has to be done?
What is needed to end this cycle of “divide and conquer” is a guaranteed national living wage so that no one who works here can be forced to accept a lower-than-minimum hourly wage (and medical care). With this law in place, any boss who tries to undercut the current worker can be immediately reported with no fear of consequences.
For the first time in American history, the idea of a national minimum wage that is a living wage is supported by Presidential candidates. It is important—crucial, in fact—that organizers who work with immigrant communities work proactively to get them to support a progressive candidate who will put through this protection. This will take one-on-one talking, the use of leaflets, fliers, social media and good old-fashioned soapboxing to get our neighbors to understand the power of this moment in their lives.
Candidate supporters must go to the places where these communities already gather. We have to meet with them on their home turf, invited by leaders within those communities, to work with them to get the bigger picture. The Statue of Liberty needs to become more than a static symbol. She needs to become una Adelita—a real freedom fighter.
Joel D. Eis, MFA, is a retired university professor and author of four books on theater and politics. He has been an organizer for progressive causes for more than 50 years. He is a graduate of McLane High and attended Fresno State during the Vietnam War. He was a member of El Teatro Campesino and the Draft Resistance.