The Case for Reparations (to Undocumented Workers)

Greg Grandin, The Nation, December 1, 2014

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?


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.”


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. {snip}


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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