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interviews

Call It What It Is

by LaShyra Nolen
© David Bacon

interviews

The Right to Remain

by David Bacon
June 29, 2020

This interview with David Bacon, journalist and author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, was conducted and condensed by franknews

frank | Can you start by talking about your background a bit? 

David Bacon | I grew up in Oakland. The racial politics of my youth was centered around Black people and white people. Learning about how the imperial and racist history of this country affects African American people, Asian American people, and Latino people and their migration has been a lifelong learning experience for me. I say that because, I want to make sure that it's understood that I'm a learner, a lifelong learner.

In the 1970s, I was involved in the Delano grape strike - an effort by the workers in Central Valley. I would stand in front of Safeway and try to convince people not to buy grapes. After a while, I wanted to know more about what was going on behind the scenes. I convinced a friend of mine, a lawyer for the United Farm Workers Union, to let me volunteer in one of their offices. I began working at the union, on a ridiculous salary of $5 a week, taking statements from workers who were being fired or beaten up because of their union sympathies. I worked as a union organizer for about 20 years. As time went by, I became more and more drawn into documenting what I was seeing. So I made the transition to the work that I do now, and have done for the last 30 years, as a writer and a photographer. 

I look at the process of migration from the perspective of those who are migrating. I ask: What uproots people and sets the process of migration into motion? What is the experience of traveling as a migrant? What happens to migrants once they reach the place they are going to? 

How does your work with the unions inform your perspective of immigration? 

The union was a school for me - it taught me Spanish, it taught me about organizing, it taught me about immigration. I’ll never forget how one evening, I was meeting with a group of date orchard workers at the union office. The next day, when I went out to talk to them again, they were being handcuffed and loaded into a green border patrol van. I was just floored by it. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't stop it. I chased the van down to the Imperial Valley, trying to figure out how to help them. It was a very brutal learning experience, certainly more brutal for them than for me, but it also taught me something very important.

I realized that this country's immigration policy has a great deal to do with work, and a great deal to do with labor.

I've written a lot about the US immigration process over the years, and I have tried to put an analytical framework around the process. The framework I use is this: The penetration of capital from large wealthy industrial countries into developing countries, displaces people. Those who are uprooted then become the workforce of the countries that displaced them in the first place. It's a singular system. And it is a system that is motivated by producing economic results. 

What is an example? 

Well, there was an economic incentive in the process that made Walmart the largest employer in Mexico. 

Mexico used to buy corn from small producers in states like Oaxaca to help those communities survive. They would then turn that corn into tortillas and sell them at state-run markets in the cities to help poor people. 

That system became illegal under the rules of NAFTA. Walmart comes in as being the big retailer of tortillas in Mexico, and the tortillas are no longer made from Oaxacan corn, but corn imported from Iowa. What happens to the farmers who were previously supported by Mexico’s system? They become migrants. About a third of the agricultural workforce in California is made up of people coming from Oaxaca. The irony is that Oaxaca is the birthplace of domesticated corn -those farmers are coming from towns that gave corn to the world, but they can no longer grow it themselves, so they became migrants.

You have worked with migrants for many years. What has been the starkest example of change in the migration system?

The border has become much more militarized. Largely that is due to The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.  

Before ‘86, if a hot band was playing in Mexicali, workers from the Imperial Valley would cross the border, see the show, and go back across the border to sleep at the labor camps that they were living in. In many places, even now, the border consists of nothing. For all of Trump's talk about the border, the reality is that it is still hardly marked at all in some places, but the process of crossing has become much more difficult and much more expensive. 

At the time that you were organizing within the Unions what was the perspective of the migrant on US immigration?

People generally looked at the United States as a place that they have to come to work. 

The Bracero Program from 1942 to 1964 was crucial in shaping this dynamic. Hundreds of thousands of people were recruited in Mexico, contracted a short period to work in the US, and then sent back to Mexico. 

We still have programs that are very much like the Bracero program today, such as the H-2A. People have very conflicting feelings about those programs. On the one hand, people want to come here to work. They know the wages they can get here, and they see the programs as a possible way to get US jobs. On the other hand, people know that those programs do not offer you the ability to stay in the US permanently or the ability to bring your family to the US. We literally have thousands of migrants in California who live under trees, and I've talked to many of these folks. They often say, “Well, it's just for a while. I can put up with it for now while I send money home. In a way, it's better for me - if I don't have to pay rent, I can send more money home.” 

How does that affect worker organizing? 

That sentiment is very important to acknowledge in worker organizing. It means that migrants don’t have much to lose, but they don't have much to gain either. If somebody comes to them and says, let's go on strike here because the wages are too low, they may not be willing to risk their job if they know they are only in the US temporarily. The more someone lives here, as they start to pay rent, as they start a family, the more they come to think of themselves as part of the community. They have a greater stake in trying to change things. 

What is interesting is that very often people come to the US with a lot of organizing skills. I remember one man spoke to me about how his father had participated in land reform struggles in Baja, California. He burned down the mansion of the Hacienda owner and redistributed the land in this worker's upsurge. Migrants come with organizing skills. If you can combine those skills with a stake in labor conditions, change can be explosive. We are seeing the results of that in California and in Washington right now. 

And how does the opposite work? How do anti-union and anti-immigration sentiments work in tandem?

US immigration policy makes workers vulnerable, which makes it harder for people to organize.

There are many mechanisms by which this happens. 

The most obvious is that people come here without papers. Out of a workforce of about 2.5 million farmworkers, 1.25 million of those folks have no papers. They don't have permission to work, and the employers or labor contractors who hire them, generally speaking, know this. They exploit this vulnerability and to keep wages low. They tell workers, explicitly or implicitly, if you stir up trouble, you can be deported.

Under the Employer Sanctions in our immigration law, it is illegal for an employer to hire undocumented workers. Employers who are facing an organizing effort by their workers can say, “We've discovered that you don't have any papers. We're not legally able to keep you. You're fired.” Sometimes immigration authorities will initiate that vetting, but sometimes not. In theory, employers should be punished and fined because of who they are hiring, but that seldom happens. It is the workers themselves who pay the price and lose their jobs. 

The guest worker programs also have adverse effects on migrant workers' rights. Through these programs, employers can hire foreign workers on temporary visas. The migrant’s visa, and their right to be in the US, is dependent on the job. Through the H-2A program, which is specifically for temporary agricultural work, about 250,000 people, mostly from Mexico, are recruited. A report recently came out about this program. Every single worker interviewed spoke about the abuse of their labor rights, and sometimes these violations were egregious. The precarious nature of workers on these programs results in workers who can’t afford to complain.  

Despite the political rhetoric and speeches that you hear, the function of US immigration policy is not to keep people out. Rather, it is to control the status of migrants when they're here, in order to make their labor available to employers at a price that they want to pay.

The mechanisms differ, but the results remain the same. 

A lot of people think about immigration through this lens of sort of opportunity. How would you encourage a reframing of our current view on immigration?

Well, we need a reality check. 

There are 40 million people in the United States who were born somewhere else. Why do people come here to begin with? The decision to migrate, often, is not a voluntary one, it is a survival tactic. 

It is not just that opportunities exist in the US, it is that the opportunity shrinks in people's country of origin. 

We have to look at our own responsibility for that. What kind of policy does the US government pursue in other countries that lead to the displacement of people? We have to look at trade policy. We have to look at NAFTA. 

I think that a lot of people do get that that NAFTA hurt people. They often think of it in terms of how NAFTA hurt us, because jobs went south. But people here also, in many cases, are able to think about its impact in other countries and the way in which policies have displaced people too. 

This movement of people and this process of displacement between the US and Mexico is not going to stop. You can build as many walls as you like, but it's not going to stop people from coming here. The things that are pushing people are to migrate much stronger than a wall. The need to survive is stronger than a wall. The desire to reunite the family is stronger than a wall. 

Given that this movement of people is not going to stop, what do we want our immigration policies to do? Do we want them to make people more or less vulnerable? For working people, it is advantageous to fight to make migrants less vulnerable. If migrants do not have rights, it affects the entire workforce. If you want to organize a union in your workplace, and people are working in your workplace are terrified, and unwilling to be part of that process, that's going to hurt the worker. It makes it harder for the worker. 

What sort of policy prescription or framework would you suggest? 

We have to find where we have common ground: Where does an unemployed Black person in the US find common ground with a Mexican immigrant? 

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee tried to find it in, what I think, was a really effective policy proposal. About a decade ago, she proposed an immigration bill that simultaneously considered both of those groups. 

She proposed a legalization program for people who were currently undocumented here, and, at the same time, new jobs creation programs for people living in communities of high unemployment. Who pays for it? Employers who benefit from the immigration system. All of a sudden, you have both interest groups advocating for the same immigration bill, because both people stand to benefit from it. Instead of pitting people against each other in a competition for scarce jobs, we need to unite to garner political power. 

That is the big question about immigration policy in this country: How do we promote unity and mutual interest?  

How do we look across the obvious dividing lines here and recognize people as people on each side? And not just from a moral point of view, but so we can mutually advance our material interests.

We also have to address voter disenfranchisement. A huge percentage of the working population cannot vote or elect people. If they were not disenfranchised due to their immigration status, maybe we would have more worker-friendly policies. We should look past what's often presented as a moral question “Why should those people be able to vote?”, and ask, “How will we benefit as working people?” If everybody who worked had the right to vote, then we would be able to change politics much, much more easily.

I think the conversation has found some new urgency amid the Coronavirus pandemic because we have had to look clearly at who our essential workers are, and how they’ve been treated or mistreated.

Yes. We're in the process of unpacking that. Essential means yes, your labor is necessary, but essential also means that you can't say no.

So on one hand, we are acknowledging that picking fruits and vegetables, working in meatpacking plants, or working in hospitals is socially necessary work. We are recognizing that we need to value that work and the people who are doing it. 

On the other hand, essential is also being used by the administration and by employers as a way of saying your work is essential, and therefore you may not withhold it. You must go to work regardless of what the risks are. We are getting a good education about what actually happens to these essential workers as a result of their immigration status, their poverty, and their lack of rights as workers. We can look at the meatpacking plants. People are being forced into working, with the knowledge that a percentage of them are going to get sick and die. That gets underlined when they passed the relief bills. Not only did people who were undocumented not get relief money, but anyone who was married to somebody who was undocumented or did not get the $1,200 in relief payments. That removed any kind of support that might enable people to decide whether or not they want to work tomorrow.

If you can't get unemployment, and you can't get any relief, what other choice is there but to work?  

That this is not lost on people. I've interviewed a lot of farmworkers who say, "This is really a slap in the face. First, you call us essential. You tell us how important this work is. You come outside and eight o'clock in the evening and you clap your hands for us. And yet what does that do for us? We're working the same job, with the same low wage as before, and now we have no choice but to go to work.” 

Are you hopeful for meaningful change past this sort of rhetoric? 

In the end, I think I am an optimistic person. There have been a series of strikes where immigrants are demanding better protective equipment, demanding social distancing to be put into place, and demanding hazard pay. 

One result of the pandemic is that people are being forced to look at their situation and determine how far they are willing to go. Previously, it was a question of whether you were willing to risk your job for a wage raise. Now it is a matter of survival. When the threat is death, the question has become - How can we afford to not take action? 

A heavy realization.

A heavy realization, but it produces activity. Crisis teaches people something. I think change is coming. How? I'm not sure. I can't predict the future, but I can see it coming. You feel the rumbling under your feet, right?