With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Why anti-immigration politics hurt white workers

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.

Read entire article at Washington Post