Immigration is a topic hotly debated across the country. However, these conversations seem to focus mostly on policy, on who should be let into the country. During this unit on immigration, I have learned about how immigration is more than just the initial entry to the country.
I spent class time reading a set of primary source documents about the Delano Grape Strike and the United Farm Workers. These documents showed the unionization and nonviolent protest work of Filipino and Mexican immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s. These immigrants, who were poor farmworkers, worked together to protest for livable wages, safe working conditions, education, housing, and legal rights. Even after the farm owners signed union contracts, their struggle continued; their bosses blatantly broke both Federal and California state laws regarding labor and unions. This immigrant farmworkers’ union, the United Farm Workers, was comprised of both Filipino and Mexican immigrants and was led by Cesar Chavez, who practiced nonviolent strategies common to other nonviolent movements of the era.
The United Farm Workers achieved a formidable feat. They were able to get the growers’ signatures on union contracts promising these farmworkers better pay and safer working conditions. The UFW used strategies such as informational flyers, boycotts, marches, picketing, rallies, and letters to the public to achieve their goals. Their success is especially impressive because as a group, these immigrant farm workers were (and continue to be) a severely disadvantaged one; a group at the bottom of the capitalist food chain; a group whose livelihood was not a country-wide concern; a group vulnerable to racism, classism, and xenophobia. Furthermore, although Federal law protects and allows unionization, during their fight for better pay and working conditions, the UFW was not protected by Federal law, meaning that not only were all of their victories due only to their own work, the country failed to protect them.
However, under close study of this movement, I began to have questions. One of the main arguments of the UFW was that the growers were exploiting immigrants by not paying them livable wages and by subjecting them to unsafe working conditions. But there is no mention of the experience of other farmworkers — farmworkers who were born in America, or were people of color, or indigenous people. I can’t help but wonder, were these farmworkers exploited, too? Or were they less disadvantaged because of their American citizenship? And if all farmworkers were thus underpaid and unprotected, was this an exploitation of poor, unskilled laborers? In other words, was the exploitation of farmworkers a matter of classism, or was it racism, or was it particular to immigrants?
To complicate matters further, the article “Who Should Get In?” argues that immigrants are more likely to take unskilled, lower-paying jobs than American citizens. Thus, immigrants arrive and stay poor because they work for such small salaries. Furthermore, there is little motivation for these wages to be raised because the jobs attract a large amount of immigrant applicants despite their low pay. Therefore, not only has the issue of livable wages among immigrants not been solved, it has become muddied. The matters of class and nationality are entirely interconnected in this case and it is difficult, for me at least, to distinguish between the root causes and their effects.
Immigration, therefore, is much more than just policy, quotas, numbers, naturalization, or who gets in. Immigration spans a much broader scope than this, as immigrants face particular challenges. Immigrants are more likely to face financial challenges, even after years of residing in the US. Immigrants are vulnerable to xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, and perhaps even exploitation in jobs due to those feelings, causing them to get paid less and keeping immigrants poor as the rest of America gets richer. But immigration is more than concerns of nationality or socioeconomic class, too. The story of immigration includes triumphs over these issues, as exemplified by Cesar Chavez and the UFW’s nonviolent work; this, to me, is the most important and interesting thing I have learned.