“They’re stealing our jobs” has been the rallying cry of the working class against immigration for decades now. Many displaced industrial workers feel as though illegal immigration has severely reduced their abilities to find jobs and provide for their families. These beliefs are supported by politicians who support and advocate for more stringent immigration policy, border enforcement, and deportations. These politicians enable the false belief that immigrants are the reason working class Americans are struggling and this false belief often turns into bad policy. The truth is that the loss of American manufacturing jobs and recent illegal immigration are linked, though not in the ways most people believe. These phenomena are linked by neoliberal economic policies which created a massive shift in global productions, jobs, and labor forces. What most people do not understand is that neoliberal policies were pushed by the United States and destabilized traditional sources of income world wide, forcing workers everywhere to look to new opportunities for work.
Neoliberal policies are based on the premise that little government intervention and the private sector can lower prices and increase standards of living everywhere. In the name of these policies governments have deregulated businesses, lowered minimum wages, eliminated environmental and labor protections, and reduced tariffs, among other things. This has given business incredible autonomy in its practices and ability to lower the price of goods. Many companies have lowered the costs of production by moving their factories from places with labor laws, environmental protections, and labor unions to nations without such provisions. For example, many U.S. companies moved to Mexico or China, where they could pay workers menial wages with unsafe working conditions, little environmental accountability, and virtually no threat of labor unions. The movement of these factories from the U.S. created a major displacement within the U.S. labor force; people who had been making middle class wages in major U.S. manufacturers were suddenly impoverished.
While the United States was selling the concept of neoliberalism abroad and at home through policies such as NAFTA, lowered taxes, and the Washington consensus, its own people were suffering from these policies. Displaced blue collar workers lost their jobs at the same time the United States government was eliminating job retraining programs and welfare. The combination of these policies created a class of people that were virtually forgotten by the United States government and public as the economy began to grow in the upper echelons of the economy,. The plight of the lower classes was covered up with the massive influx of wealth in the upper classes; struggle was overshadowed by unprecedented success.
Abroad, companies needed to become competitive due to the massive influx of low priced foreign goods and many were unable to rise to the challenge. In other words, some industries in lesser developed countries went under because they couldn’t compete with the industries of more developed nations. Sometimes these industries had been the lifeblood of the nation for centuries. In Mexico, small farmers had been the backbone of the economy until NAFTA made it impossible for these farmers to compete with U.S. agribusiness. This displaced the farmers of Mexico and forced them to look elsewhere for work. Often their best chances were in the United States working for agribusinesses or manufacturers in less than desirable conditions and for less than the minimum wage.
What can be learned from this harsh reality? It’s that everyone’s jobs were stolen. Immigrants did not steal manufacturing jobs and often don’t even work jobs that U.S. citizens would deem acceptable or legal. Immigrants are not the reason that the U.S. working class have been struggling, the policies of neoliberalism and the new economic structure has changed the landscape of opportunity globally. This does not mean that the United States should pursue a policy of isolationism and retreat from the world market. It means that the U.S. needs to remove itself from the current narrative and create new policies that would help its citizens within the new global market. The current policies and the policies of the past cannot help the people of the future.