Quoting Reagan on Immigration

I understand that folks on the left quote Reagan on immigration to paint Republicans as hypocrites. But when I see memes and posts quoting Reagan on immigration, I see people on the left siding with Reaganite politics and economics. They disconnect Reagan’s comments not only from his overarching approach to this subject, but they decouple the substance of his argument from the tradition of left-wing labor politics. In other words, they wind up advancing Reaganomics (and Thatcherism) over against the interests of working people. 

Here’s the go-to Reagan quote:

“Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit. And then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back they can go back.”

Ronald Reagan, 1980 debate with George H. W. Bush

Reagan was no dummy. He understood the value of migrant labor to corporations, and more than simply their value as an expendable, super-exploitable work force. Reagan grasped that, more than a source of mega-profits for capitalists, cheap foreign labor suppresses domestic wages and politically disorganizes the proletariat. Reagan, like Thatcher, was determined to discipline labor, undermine labor unions (never forget that he was a union buster), and put US labor at a competitive disadvantage in the world market.

The wage is the price of labor. Under capitalism, labor is a commodity just like most everything else. Their labor is the one commodity workers have to sell, and they sell it in the market in order to obtain money for the things they need and want. When there are foreign-born workers who, because of their situation, work for less than the prevailing wage, or the wage secured by union contract, then this displaces native-born workers unless they agree to work for lower wages – and even then that’s not guarantee of employment. At the same time, cheap foreign-labor undercuts the collective position of native-born workers. It’s a union-killer. A constant flow of foreign labor circumvents the assimilation process necessary for building class consciousness. Ethnic segregation, a function of the distribution of economic and social opportunities, exacerbates the problem of disorganization and is cause of rank-and-file racism (not the other way around).

When immigration was restricted in the 1920s, the result was assimilation, maturing class consciousness, and growing unionism. By the mid-1960s, when the US working class was approaching 40% union density, social movements – civil rights, second wave feminism, socialist consciousness – were peaking. This was the moment the establishment turned to globalism, opening the country to mass immigration. They aimed to halt to evolution towards socialism. Reagan represented a bourgeois leap forward in the opening up of America to foreign labor, both in moving the factories and fields to foreign locations and luring foreign labor to the factories and fields here in the US. Globalism has devastated unions; today, less seven percent of workers in the private sector are represented by unions.

So when folks on the left champion Reagan’s immigration policy, they are championing an economic strategy that was designed to disorganize the left. To cover for this betrayal, they have latched onto a story about the American worker: that he is a bigot, a nationalist, a nativist, a racist, a xenophobe. And since the American worker is such a reactionary entity, the left needs to turn to the power elite, to the establishment, to the globalizer, to the neoliberal, who knows best what is in the interests of working people. Because, after all, capitalists are such great friends to labor. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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