Nearly every morning, hundreds of immigrants from Latin America come to my affluent town in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to work. They build or clean million-dollar houses, cook and wash dishes at fast-food and fancy restaurants, care for the children of professional parents, pick up the garbage, mow the grass, and rake the leaves.
Few, if any, belong to a union; many are burdened with a legal status that is uncertain at best. As I watch a man from Oaxaca hang drywall, or a woman from El Salvador push an infant in a pricey stroller, or a chef from Lima carve a pollo a la brasa, I occasionally muse about a short story by Jack London published in 1909. “The Dream of Debs” describes a general strike in a city which ends only when the workers win all their demands. What if, one day, the Latino workers in my town decided to do the same? Our wealthy little village might have trouble functioning at all.
Of course, their indispensability wins neither respect nor rights from the men who run Congress. Republican lawmakers demand that “illegals” be sent back to where they came from. Knowing that’s impractical, the same politicians take out their resentments on immigrants who were too young to decide to cross a border without the proper papers in hand. Such bigoted antipathy keeps some of the most exploited, most productive workers in the nation from gaining the legal legitimacy they deserve.
Immigrants to the United States have endured this type of official injustice before. During the 1860s, Chinese workers played an essential role in building the first transcontinental railroad. A few years later, Congress showed its gratitude by passing a bill that barred Chinese-born men and women who temporarily left the United States from returning; some families were separated forever. In 1919 the government deported over two hundred foreign-born radicals to Soviet Russia. Their only crime was opposing the draft and the jailing of figures like Eugene Debs for speaking out against the First World War. During the first years of the Great Depression, nearly two million Mexican workers got forcefully “repatriated” south of the border when the jobless rate of native-born Americans swelled.
Several pieces in the special section of this issue, edited by Kaavya Asoka and Michelle Chen, describe what a perilous status in law and culture has meant for workers in other countries as well as the United States and how activists are trying to change that. None of the authors propose a general strike by undocumented wage-earners; they realize how difficult and dangerous that would be to organize. But is there any harm in dreaming?
Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.