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Alabama and the “underclass”

December 13, 2011

All I ever hear about from a few people in the social club over and over again is how the immigrants come over here and take our jobs. The people who repeat this common sense cliche over and over again are the same conservative, white, male (and their wives who always agree), petit-bourgeois (even though they think they are working class, but they are usually small business owners and regurgitate the Tory bullshit appropriate to their class). Anyway, the point is it is the same old shit from the same people. And I have been arguing with them for years.

Just the other week I was having this same argument, and I said in response that these “immigrants” (by which they really mean illegal immigrants, but use the ambiguity in the word’s reference to include all non-British citizens. Actually they really mean something like non-white. To be fair though, they don’t really mean anything, they are just speaking pure ideological bullshit). Anyway, so I said that these “immigrants” are the foundation of our economy: they do the traditional working-class roles that you wouldn’t dream of doing anymore, even though you romanticise work to mean something like  “hard graft” done for minimum pay. Cleaners, warehouse workers, labourers, service industry staff, posties, truck drivers, call centre operators, etc. One guy actually agreed (although he is more of a British Labour party socialist in denial), but another younger chap looked totally baffled. ‘What, really?’ Of course, I said, if we chucked all the immigrants out, our country would come to a stand-still. Even if we only kicked the “illegal” immigrants out, our economy would significantly suffer. However, this information just would not compute.

But now we have this argument literally playing itself out in reality. The state of Alabama in the U.S. has passed a new law, memorably named “HB56”, which seeks to eliminate the apparent problem of illegal immigrants taking legitimate US citizen’s jobs. From The Guardian:

In addition to the police check of “suspicious” people, anyone failing to carry immigration papers is now deemed to be committing a criminal act […] Undocumented immigrants are also forbidden from entering into a transaction with the state, which has already led some town halls to demand residents produce their papers or risk losing water supply. Schools have been instructed to check the immigration status of new pupils as young as four […] Under the new law, police have to check the immigration papers of anyone “suspicious” they stop for a routine traffic violation – a missing brake light, perhaps, or parking on the wrong spot […] Just how long this standoff will continue, and what happens to the thousands of families caught in limbo, will depend largely on what the 11th circuit appeals court rules, and ultimately on the final say of the US supreme court.

This is clearly a horrible situation, and one that is being seriously under-reported by the UK media. (I wonder why?) I don’t mean to exploit this situation for the purposes of winning an argument, but it really is too cute. You see, Alabama is finding out the hard way, through real economic consequence, that it relies on these immigrants for the foundational work of that society.

This is the breakdown from the American Immigration Council:

Alabama is losing workers.

Unauthorized immigrants comprised roughly 4.2% of the state’s workforce (or 95,000 workers) in 2010, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center.  However, there are reports that people are leaving the state or going further underground as a result of the new law. This means a significant portion of the workforce is no longer available.

The Alabama agricultural industry, in particular, is suffering. Alabama Agriculture Commission John McMillan stated, “the economic hardship to farmers and agribusiness will reverberate throughout Alabama’s economy, as one-fifth of all jobs in our state come from farming.”

Professor Scott Beaulier of Troy University argued that, on economic grounds, it’s absurd to say that HB 56 is a jobs law:  “Immigrants—both legal and illegal—are a force for good. They create jobs, they enrich culture and they make our state a more interesting and dynamic one in which to live. Alabama’s immigration law is a pathetic, backward attempt to play politics and protect Alabamians from the bogeyman of immigration.”

Alabama is losing taxpayers.

According to the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), households headed by unauthorized immigrants collectively paid $130.3 million in state and local taxes in 2010. That included $25.8 million in personal income taxes, $5.8 million in property taxes, and $98.7 million in sales taxes.

HB 56 is a drag on the Alabama economy.

According to Prof. Samuel Addy at the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, HB 56 will reduce the Alabama economy by $40 million.

Addy said the law “is certain to be a drag on economic development even without considering costs associated with enforcement of the law…demand in the Alabama economy is reduced since the income generated by these people and their spending will decline. That results in a shrinking of the state economy and will be seen in lower economic output, personal income, and fewer jobs than would otherwise have been.”

Businesses are suffering from additional costs.

Economist Jeremy Thornton of Samford University points to the “shadow costs” employers incur when they take steps to protect themselves from the law’s stiff penalties. Businesses will spend more on employee screening to protect themselves from provisions of the law that bar them from knowingly hiring unauthorized workers. There could also be increased litigation costs for businesses because any legal worker could sue the employer if they have hired an unauthorized worker. “Every business that now has to comply with this legislation, that’s just extra cost. And anytime you raise costs, businesses shrink.”

Businesses will likely have to spend more on third party assistance for employment eligibility paperwork and extra human resources staff.

Business licenses are in jeopardy.

Alabama had to push back the deadline for businesses to obtain or renew their licenses “due to the hardship placed on Alabama businesses” that could not get licenses in October because of implementation of the new law. The new law requires individuals and businesses obtaining or renewing business and store licenses to show additional documentation, which has led to long lines at courthouses and other delays.

Contracting and business transaction provisions hurt everyone.

Two standing provisions of Alabama’s immigration law affect nearly every aspect of normal daily life in Alabama.One provision [Section 27] prevents Alabama courts from enforcing contracts to which an unauthorized immigrant is a party. This means that Alabamians can violate the terms of contracts—employment, leases, court settlements, etc.—and neither party has legal recourse.

Another provision [Section 30] makes it a felony for unauthorized immigrants to even attempt to conduct business transactions with state or local governments. As a result, state and local government agencies are requiring everyone to show documentation proving legal status in order to get any public benefits or services: water service, professional licenses, death certificates, etc.

The additional staff time needed to check and process the documents of everyone applying for a public benefit or service is costly, but HB 56 did not include any additional funding for implementation.

And then there are the latest “common sense” arguments about this crisis in Birmingham, the capital of Alabama.  The main focus is on why these jobs that were once done by immigrants aren’t now being done by the unemployed white Americans that were moaning about the situation in the first place. This is where we have to be careful not to be sucked into the conservative ideological frame. Their argument about unemployment is always a moral one: they are lazy. This answer of course always sidesteps the socio-economic analysis that could shed some light on the situation.

The “ordinary white working-class people” (I know this isn’t really a fair description of the unemployed as an international, or “globalised”, phenomenon) actually cannot do many of the jobs that the Hispanic population once did. For example, the tomato farms need skilled pickers who can stand the heat and can work fast and hard for prolonged periods. In Birmingham, the state has recently introduced funded training courses to fill the gap in skilled labour that has been left by the recent law. Something like 36 places were offered for people to be trained in trades such as electrical engineering. Only 7 people signed up. This story tells us not that the unemployed are useless (I guarantee that the state made little effort to advertise these courses out of fear that this might spark a demand they couldn’t supply.) It shows that the immigrant workforce were doing crucial jobs that did indeed feed into the economy, both as work itself and as earned tax-revenue.

The point is that our (global) economy really does depend on this cross-section of people excluded from the “common sense” idea of citizens and workers. We depend on immigration and unemployment for our globalised economy. Immigrants form a significant part of those people we could confidently call the blue-collar working class. They are also a major part of the skilled and intellectual working class. Some of my best A Level teachers were immigrants from Iraq and Iran, refugees from the repressive governments  (initially endorsed by Western powers) in power during the latter part of the 20th century.

The unemployed too are a crucial part of the economy. They are “the reserve army of labour”, they keep wages low by exerting huge pressures on workers to keep their jobs at any cost. There is also a diminishing line demarcating casual (or precarious) labour and unemployment: on the one hand people are forced to work any hours they can get, and on the other, people desperate for work are being driven into voluntary roles which would traditionally have been very respectable and decently paid jobs, such as teaching, public sector administration, creative industries, etc.

Fuck the “underclass”, because this is a concept of exclusion. The concept of the underclass reinforces the idea that there is a separate cross-section of people that exist “below” normal working people. This sub-class can then be ideologically batted around within the Tory propaganda machine, according to what agenda needs to be pushed. We should refuse this conceptualisation. The international working class must include these workers and non-workers in its battle against capital and political exploitation.

There is such a thing as concrete labour; someone is producing the means of our subsistence, our commodities and extracting our energy resources, just because it doesn’t happen in big dirty northern cities anymore doesn’t mean it isn’t the same (if not worse) kind of industrial labour. There are also people doing the manual and unskilled jobs here and now, some immigrants, some old fashioned British (whatever that means), some unemployed working for free. This is not an underclass, this is the international working class, and we should be on their side, defend them, join them (we are in fact them as well, according to the criteria of exploitation. Just because I work in an office doesn’t mean I’m not alienated from my labour and exploited for surplus value).

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