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Nigel Harris

The half open door

(December 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 93, December 1986, pp. 8–9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IMMIGRATION has always been a difficult issue for the labour movement. Even among revolutionaries, opposition to immigration controls has often been a purely compassionate act, unrelated to the economic realities of capitalism.

Why is it difficult? Because ‘common sense’ seems to demonstrate a central principle of bourgeois ideology: employment is a function of the simple supply of labour (which is itself determined by population change, the sources of which are supposedly mysterious).

Unemployment therefore occurs because there are too many workers competing for jobs, not because the system, the employers or the government determine it. To admit foreign workers, in such a view, is palpable insanity.

The world is never so simple, and severe labour scarcities can co-exist with high unemployment. For workers cannot be substituted for each other. Unemployed miners cannot fill a lack of nurses; doctors will not work as sweepers; shorthand typists cannot turn their hand to farming.

The labour force is a complicated structure of skills and experience where the ability to do one job depends upon millions doing their jobs – one person’s skill is only possible with the collaboration of masses of other skills.

It follows that an economy could break down and precipitate mass unemployment not because the supply of labour was too large, but because it had the wrong bundle of skills. Such problems are likely to afflict a high technology economy more than a low skilled one – indeed, the more elaborate and sophisticated the skills become, the more the danger that there will be no one to do the low skill jobs without which high skills become nothing.

Astronauts and computer programmers depend on masses of lower skilled workers to be able to do their jobs, just as generals are just people dressed in fancy clothes without the soldiers.

Without the others, the high skill worker is reduced to foraging for his or her own food, doing their own laundry. This is why workers ought to have an interest in defending the whole bundle of skills that are the condition for their own job to exist.

How does this relate to immigration? There is a big contrast between Europe and the United States in the matter of immigration. In Europe, it is said, there is tight control of foreign workers entering and the stock of immigrant workers has been reduced in some countries.

In the United States, with its 2,000 mile border with Mexico, the control is only in theory tight; in practice the doors are always half open. The United States receives legal immigrants equal to about a quarter per cent of its population each year, and some people guess, about half a percent of illegal immigrants. On the orthodox case, therefore, there must be less unemployment in Europe than in the United States. In fact, the position is the reverse:

Rates of unemployment, 1985

United States

  7   %








West Germany








The position is the opposite of the orthodox case – as the labour force of the United States has grown, so the number of jobs has expanded (over 8 million new jobs were created between 1981 and 1985), whereas in Europe the smaller the rate of growth of the workforce, the higher the rate of unemployment.

Nonetheless, American workers – like their European brothers and sisters – favour tighter immigration controls. Reagan’s hysteria is not unpopular – “The simple truth is that we’ve lost control of our borders – no nation can do that and survive.”

But there are powerful forces of opposition – farmers (some people estimate 90 percent of farm labour is illegal), sweatshop and restaurant owners depend on cheap immigrant workers, bankers fear the loss of their loans to Mexico if Mexican workers cannot earn in the United States and send the money home, and 200 churches defy the government by helping to smuggle and give sanctuary to illegal immigrants on the run from terror in Central America.

The Wall Street Journal on ideological grounds opposes all border controls. But for the liberals, the horrors of police terrorisation against immigrants on the southern border confirm the commitment that control must be tighter – and must exist to prevent ‘American jobs’ being stolen by foreigners to the loss of the disadvantaged natives, blacks, women and hispanic people.

Four times since 1973 the opposition has beaten off the attempt to formulate a new immigration act in Congress. But now a new bill, agreed by both Houses, awaits the President’s signature. It promises, for the first time, to punish employers if they employ illegal immigrants – but the fines are small, and the employer has only to ask to see evidence of identity, not to check that the evidence is not forged.

There is to be increased spending on border control, an increase in legal migration from Mexico and an amnesty for those arriving before 1982.

Finally, just for the Californian farm lobby, any illegal farm worker who spent at least 90 days in the country up to 1 May of this year, can claim temporary legal residence.

The Act will not control immigration to the United States, and if it did, it would be economically damaging both to United States capitalism and American workers. There is already a labour scarcity for unskilled workers – especially in farming – and American workers are too skilled, even the unskilled ones, to do that work. As the population ages and the number of teenagers (the people who do much of the unskilled work) declines, as more people take early retirement and other get more education and rise in the skill levels, the scarcities will get worse.

One study showed recently just how much illegal immigrants contribute to the Unites States national output, how little they take back – and how large a part of US total employment depends upon them being there to work.

Another study estimates that with a 3 percent rate of growth of national output and half a million immigrants a year, there will be a shortage of 5 million workers in the country by the year 2000, most of them unskilled. Without them, everybody else’s jobs and income are threatened.

To stop workers entering the US is no substitute for the struggle to improve the wages and conditions of the poorest workers.

The issue of US immigration is only part of an emerging set of problems concerning the maldistribution of the world’s labour force. For example, south-east and south Asia, with 45 million new inhabitants per year, is now producing 9 million graduates annually. The advanced countries, north America, Europe and Japan, grow by 10 million a year and produce 3½ million graduates.

But the output of the advanced countries is much more dependent upon a supply of skills than Asia – without access to the skills, the advanced countries could slow down even further. Some people see the United States’ growth – compared to Europe’s – as a by-product of the United States picking the most skilled workers worldwide and being able to find a supply of the least skilled as well.

At all levels, the United States is becoming more cosmopolitan. For example, at the top 20 universities, 15 percent of the staff are foreign born (compared to 4 percent in Europe). Foreign workers are also overrepresented in the key growth industries (aerospace, electronics, computers) and services (software development, advanced health care etc.).

Is the new Immigration Act then just a mistake? From the point of view of capital’s economic interest, it is irrational – a measure that, insofar as it is effective in its stated intentions, must be defeated. But this only highlights the essentially political role of the Act – concession to the battered nationalism of the Americans, surrounded by foreign imports and immigrants and supposedly directed at the most sensitive gut issue – jobs.

In practice, immigration will not be controlled but natives will feel someone in Washington cares – and the police, the courts and the employers will be armed with further instruments to terrorise the worst off sections of the labour force (and everyone who looks or sounds like a foreigner).

So the Act is a complex mixture of hypocrisy and oppression, covering the need of the American ruling class to accept a measure of the free international movement of labour as one of the conditions of its own economic survival. How long can the rulers of Europe hold their line?

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