People Get Ready

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Guest workers, or indentured labor?

Posted by schroeder915 on November 30, 2005

Letter to NPR in response to Tamar Jacoby’s opinion on immigration:

In promoting a guest worker program for immigrants, commentator Tamar Jacoby based her argument on a critical assumption which she should have supported with measurable facts.

She said she doesn’t “know any families raising their kids to be busboys or farm hands,” arguing that native-born workers are increasingly educated. As a result, she said that “people are entering the country illegally to do jobs American workers don’t want.”

Implicit in her argument is an assumption that Americans think they’re too good, or too educated to settle for some kinds of jobs, and that those jobs wouldn’t be filled if it weren’t for immigrants.


I used to work as a busboy. It was the perfect job for me in high school, and when I left that job, another kid in high school took my place and learned valuable lessons about team work and how to deal with the public. Yes, I left that job to go on to college, but in reality, only about 3 out of every 10 Americans has a college degree. Most of those people could perform the manual labor jobs that immigrants perform — if they could support a family in those jobs.

People don’t want to work as farm hands? I suggest that the shift to larger and larger farms is not only environmentally unsustainable, but socially unsustainable. There’s nothing wrong with working on a farm. A lot of people would prefer life on a farm to life in a city. For a variety of reasons, however, a lot of family farms fail and become absorbed into larger and larger factory-type enterprises. One of the reasons for family farm failures is that smaller farms can’t compete with corporate agriculture. But much of corporate agriculture wouldn’t ever have been possible if it had to pay workers family wages, so it turned to immigrants. Where did those immigrants come from? Many of them came from family farms in their home countries because they couldn’t compete with corporate agriculture either.

The problem is not that Americans think they’re above doing some kinds of work. It’s that those jobs don’t pay enough money, and they don’t pay enough money, because increasingly, we live in a world where market-based capitalism has been allowed to run rampant — so much so, that it is dependent upon a constant flow of cheap laborers.

It may be that the United States can sustain 500,000 immigrants a year, and I honestly hope it can support more. I adhere to the belief that immigration does create a dynamic economy, and enriches American culture. I have lived with profoundly impoverished people in developing countries who struggle to support their families, and I would like their prospects for a better life to improve as much as our own.

If the United States is going to continue to be a great nation in which the middle class isn’t squeezed out of existence, we may have to re-examine the role that the economy plays in transforming our society — and societies in other countries. That is a far more challenging prospect than figuring out what to do about immigration, but we if we ask who benefits from cheap labor, we might find the answer we seek to improve life for people everywhere.


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