You Can “Steal” Our Dirty Jobs
In his Arizona campaign speech, then-candidate Donald Trump vilified immigrants as people who are “hurting a lot of our people that cannot get jobs under any circumstances.” (Trump, 2016) He said that immigrants negatively impact the jobs, wages, housing, schools, tax bills, and living conditions of “our forgotten working people.” (Trump, 2016)
He also said that “most illegal immigrants are lower skilled workers with less education, who compete directly against vulnerable American workers, and that these illegal workers draw much more out from the system than they can ever possibly pay back.” (Trump, 2016)
The scapegoating of immigrant labor is certainly not new. Nor is the seeking out of immigrant labor to do certain types of jobs. Throughout its history, America has sought to build wealth off “lower-skilled workers.” These are the jobs historically unwanted by higher-skilled workers. The president implies that these are the types of jobs typically filled by non-white workers: “… low-skilled immigration that continues to reduce jobs and wages for American workers, and especially for African-American and Hispanic workers within our country. Our citizens.” (Trump, 2016)
The idea of moving up the economic ladder and leaving the dirty work for the poor, the immigrant, and the slave, precede America’s independence. The dark side of America’s greatness has been its exploitation of a group or groups of people as a source of labor to build wealth:
“Throughout the history of the United States, people from other countries have been brought over to work in our fields. Often they come against their will. For instance, white laborers were brought over from Europe as indentured servants in the 1600s, and Africans worked in the fields after being forced onto slave ships from the 1600s to the 1800s.” (FARM WORKERS & IMMIGRATION, n.d.)
The quote below describes a shift in the labor force in the Virginia colony during “Bacon’s Rebellion” in 1676-77. During that time frame, we see that as white indentured servants became “better established,” i.e., moved up the ladder, America turned to the increased use of slavery as a tool to continue to build her economic wealth. (Rice, 2014)
Slavery, one of the most horrific blights on America’s great history, expanded primarily because the exploitation of forced immigrant labor was a cheap path to prosperity.
“The rebellion had also taken place in the midst of a fundamental shift in Virginia's labor force, several decades after leading planters had collectively decided to replace white indentured servants with more easily controlled enslaved Africans, but roughly twenty years before the supply of slaves would make that possible. By 1700 the slave population had soared, British immigration had slowed, and many poor whites had either become better established or had departed the colony. At the turn of the century white Virginians were increasingly united by white populism, or the binding together of rich and poor whites through their sense of what they considered their common racial virtue and their common opposition to the interests of Indians and enslaved Africans. Thus Bacon's Rebellion was, as one writer has put it, a critical element in "the origin of the Old South." (Rice, 2014)
To ensure that this cheap source of labor would remain in place, “slave codes” were instituted across the then colonies as early as the 17th Century. Slave codes were “the set of rules based on the concept that slaves were property, not persons.” The codes were “amplified with laws by the slave owners to protect not only the property but also the property owner from the danger of slave violence.” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018)
In his early life as a businessman Benjamin Franklin espoused similar views as it pertains to the demands for labor:
“Franklin’s pragmatic approach to business is clear. And it is this pragmatism that produced a businessman who did so well that he was able to start America’s first franchise, a string of printing houses up and down the Atlantic coast extending into the Caribbean and retire as a wealthy man at the age of forty-two. He also understood that colonial America was a complex system of degrees of bound workers from the lesser apprenticeship he experienced to indentured servants, bound servants, the convicts of the Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia colonies and the slaves. In a land with a shortage of labor, all kinds of work arrangements were welcome and as many of the time argued, Franklin among them, totally necessary.” (Cronin, n.d.)
The exploitation of labor was not limited to Africans. It also extended to Chinese immigrants. As Chinese laborers began to become successful, however, anti-Chinese sentiment grew. (U.S. Department of State, 2017)
As it was previously shown in a historical timeline of immigration in America, legislation was passed to limit Chinese and Japanese immigration in 1882 and 1907, respectively. These actions supported the notions that American jobs were scarce and that every job given to an Asian was “stealing” one from a white worker. History shows that was not the case, not even remotely.
One of President Lincoln’s least heralded actions was the push for legislation to increase immigration. The reason? To meet the growing demands for labor in an industrializing nation and to replace slave agriculture labor in the post-Civil War South. (Silverman, 2016)
Jason Silverman refers to President Lincoln’s July 4th, 1864 immigration law as one of his “signature pieces of legislation,” and “the first and only major law in American history to encourage immigration. (Silverman, 2016)
When President Lincoln delivered his Annual Message to Congress on December 8, 1863, he made this plea to encourage immigration:
“I again submit to your consideration the expediency of establishing a system for the encouragement of immigration. All though this source of national wealth and strength is again flowing with greater freedom than for several years before the insurrection occurred, there is still a great deficiency of laborers in every field of industry, especially in agriculture, and in our mines, as well as of iron and coal as of the precious metals. While the demand for labor is thus increased here, tens of thousands of persons, destitute of remunerative occupation, are thronging our foreign consulates and offering to emigrate to the United States if essential, but very cheap assistance, can be afforded them. It is very easy to see that under the sharp discipline of Civil War, the nation is beginning a new life. This noble effort demands the aid and out to receive the attention of the Government.” (Silverman, 2016)
There was widespread support for President Lincoln’s push on immigration. Representative Ignatius Donnelly urged legislators to support the increase of immigration: “Let us stimulate, facilitate and direct that stream of immigration,” he declared, “throw wide the doors to emigration…and in twenty years the results of the labors of the immigrant and their children will add to the wealth of the country a sum sufficient to pay the entire debt created by this war.” (Silverman, 2016) Representative Donnelly added:
“Never before in our history has there existed so unprecedented a demand for labor as at the present time. This demand exists everywhere. It exists in the agricultural districts of the southwest, in the central states; in New England, and among the shipping interests of the lakes and seaboard, and is felt in every field of mechanical and manufacturing industry. The dearth of laborers is severely felt in the coal and iron mines of Pennsylvania; in the coal mines of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois; in the lead mines of Galena, and in the gold and silver mines of California, Nevada, Idaho, and Colorado. There are twenty railroads now in process of construction or under new contract in the west alone, which would furnish employment for twenty thousand laborers. The construction and repair of railroads in other sectors of the country will give employment to ten thousand more. It is believed that the demand for laborers on our railroads alone will give employment for the entire immigration of laborers in 1864.” (Silverman, 2016)
The Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, Senator John Sherman of Ohio, also supported Lincoln’s efforts and said, “labor has special wants in every department of industry; vacancies caused by recruiting calls for a large increase in foreign immigration to make up the deficiency at home. Furthermore, the South, after the war is over, will present a wide field for voluntary white labor and it must look to the immigrant for its supply.” (Silverman, 2016)
Senator Sherman makes a striking point; the labor needed to rebuild the South must be “white.” This distinction is key because there weren’t enough white laborers in America to fulfill the demand. If the perquisite was that they be white, then the only solution was to bring in more white people from overseas—increase immigration from countries with white populations.
Despite the great need for labor to build post-Civil War America, it was clear that even under President Lincoln, that this rebuilding was to be done by white immigrant labor vs. Asians, Indians, or the newly freed slaves.
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