My first of many pieces in the new category on immigration in the United States. I highly recommend the book, On the Line: Slaughterhouse Lives and the Making of the New South, as well as the study,”The rise and fall of a micro-learning region: Mexican immigrants and construction in center-south Philadelphia” by Natasha Iskander, et al. (link below to study).
This post is not about the right to public space, but about circumventing the disadvantaged positions of immigrant laborers through enhanced access to economic and political resources. I hope this post sheds light on the importance of protecting the rights of marginalized laborers, especially immigrant workers, who are systematically the most exploitable.
As always, happy reading!
The status of immigrant workers in today’s economic environment is extremely unstable. Both the works of Iskander, Lowe, and Riordan and Ribas can help us understand their status considering economic changes today.
First, in “The rise and fall of a micro-learning region: Mexican immigrants and construction in center-south Philadelphia,” Iskander, et al. (2010) convey that Mexican immigrants working in the construction industry in Philadelphia lack access to political and economic institutions necessary to legitimize their innovations and skill-sets offered to the neighborhood construction industry. Mexican immigrant laborers working in construction in south-central Philadelphia played an important role in transforming the area into a learning-region because they created new innovative practices through the social-exchange of tacit knowledge. But without access to political and economic resources to make these skills explicit, the learning culture was vulnerable to economic, organizational, or political shocks. Therefore, the housing market crash in 2008 not only left Mexican immigrant workers unemployed, but also bereft of a craft refined through first-hand experience and social-exchange.
Although the Mexican immigrant workers weren’t the only losers in the study, they were the biggest losers because their losses were deeply felt. For instance, we may never know the extent to which their innovations – those with the potential to be adopted into a broader industry context – may have contributed to productivity gains in the construction industry and construction labor market. Those unrealized gains will never be fully known. However, the short-run consequences associated with unemployment compounded by the lack of protection for their craft are tangible for migrants, and suffered immediately. So, not only were the contributions of these Mexican immigrants taken for granted – not only were they taken for granted – they were forced to start over, even if they managed to continue working in construction: “Unable to demonstrate their new knowledge, the Mexican workers’ status in the construction labor markets that remained was as precarious as if they had never worked in construction at all” (Iskander, et al., 2010, p. 1596). Furthermore, without formal record of their innovations, migrant workers may also face detrimental long-run consequences at the individual and generational level. Unable to protect a decade’s or more worth of reformed construction techniques and learning practices may lead to the deterioration of skill-sets, depress wages, and/or thwart opportunities for upward mobility of current and future immigrants pursuing employment in the same trade.
Second, in On the Line: Slaughterhouse Lives and the Making of the New South, Ribas (2016) conveys her unique approach to immigrant integration, in which she examined how the social and economic incorporation experiences of Latinos (as)/migrants in the contemporary American South is shaped by the social organization of labor. Through her study, she learns that the process of integration for migrants is ongoing and active, and she views “incorporation as a process conditioned by context through which groups struggle to define their place in a stratified system of belonging” (Ribas, 2016, p. 18). For Latino/a immigrant laborers in the American South, the struggle to find and define one’s place in society and in the workplace is compounded by the fact that while they are working to improve their own economic standing, the economic restructuring of the American South and the growth of the agro-industrial industry hinged upon their exploitation.
While they are working to improve their own economic standing, the economic restructuring of the American South and the growth of the agro-industrial industry hinged upon their exploitation.
The works of Iskander, et al. and Ribas elucidate the role of power dynamics in shaping the fate of marginalized groups. Iskander, et al. (2010) suggest that learning regions are not characterized by collaborative relationships but that labor is “constrained and managed…with workers often inserted into innovation and production processes over which they may have very little control” (p. 1600). Whereas Ribas (2016) situates her analysis within the “broader system of racialized stratification characterized by white dominance” in hopes of understanding “who Latinas/os are becoming” (p. 24). Therefore, both works emphasize the need for access to political power in addition to economic resources to circumvent the disadvantaged positions of immigrant laborers.
How we participate in economic systems shapes who we become. Now more than ever undocumented immigrant laborers have diminishing control over who they are becoming as their future in the U.S. becomes less certain.
How we participate in economic systems shapes who we become. Now more than ever undocumented immigrant laborers have diminishing control over who they are becoming as their future in the U.S. becomes less certain. So long as institutions wield the power to exploit them with little to no consequence or backlash, the potential of immigrant laborers – and the potential gains from their productivity and innovation – will continue to be stunted. If Mexican immigrant workers helped create a micro-learning region out of the thirty blocks just south of Philadelphia’s Center City, then imagine the many unknown micro-learning regions migrant communities have helped produce through innovative learning practices that could have been captured in visible structured institutions, but tragically were not. What would happen if immigrants had access to visible structured institutions that protect their knowledge and skills? Would they be encouraged to innovate? How would their innovations be reflective in the productivity of our society’s industries today? Would that be enough to change the plight of immigrant laborers? Would that be enough to prove they are, indeed, American?
Iskander, N., Lowe, N. and Riordan, C. (2010). The rise and fall of a micro-learning region: Mexican immigrants and construction in center-south Philadelphia. Environment and Planning A 42(7): 1595-612. Retrieved from Link
Ribas, V. (2016). On the line: Slaughterhouse lives and the making of the new South. Berkeley: University of California Press.