The Case for Reparations (to Undocumented Workers)

The Case for Reparations (to Undocumented Workers)

The Case for Reparations (to Undocumented Workers)

How do we calculate the uncompensated labor of Mexican and Central American migrants?


Where, outside of a marginalized left, are today’s equivalent of the antebellum radical Republicans, “ready and willing to destroy” the coercive deportation regime? Where are the absolutists, who would brook no compromise, who would rather see the republic ripped apart than tolerate an immigration system that denies equal rights to millions upon millions of people; that brutalizes families, generates thousands upon thousands of desert deaths, and breeds sexual terror, be it on the journey here, in the factory and field, or in the closed quarters of the home, where women workers have limited protections and where fear trumps whatever slim recourse to the law they might have (that is, when the law itself isn’t the rapist)? Where is the equal of William Lloyd Garrison, capable of both analytically dissecting and morally condemning public policy that compels migration (through trade policies like NAFTA and CAFTA) and then denies the humanity of the migrants once they get here; a regime that relies on a carceral, militarized state for its perpetuation? In the 1840s, radical constitutionalists like Alvan Stewart cut through procedural objections against executive action by arguing that the principle of universal equality is found in the common law of the United States and in the due-process clause of the Constitution. Where are those legal insurgents today insisting that forcing millions of people to live like serfs enthralled to their lord-employers is illegal? That the constitution doesn’t just authorize Barack Obama to limit some deportations—it authorizes him to strike the whole damn regime down. Who are today’s dissenting intellectuals with the comparable influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who after the passing of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act urged collective resistance against the law?

We certainly have their opposite. The opponents of even the mildest program of immigration reform are as passionate in their denunciations and comprehensive in their analysis as John Calhoun was in his day when he said that slavery didn’t contradict but rather made republican liberty possible. Whenever a Democrat merely hints at a comparison between slavery then and undocumented migration now, they pounce, such as when Nancy Pelosi, referring to Obama’s recent executive action limiting some deportations, said that “the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order.”

Back in the nineteenth century, defenders of slavery drove wedges between white and black. Let the reformers, they said, use their “great interest to procure an Abolition of the horrid white slavery trade which is carried on under their own noses…thousands of white people, those white people Christians, and those Christians, are, English people, Scotch People, Welch People, and Irish People, who are every year exported to the United States of America, where they are made miserable slaves.” Today, defenders of immigration “enforcement” use those same wedges to separate Latino migrants and “native-born minorities.” The House’s Immigration Subcommittee, now led by a group of anti-Latino irreconcilables—among them, Steve King and Lamar Smith—holds “Blacks versus Latinos” hearings, where “experts” testify to the special “advantages” and “preferences” undocumented immigrants enjoy over “African minority workers” in the job market and the “benefit” Latinos receive from making a “false immigrant/US civil rights struggle analogy.”

A few scholars have started to make the connections between slavery and the history of undocumented labor migration from Mexico and Central America. Karla Mari McKanders, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, and Stanley Harrold, a professor of history at South Carolina State, find considerable similarities between fugitive slave laws and today’s deportation regime. The danger of such comparisons is that they might set up a contest of oppressions (that can be exploited by the right) or dilute the singular horrors of race-based Atlantic chattel slavery.

But the comparison also has the potential to overcome divisions, moving away from oppression as history to exploitation as ongoing practice; to realize the way public policy (NAFTA, CAFTA, the war on drugs, the Merida Initiative, Plan Colombia, manufactured austerity, induced deindustrialization, housing programs and so on) creates the nightmare of the present—linking Ferguson to the Arizona desert to Ayotzinapa.

In 2006, when it seemed as if the Bush administration might get immigration reform passed, opponents were quick to make the debate about economic cost; the Heritage Foundation, for instance, effectively advanced a narrative that low-skilled and poorly educated migrations would be a financial burden, straining schools and emergency rooms and forcing an expansion of the welfare state. Heritage has kept up that drumbeat to this day. The math usually used to make the case that undocumented migrants are a net loss to the United States is fairly simple: subtract the cost of the public services they use from the taxes they pay.

What’s missing from the calculations is the value that their labor contributes to the US economy, a good part of which is uncompensated. I asked Suresh Naidu, an economist at Columbia University, how one might tally the difference between what undocumented Central American and Mexican workers get paid and what they would get paid if they enjoyed full equality of rights. Using the wage penalty undocumented migrants face as a benchmark (which is a lower end, given that extensive undocumented participation might lower sectoral wages for everyone), here are the steps he laid out:

1. Find the aggregate undocumented wages paid in the major sectors where undocumented workers are employed, in agriculture, construction, domestic.

2. Figure out how much their wages were depressed as a result of being undocumented. One way of doing this is to look at Reagan’s 1986 reform. Rough estimates suggest that undocumented worker wages are between 6 and 24 percent lower than they would be otherwise. In other words, if we take these figures as a baseline, that means undocumented workers would be getting paid 6 and 24 percent more than they are if they were documented—that differential is either captured as profit by their employers or passed on to consumers as savings.

3. Cumulate that percentage (that is, how much wages are depressed as a result of being undocumented) of aggregate wages over the number of years that undocumented workers are in the United States.

4. Voilà, that would be your reparations bill.

A Pew survey from 2009 gives that median income for migrant workers as $36,000 dollars. With 11 million undocumented migrants, 8.3 million of them in the work force for an average duration of fourteen years, and adjusting for inflation, Naidu came up with between $22,000 (based on the lower percentage of depressed wages and inflation) and $101,000 (the higher percentage) owed to each undocumented resident.

Keep in mind that these numbers don’t include out-and-out wage theft, which is high among undocumented workers. They are market-based, reflecting the assumption that a non-depressed wage reflects what a worker would receive in situations where there were minimal restrictions on her or his occupational mobility. One could easily make an argument that fair wages (particularly in high-return sectors like real estate and construction) would be considerable higher than 6 to 24 percent of what undocumented workers currently receive. Undocumented workers face a range of restrictions beyond obstacles to labor mobility (such as limited options to engage in collective action and no effective political power) that hinder their ability to demand a greater portion of the profit they produce. And these numbers don’t include historic arrears—the wages not paid to the millions of workers who from the late nineteenth century forward helped turn the United States into an economic superpower.

But for now, demanding that every undocumented Central American and Mexican here be given between $22,000 and $101,000 would start shifting the discussion away from undocumented workers as tax payers and social service recipients to workers who produce value.

Earlier this year, Ta-Nehisi Coates helped revive the reparations for slavery debate with a compelling essay. Reparations for plundered labor, he wrote, would do more than close the “wealth gap” in the United States. It would force “a revolution of the American consciousness.”

Were African-Americans and undocumented Latinos to join together and collectively demand compensation for unremunerated work, the force would be exponentially more powerful, revealing the way black and brown, each in their own way, continue to represent an existential threat to the ongoing slaver-settler-colonial fantasy life that passes, for many, as patriotism in this country.


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