The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why anti-immigration politics hurt white workers

No, immigrants aren’t taking your job — but vilifying immigrants helps undermine worker protection.

President Trump leaves the stage after speaking to a crowd of construction workers before touring Royal Dutch Shell’s petrochemical cracker plant in Monaca, Pa., on Aug. 13. (Andrew Rush/AP)

President Trump is obsessed with “JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!” But his chants aren’t just about the economy — jobs are also central to advancing Trump’s anti-immigration agenda. He has repeatedly, and inaccurately, promoted the long-standing idea that working-class white Americans are losing jobs because of immigration.

The data doesn’t support this analysis. Yet the potent combination of immigrant threat and labor competition has long appealed to voters even when immigration restriction doesn’t deliver the promised jobs. In reality, what the rhetoric of blaming immigrants for “taking” jobs does do is advance ideas and policies that protect the powerful and allow for the exploitation of all workers — often the very same workers who find it appealing.

This was never clearer than a century ago, when claims about Asian immigrants taking white workers’ jobs dominated the public debate in the Western world. Although the British Empire engineered the massive movement of English, Indian and Chinese migrants to address labor imbalances across the empire, racist rhetoric and fears of unfair competition transformed what migration and labor ultimately looked like. Restrictions on labor and immigration, fueled by these fears, limited the movement of nonwhites, while doing nothing to address the actual source of labor grievances: employers and their power to determine labor conditions, including those of the most privileged workers.

The British Empire grappled with massive migration flows after it abolished slavery in 1834. With the support of the British imperial government, planters in the West Indies turned to Indian, then Chinese, indentured laborers. Workers were recruited, often forcefully, and transported all across the British Empire to work in exploitative and unfree conditions and for uncertain wages that barely, if at all, allowed them to repay the debt they had incurred to afford the voyage. Under some variation of this scheme, up to 1.25 million migrants from South and East Asia reached the Americas, and more than 6 million Chinese immigrated to British territories in Southeast Asia.

At the same time, the British Colonial Office of Emigration channeled workers from England to its colonies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Upward of 55 million migrants left Europe for the Americas between 1846 and 1940, 65 percent of whom reached the United States.

But not all migrants were created equal.

British politicians and intellectuals encouraged white workers to migrate to overwhelmingly white countries: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. They believed that this advanced England’s “civilizing mission” and helped it consolidate the world order under Britain’s control.

They treated Asian immigrants quite differently, however. Western intellectuals feared that the rising geopolitical power of Asia threatened “Western civilization,” or at least its hegemony, a thesis embraced by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.

And so they doubled down on their efforts to protect “white spaces” in self-governing British colonies such as Canada and Australia and former colonies such as the United States. This involved implementing immigration restrictions for Chinese migrants while easing migration for white Europeans. This was done through explicit bans accompanied by quotas favoring Northern Europeans (United States), or through subtler requirements such as language tests (Australia) or mode of transit (Canada) designed to exclude Indian and Chinese migrants.

Labor leaders in the West bought into these nativist narratives. Even when they acknowledged the racial motivations of anti-Asian policies, most considered wage competition a good enough reason for restricting settlement in countries inhabited “by men of European race.” Labor leaders didn’t worry about the exploitative labor conditions under which Asian workers toiled. Rather, they worried that white workers could not labor in these conditions. So they argued that exclusion was the only way to protect white workers from the “natural propensity of the Chinese toward toilsome work.”

But this rhetoric did not match the reality: While labor leaders were busy denouncing competition and often voicing overt anti-immigrant sentiment, the real issue plaguing workers — dangerous and exploitative corporate practices — continued unabated. The unsupported fear that immigrants were taking away jobs took priority over opposing the power of corporations, or tackling issues of working hours or fair pay for all workers — the very conditions that actually bedeviled workers.

This skewed understanding of the problem made race, not class, the biggest divide. White U.S. workers and their leaders supported anti-immigration legislation that excluded particular racial groups in solidarity with white workers in Canada and Australia. This can be most clearly seen in the anti-Asian immigration restrictions put in place at the turn of the century in all three countries, which created systems of passports, border control and deportation to curtail nonwhite immigration while incentivizing white immigration — even though white immigration meant more competition for jobs. These restrictions also meant that while workers of color remained an important resource, they labored under informal, unfree and exploitative conditions.

Tragically, this racially segmented regime of mobility and political inclusion meant efforts to curtail corporations’ power fell by the wayside, and as a result, white workers became willing partners for corporations and imperial projects as long as they benefited marginally.

These dynamics are at play once again today. The ability of global corporations to pick and choose among laborers worldwide, and to leverage this power to the detriment of workers everywhere, is at its highest. Their willingness and ability to avoid taxes and other forms of political responsibility has depleted public resources available for education, health and other services that previously led to a better quality of life for the working and middle classes in the West, something that is now becoming out of reach for all.

So the easy solution is back: Blame migrants for taking jobs and public resources. When leaders like Trump make these claims, they are enlisting imperial racial ideologies to pit worker against worker and entrench the exploitation of laborers everywhere.

Make no mistake: Immigrants are not taking our jobs. Jobs are decreasing in numbers and quality because of corporate practices (condoned by states) that harm the well-being of workers and the middle classes worldwide. The violent policing of migrants and refugees does nothing to change that, and indeed only distracts the public from the task of holding accountable the unchecked power of corporations to determine our well-being and political fate.