We Are All Fast Food Workers Now
A conversation with Annelise Orleck about her new book We Are All Fast Food Workers Now, and Trump’s latest sneak attack on immigrants. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.
“Many people are angered by the cruelties of the twenty-first-century economy. And their fury has fueled worldwide protest. Simultaneously, and almost everywhere, low-wage workers and small farmers began to revolt: in New York City restaurants, laundries, and warehouses, in Western Cape wineries and the garment shops of Phnom Penh, in Southern California Walmarts, and the big hotels of Providence, Oslo, Karachi, and Abuja. As capital has globalized, so has the labor movement. Marches, strikes, protests, and sit-ins from Tampa to Mali have changed the global conversation about workers’ rights.” So writes Annelise Orleck in her new book We Are All Fast Food Workers Now: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages — which, as she explains on this week’s episode of Off-Kilter, tells the story behind the growing global labor movement through workers’ eyes.
Next, earlier this month, leaked documents revealed that the Trump administration is preparing to go nuclear on immigration by ending the U.S.’s family-based immigration system as we know it, and effectively imposing an income test to keep out low-income and working-class immigrants. Draft rules underway would massively expand a wonky-sounding provision in immigration law which is used to deny legal status to immigrants considered likely to become a so-called “public charge” (read: one of Mitt Romney’s 47%). To cut through the jargon, Rebecca talks with Shawn Fremstad, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress — and a huge nerd when it comes to the intersection of immigration and public benefits — and Hidetaka Hirota, a professor of history at City College of New York and author of Expelling the Poor, which looks at the US’s long history of keeping out immigrants who come from poverty.
This week’s guests:
- Annelise Orleck, professor of history at Dartmouth College and author of We Are All Fast Food Workers Now
- Hidetaka Hirota, professor of history at City College of New York and author of Expelling the Poor
- Shawn Fremstad, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress
For more on this week’s topics:
- Find We Are All Fast Food Workers Now on Amazon here and if you’re in the DC area, come hear her speak at Politics and Prose on March 31st
- Learn more about Trump’s so-called “public charge” rule in this explainer by Shawn Fremstad and in this Vox piece
This program aired on February 23rd, 2018
Transcript of show:
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality and everything they intersect with powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host Rebecca Vallas. Many people are angered by the cruelities of the 21st century economy and their fury has fueled world wide protest. As capital has globalized, so has the labor movement. Marches, strikes, protests and sit ins from Tampa to Mali have changed the global conversation about workers rights. So write Annelise Orleck in her new book “We Are All Fast Food Workers Now”. She joins me by phone to discuss her new book which is coming out next week. Annelise, thanks so much for joining the show.
ANNELISE ORLECK: Thank you for having me on.
VALLAS: So just to kick us off, why did you decide to write this book? And I would love to hear you also tell a little bit of the story of how you did the research for it because it’s not exactly your traditional piece of scholarship.
ORLECK: OK, I decided to write the book, there were a couple of moments that really electrified me and made me realize that I had to do it. The first was as an old labor historian I was involved in helping to organize the commemorative events around the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York. This was 2011 and a number of us who were doing the organizing felt that it would be, it’s incumbent upon us to not pretend that this was this long ago event that change everything and that everyone’s lives were better and it was nothing that again. I think in fact, what we knew was that although Triangle was a line in the sand and did transform American government’s relationship to regulating the workplace, that since the economy had begun to globalize and since many of the laws passed after Triangle started to be eroded that there were many workers in dangerous industries today. So we consciously invited them to the commemoration and one was the leader of the Bangladesh garment workers movement, Kalpona Akter, one of the major leaders. And she came to Cooper Union where we were holding the event in commemoration of the great 1909 uprising by many of the young women garment workers who would be also affected by the Triangle fire two years later and she walked up on the stage and she said, “In Bangladeshi it’s not 2011, it’s 1911.”
That line really stuck in my mind. Of course my first reaction to that line was wow, globalization has sparked this race to the bottom and workers in Bangladeshi are making clothes under the same condition that workers in the U.S. did 100 years earlier. But what I realized very quickly and what’s sparked this research and what got reinforced during the research was that this is true here, it’s true all over the world. In the last 30, 40 years the conditions for workers in terms of safety, in terms of length of hours that they work, in terms of what their paychecks can by, have eroded to the point that for millions and millions of working people around the world, they are left in conditions similar to what workers in New York at the Triangle Factory were dealing with 100 years ago. So that was the first thing that sparked me to want to look deeper into the conditions for working people today around the world and the U.S. and then the second was a conversation I had 4 years later on the anniversary of the fire also in Tampa, Florida where I just had begun, it was of my very first interviews with Fight for 15 activists and we got to our seats in a Cuban café in west Tampa and around the table were fast food workers calling in, skyping in we had home health care workers because they couldn’t get off work because they work many of them 120 hours a week with really frail clients. So they couldn’t even be there but I spoke to them via skype and phone and then adjunct professors and graduate students, graduate student teachers. And I said to them this is not your average working class solidarity. As an old labor historian I’m really interested in how college professors come to be organizing with fast food workers. And one of the adjuncts actually a graduate student still, Keegan Shepherd said they tried to make us believe that with our advanced degrees that we’re something special. And that if we just stay quiet and keep our nose to the grindstone we will eventually get good tenure track jobs. But those jobs don’t exist anymore so the truth is that’s just a lie to keep us quiet. We are all fast food workers now.
And so that line, like it’s not 2011, it’s 1911 really sparked me to do more research and that issue is this issue of contractualization as the Philippine workers that I met called it. Contractualization means everyone is a contractor, nobody is an employee anymore. That’s what we call the gig economy. And gig economy is kind of this cheerful name, it sounds very entrepreneurial but what I soon realized as I did the research is that it’s an end run around the labor protections that followed triangle and that came with the New Deal and that it means that those who are contractors, you don’t have to pay them overtime if you work them longer than a certain number of hours and minimum wage laws don’t necessarily apply and safety laws don’t necessarily apply, all of the protections that workers had fought so hard so in the early twentieth century no longer applied. So that is the theme, these two issues going back 100 years and the turning of everybody into an independent contractor instead of an employee. Those things really drove me.
And then there was a third theme which was in 2014 I noticed was this amazing international day of action, a walkout by fast food workers and they were, I found one little story about Manila workers for McDonalds and [INAUDIBLE] and Kentucky Fried Chicken in Manila, pulling each other out of the shop for the strike by having this singing, dancinig line of workers singing their own words to theme song of Disney’s animated hit “Frozen”. And I thought this is really interesting. This is a different kind of movement. So from there I began to research and one of the things I did, you asked about the research itself. One of the things I realized is that they could pull of these global actions because of social media. Kalpona Akter told me a story about Bangladeshi garment workers on their cell phones. She said we’re near china so we have cheap smart phones and people may not have clean water to drink but they have phones. And she had this image of a Bangladeshi worker in the shop looking at an image of, on her phone, a video on her phone of Cambodian garment workers winning an increase in their minimum wage and their celebrations. And she saw the worker smiling, and it became clear, Massimo Frattini who organizes some of these global actions for a union called IUF, International Union of Food, Hotel and Farm workers and she saw images of workers in Europe looking at images of Fight for 15 actions in the United States also on their phones.
So I realized that cell phones and social media could unite these people in ways that were much harder to do, despite all the rhetoric of internationalism 100 years ago, but I also, it’s how I found them. I started facebooking people, I started messaging people I didn’t know on social media and people wrote me back and eventually I traveled and was able to meet people in different parts of the world through this highly unlikely way of getting in touch. And so the way the movement is joined through modern media is also the way that I was able to reach people. It was a remarkable process. I was everywhere. I was interviewing people in the middle of protests, mass marches in the middle of the street, in union halls all around the world, I rode on the back of motorcycles to this consciousness raising group for Cambodian garment workers in the outskirts of Phnom Penh so no it was not, it wasn’t a normal way of doing an academic book but as I say in the author’s note in the beginning, this isn’t a normal academic book. I’m a historian but this is kind of a history of now and that’s how I went about it.
VALLAS: So a lot of the time when there are conversations going on about low wages, poverty, low wage work, the frame is very much about there being a class of other people who this is a problem for and maybe some people feel bad for them and feel like those other people deserve higher wages but the central thesis really of your book and it is embodied in the title as you are describing, we are all fast food workers now, it really gets into and I’m going to use your words, a very different frame and one that comes out of both the people you met but also the data about who low wages affect. And are holding back. In the first chapter you write, quote, “This is not a story about other people. It is our story, a history of our times.” I would love to hear you talk a little bit about how you came to that view of this set of issues and the people who are impacted by the stories that you’re telling.
ORLECK: Well again, both the people I interviewed were different than I expected. As an academic I saw what was happening to my profession, I saw what was happening to journalists I knew and I saw what was happening in every different kind of profession which was that this mid-20th century idea of working for decades for the same company and having a pension, and having possibilities for mobility in that company, those are gone. There started to be articles about how people under 30 change jobs every two years and at first those articles suggested that that was something that somehow they were restless, they were more restless than older generations. And it became clear to me as I spoke to people for example in the Philippines where half the workforce is under 30, people there want jobs that can support them but people are not getting jobs that can support them. And so this one academic I interviewed in Tampa but also people I interviewed in the Philippines, everyone’s got two and three jobs. So this is from fast food workers all the way up to people with advanced degrees. And so when I began to get into the data more fully it became clear that majorities of people, I begin the book with this, a majority of American workers, this is not just in other parts of the world are not making enough to support themselves. And so that’s why everybody’s got a second job, last Labor Day there were all these radio stories about how young people all have these gigs on the side and again, the implication is you’re waiting tables to earn a living but in fact you’re really an actor to use a cliché example. But in fact, it’s because nobody an earn enough in one job anymore and that’s part of this new system and so in many parts of the world campaigning to change that is a big part of what they do, these young workers in the Philippines are constantly trying to pass legislation that mandates that after a certain number of months or years of working at a job you have to be classified as an employee and then you have to be covered under labor laws.
We were starting to make some progress on that in the United States as well but with the new Trump appointed National Labor Relations Board some of the good decisions that were passed in the last couple of years may not be long for this world but people are trying to get those at a city level and the county levels and so there’ve been some good legislation passed in New York City last summer around some of these issues, around scheduling, that you have to be given your schedule two weeks in advance instead of on demand scheduling where you call at the last minute and it doesn’t matter if you don’t have childcare, you have to go into work right then. All these kinds of things are a result of this new economy and the end run around labor protections for workers in this country and around the world.
VALLAS: You were starting to talk about some of the similarities that might be surprising to people listening right now between say a fast food worker and an adjunct professor and the struggles that they’re facing. There’s been a lot of attention paid in the United States to the Fight for 15 movement to fast food organizing in particular in the United States. But your research tells a much bigger story that doesn’t just cut across industries but it also cuts across borders and that really starts to tell remarkable and really highlight remarkable parallels between what low wage workers in the united states are facing and what their counterparts oversea are facing as we’ve seen an emergences of a global labor movement as you’ve been describing. One of the stories I would really love to hear you tell because it really stuck with me from the book was Blue Rainor, a McDonalds worker from Tampa, Florida who ended up finding out he has a lot in common with some folks in Brazil.
ORLECK: Yeah, three summers ago Blue got an invitation in the mail that really surprised him. It was from the Human Rights Commission of the Brazil Federal Senate. What had happened is that the workers for Arcos Dorados, “golden arches” in Portuguese, the Brazilian McDonalds affiliate had been calling attention to the ways in which they felt McDonalds restaurants all across the country had been evading federal labor laws, driving wages down, driving safety conditions down in some of the ways that I’ve just been talking about and so they had been suing McDonalds in court and indeed they won some of the largest fines for violations of labor laws that Brazilian courts had ever awarded but they also convinced the Brazilian senate to invite people from other parts of the world, both fast food workers and other kinds of low wage workers and also elected officials to discuss this question of whether or not McDonalds which is the second largest private employer in the world. Wal-Mart is the only larger private employer and larger than them are only the U.S. and Chinese militaries so these are vast employers and they wanted people to testify about the ways in which these employers, particularly McDonalds in that case had done the same kinds of things in countries around the world, driven down wages, made workers less safe, hurt unionization.
And what they found, so Blue went and he testified and while he was there he met workers from around the world and so he tells one story that kind of still gives me chills and it’s a story of meeting a worker from Japan who also worked for McDonalds and they rolled up their sleeves and they had a line of burns in exactly the same places. And Benedict Morrilo who is the fast food worker from Manilia rolled up his sleeves and he had burns in exactly the same places. And the Blue said he heard these stories and it was his story. It was this guy who was trying to go to college and who had so much wage theft, so much, it was a dispute as Benedict Morrilo said every single time you had to ask for your wages. So much wage theft that they had to drop out of college and Blue said wow, this is my story. And Benedict used the word “McBrothers”, that they really were. They had these burns because all these McDonalds around the world, you had to turn around orders in 90 seconds and in all these McDonalds around the world, you had to reach across boiling oil to get those orders turned around in 90 seconds and so these burns and these experiences made them realize how bonded they were.
And there were people from two score countries there in Brazil that summer and it was really quite remarkable, the kinds of similarities that they found and you’ve got in the fast food workers movement, you’ve got people travelling all over the world talking to other people. So in New York, in 2014 before the global day of action Naquashila Grand, a Kentucky Fried Chicken worker from Brooklyn met with a worker from Thailand but also from Denmark and so she realized that some workers had it worse, some workers had it better. But they were all part of the same global corporation and the only way you could make a corporation with that kind of power feel your movement was to organize transnationally.
VALLAS: Another theme that cuts across borders that you explore and that there is some really lovely language that I’d love for you to share with us from some of the activists that you spoke with. But really concerns how the activists were talking about here that workers are talking about here are not just fighting for higher wages, yes that’s a big part of what they’re fighting for. But that they’re also fighting for freedom and for respect. And that these are words that activists that you spoke with for the book gave a very specific meaning. What is the significant of freedom and respect as the activists fighting for these concepts, what do they mean?
ORLECK: Well for them, they’re responding to some of this rhetoric about how capitalism is the only system under which we have freedom and neoliberal capitalism even better, freedom from regulations and freedom from all the things that limit the pursuit of shareholder value. For them, they say we want freedom too, we want freedom from sexual violence in the workplace and that’s a major issue driving this movement because the majority of the workers involved in it and a majority of the low wage workers around the world are women. So freedom from sexual violence in the workplace, freedom from the ways in which employers degrade and diminish them. Freedom from the hazards that can cost them their lives and for many of these workers, especially for garment workers in Bangladeshi and other parts of the world and the Philippines, earning a living once again as in the days of Triangle can cost you your life and has cost thousands their lives. So they want freedom from that risk and they want freedom to have the things that they used to have before the era of IMF and World Bank restrictions on poor countries demanding the privatization of public services. They want clean water, they want free water, they was free or affordable health care, they want free education, they have a very definite definition of freedom, a very different one from the neoliberal definition.
And then in terms of respect, that is the word you hear over and over again. The Wal-Mart workers movement, those workers have gathered under the banner of something called Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart, OUR Wal-Mart. Denise Barlage one of their chief organizers has said, we’re not asking to be rich. We just want to be treated like human beings. That’s what she means by respect. And as far as the Pilipino, the young Pilipino fast food workers organization, their union is actually called R-E-S-P-E-C-T Fast Food Workers Alliance. And they like to sing and dance as part of their protests and this 23 year old former musical theater student who choreographers their protests says they sing and dance really fast, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, we’ll tell you what it means to me. And then they will make clear, a living wage, freedom from abuse in the work place. And freedom to pursue the kinds of lives they can’t if they’re basically in a slave labor situation as many of the farm workers that I talk to were in. so one of the other bits of language that I use in the book is the slogan of the berry pickers in Baja, California who struck by the tens of thousands, more than 50,000 in 2015 and their slogan was “Somos trabajadores, no somos esclavos”. We’re workers, we’re not slaves and that distinction was really, really important for them as for farm workers in South Africa when they struck by the thousands in 2012 so the language of freedom and the difference between being a wage worker and a slave is potent for workers organizing right now as it was for the Lawrence, Massachusetts mill workers in the 1830s, we are back in the 19th century again and again.
VALLAS: I mean, a related concept here that you also explore and this is especially in your discussion about hotel housekeepers in the issue of being invisible. The invisibility of what service workers do and I want to read a quote from one of the activists that you spoke with about the challenges that hotel housekeepers face and they’re organizing and trying to raise up the need for raised wages as well as of the other things we’ve been talking about in terms of job quality, respect, freedom and this activist says, “When customers leave a hotel room, many of them must think that there is a fairy who comes and cleans or they don’t think about it at all. In either case they have no idea how punishing the work is, how hard it is on workers’ bodies, making people see that it’s a human being who cleans your room, that’s the first step to change.” So really talking about how to make invisible, visible and how does that play into what these movements are taking on and what types of strategies they’re using to achieve their ends?
ORLECK: So that was a quote from Massimo Frattini who is this organizer, he was a Milan hotel worker and now he works at this tiny little crowded office in Geneva, organizing these global actions by fast food workers and hotel workers and so one of the things that hotel workers do is literally make themselves visible by coming out of the hotel, one of my favorite actions was done by Cambridge, Massachusetts hotel workers who were trying to unionize a Double Tree in Harvard Square. And they had a bed making demonstration in Harvard Square in the fall of 2014 where they actually had students and passersby, faculty, people in this consummately liberal city of Cambridge, Massachusetts try to make a bed the way hotel beds are made everyday. And so people understood the exhaustion, they understood how difficult it was and how weird, not necessarily comfortable ways you have to stretch your body in order to make the beds that way and so that was a key event. And so those are the kinds of things that workers have done. The tomato workers, the Coalition of Immokalee workers from Florida who pioneered this really brilliant new strategy in labor organizing which is trying to target the big buyers, not your immediate employers but the people who buy most of the products you make and garment workers are doing this now, and farmworkers are doing. Anyway, they had what they called truth tours and they brought these fieldworkers out of the field and they travelled back and forth across the United States for years and years showing up in front of fast food restaurants and having workers themselves talk about what goes on in the fields.
And that’s been really crucial because in the fresh produce revolution, I mean who wanted to ask why suddenly there were beautiful berries or tomatoes in stores all year long? I mean it’s so great, we can have rasberries on the cereal every morning all year long. Nobody wanted to ask and so that’s been really crucial to this movement is garment workers who say, show up in front of the Children’s Place where clothing was made in the Tagrine factory where 112 workers died from a fire in 2012, showing up and saying we are the people who make these clothes. Our injuries made your beautiful little children’s clothes. So that has been really, really crucial part of what these movements have had to do. And again, social media has made it easier for them to do it because unions globally unions, many of them formed about a century ago on the language of internationalism have used what resources they have to help workers fly around the world and speak out and meet each other but also it doesn’t take much to upload a photo. You can upload a photo on the web and send it around the world and that’s what many of these workers are also doing.
VALLAS: So in the last couple of minutes that I have with you, where does the Fight for 15 movement go from here and I ask that both in light of the tremendous growth of the movement, the globalization of the movement, but also, you were just alluding to this in your previous answer, the attacks that are moving forward with alarming speed on unions and really the basic foundation of collective bargaining in this country.
ORLECK: Well I’m not going to pretend that the struggle is not an uphill battle. I do want to say there’s been tremendous success and I noted in the book that right after the election when there were these civil disobedience actions in 300 cities across the country, studies revealed that in fact these workers had won for themselves in just four years, this is just in the U.S., $61 billion in wage increases which was 12 times what congress had given them the last time they raised the federal minimum wage in 2007 and so there’s a lot of success and wages have gone up many, many times in Bangladesh and in Cambodia and for South Africa farm workers and even Baja, California farmer workers. So there have been tremendous successes. The battles are rough and I think the two ways forward that I think are really exciting and hopeful are these. One is this strategy of targeting buyers at the top. And so the most recent victory there was a relatively small one but a significant one by dairy workers in Vermont targeting Ben and Jerry’s. And so the conditions for these dairy workers on farms were horrible. They were living in unheated barns and school buses through the Vermont winter, they were working in unsafe conditions, one of their workers was killed by a piece of unsafe machinery but they knew that the farmers in a time of falling milk prices just like factory owners for garment workers, the garment factory owners couldn’t necessarily afford the kinds of changes they wanted. So these dairy workers targeted Ben and Jerry’s and ultimately after years of battling they got Ben and Jerry’s to sign on to this milk with dignity plan and it’s the same as the tomato workers getting the fast food chains and even Wal-Mart to sign onto this fair food plan and what they do, it means the big buyers will pay a little more and they will pay a premium to safe workplaces, to workplaces that do not have, that have zero tolerance for sexual violence to workplaces that allow the workers to unionize, to workplaces that allow inspection of the workplace by inspectors chosen by the workers themselves.
And this is the same strategy that was use in the Bangladesh fire and safety accord. That’s probably the biggest example of it. 225 global clothing retailers after the horrible Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 killed 1,200 workers and injured another 2,500, it was the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry. This coalition of consumers and union activists and women workers around the world and responsible corporations ultimately convinced these global brands that it was in their interest to sign onto the Bangladesh fire and safety accord which said that they would pay a little more to raise the wages of workers, to allow inspection of these factories for safety violations and for the repair of these safety violations and that they would if they fell short on these promises open themselves to being sued in their own countries. Kalpona Akter believes that from an average of 200 workers a year dying in the Bangladeshi garment industry, in 2017 none died. And she believes that’s directly attributable to the repairs being made by the accord. So this model I think is a really hopeful one and it’s calls for a coalition between workers, consumers and responsible corporate leaders. And so I think that’s one really important direction to go that even Trump’s NLRB can’t do an end run around.
And the other is this really interesting idea by the Los Angeles Alliance for New Economy. They were pioneers in the living wage legislation that swept the country since they passed the first one in Los Angeles in the 90s. Well one was in Baltimore but they passed a more expansive one. And they have said that not only is it great to focus on city governments because they’re most progressive governments by and large in our country right now. But also they buy a lot of stuff, in particular mass transit and so they have started to make deals. They make deals with Los Angeles, New York and Chicago transit authorities who were purchasing new subway trains, buses, trucks and the deal was that when companies were bidding for the contracts to make those mass transit vehicles that the city was procuring, that they would have to promise to make at least a significant portion of them in the city. That they would have to hire people for whom there had been obstacles to well paid employment, women of color, ex-vets, ex-cons, and that they would have to allow these jobs to be unionized and allow unions to provide training.
So those are three of the biggest labor markets in the country, they’re continuing to try to make these procurement deals around the country. Obama’s Department of Labor they convinced to sign on, obviously the Trump Department of Labor has rescinded that. That doesn’t matter. They’re still doing these negotiations with cities across the country and I think that these are just two examples of hopeful futures. Worker co-operatives which are spreading across the country is another. And I think, I will choose to be hopeful because I think there are a lot of exciting things happening, even in these dark times and it really is because of this momentum that this global labor movement and that Fight for 15 and OUR Wal-Mart and other low-wage workers movements in the U.S. have built.
VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with Annelise Orleck, she’s a professor of history at Dartmouth College and her most recent book which we’ve been discussing is called “We Are All Fast Food Workers Now.” Annelise thank you so much for taking the time and for this really important work. I have to say I particularly enjoyed the individual stories of all of the activists that you met. Thank you for sharing this with us.
ORLECK: Well they inspired me, I’m glad they moved you, I hope they moved other people.
VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.
You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. Earlier this month, leaked documents revealed that the Trump administration is preparing to go nuclear on immigration by ending the U.S.’s family based immigration system as we know it and effectively imposing an income test to keep out low-income and working class immigrants. Draft rules underway that were obtained by Vox as well as other news outlets would massively expand a wonky sounding provision in immigration law which is used to deny legal status to immigrants considered likely to become a so-called public charge, or put differently one of Mitt Romney’s famous 47%. To cut through the jargon I’m joined by my colleague Shawn Fremstad, he’s a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and perhaps chief nerd when it comes to the intersection of immigration and public benefits and I’m also joined by phone by Hidetaka Hirota. He’s a professor of history at the City College of New York. He’s also the author of “Expelling the Poor” which looks at the U.S.’s long history of keeping out immigrants who come from poverty. Thanks to you both for joining the show.
SHAWN FREMSTAD: Thank you.
HIDETAKA HIROTA: Thank you.
VALLAS: So Shawn Fremstad, going first to you. What is the Trump administration considering in this moment? What do we know about the rules that they’re working on from the leaks?
FREMSTAD: Sure. So as we all know this is not a very pro-immigrant administration. They’re talking out the nation of immigrant language from the actual motto of the immigration service, what used to be known as the INS. Here what we know is that they really are doing a stealth campaign using this longstanding public charge provision in immigration law, rewriting that in a way that would become much more restrictive. It’s really a stealth way I think of it to get into, do as much as they can to undermine the family based immigration system we have and really target working class immigrants from low income countries, from Mexico, from so-called shithole country.
VALLAS: I was going to say it if you didn’t.
FREMSTAD: This is very much I think what it’s aiming at. If you’re somebody who is coming from one of these countries, black, brown, as Professor Hirota will talk about this was a thing that affected the Irish in previous terms but it’s very much about keeping out poor immigrants. So the basic thing this is a rewriting of a rule. It’s a longstanding rule. What it meant historically and certainly has been interpreted and is still interpreted today is that you’re a public charge if you’re somebody who is basically going to become completely dependent on welfare cash type benefits or institutionalized for long term care with Medicaid. So it’s really someone who is not working, not able to work and doesn’t have anybody else supporting them and really they’re totally, primarily dependent on benefits. So it’s a very limited thing, especially in the United States. We have such a limited system of you can’t just go and get on benefits without being severely disabled, without being elderly, et. cetera. So that’s how the rule has been interpreted, it’s been interpreted in different ways but that’s kind of the core of the interpretation.
So what the administration is saying, it’s no longer going to be primarily dependent and unworking, it’s are you going to be low-income? Are you going to be below median income I think is almost a way of saying it. What they say is they’ll weigh it heavily in your favor if you have 250% of poverty as an income which is basically, we’re getting around median earnings for a white male worker in the United States. So coming in with a lot of income potential to pass this public charge test and another thing they’re doing here, they’re saying, they have a long list of benefits that if you’re likely to access them after being admitted to the United States as a green card, as a lawful immigrant, those are the kind of things that will be held against you. So they go so far, this is quite radical, the Premium Tax Credit that was part of the ACA, Obamacare, which goes up to 400% of poverty, so that’s really for many families that’s a middle class benefit. That would not be something that quote, unquote “makes you a public charge”. You could be working full time making a good salary and the only issue is you’re not getting health care from an employer and you need to access this.
Things like Headstart, Pell grants, it’s an extraordinary list.
VALLAS: Even the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
FREMSTAD: Yes. The Children’s Health Insurance Program, so it’s a long list of program legal immigrants often are eligible for in the United States and goes far beyond any conception of what this is about.
VALLAS: And to get a little bit more into the weeds just to help people understand how this is going to play out in practice, under current policy officials can only consider the use of cash assistance which is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a program that helps almost nobody in this country at this point anymore. Just one in four poor families with children are even helped by this paltry program, that’s where things stand currently. And what Trump’s new rules would do if this leak ends up being what we see from this policy, would be to include a whole set of other programs in that kind of consideration. You mentioned Headstart, you mentioned health insurance through the ACA, CHIP but also nutrition assistance, also nutrition assistance for pregnant women and infants which is the WIC program. Nutrition assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assitance Program formerly called food stamps, housing assistance, home heating assistance, transit vouchers, the list goes on and one.
FREMSTAD: It’s pretty much the kitchen sink.
VALLAS: So now help us understand how this is actually going to look in practice. This is not just about hey, you look like someone who might turn to these program, this also has real consequences for families, immigrant families who are currently but who may be looking to reunite with their loved ones and family members who aren’t here.
FREMSTAD: Right, exactly, this public charge test comes up in two broad scenarios. One is you’re a family member here in the United States, you want to bring over a family member and get a family based visa for them. They are subject to this public charge test so they have to meet that before you can get the visa. So it’s if that person looks like somebody who might get any of these benefits, then the public charge test could be used to exclude them under this radical rewrite. The other situation is there are a lot of people in the United States, some of them are undocumented, some are here under different lawful statuses, they don’t have an official green card perhaps but they have children in the household who are U.S. citizens, the child is getting Medicaid because they’re eligible as U.S. citizens. The child is getting SNAP or WIC. Now if mom or dad who are say, don’t have green cards are seeking to adjust status to get their green card the test can be applied to them too and the mere fact that they got food stamps or Medicaid or other benefits for that child can be effectively used against them. So I think there’s a potential to, I mean it’s really a potential both to keep people out who haven’t come to the United States but also to penalize people who are here now who are, been parts of communities and make it more difficult, not only make it more difficult for them to adjust their status to a lawful status but also I think make them much less likely to turn to programs that could help in terms of their child’s healthy development, education, et. cetera.
VALLAS: Professor Hirota, bringin you in, effectively barring entry to immigrants who come from poor or low income backgrounds, this is something that you’ve termed “poverty based immigration control” a phrase that I think perfectly sums this up. This isn’t new, in many ways this has become something of a time honored tradition in the United States. Tell us a little bit of the history of this public charge provision that Shawn’s been describing and how it fits into the country’s broader history of keeping out immigrants for economic reasons.
HIROTA: Sure, the public charge clause has a really long history in the US and the whole origins can be really found in the colonial period. During the colonial time, British settlers essentially brought their mother countries poor law, which essentially prohibited the entry of transient beggars into the community and the poor law also had the system of banishing the transient beggar,that is the poor people who did not belong to the community beyond the boundary of the community. And this kind of poor law was eventually inherited by states after the American Revolution and when a large number of immigrants, impoverished Irish immigrants arrived in the US over the first half of the 19th century, these laws eventually developed into immigration laws. State immigration laws in the Atlantic seaboard states particularly in New York and Massachusetts so Americans first immigration law really originated from poor law which is a state law in New York and Massachusetts really targeted against the influx of impoverished Irish immigrants and especially in Massachusetts the primary purpose of the immigration law was the deportation of the destitute Irish immigrants already in the US back to Europe. And in the late 19th century these poor laws, immigration laws, economics based immigration laws in the Atlantic seaboard states developed into the nation’s first national immigration law and that’s the Immigration Act of 1882 and this law along with the Chinese exclusion law of 1882, really laid the foundation for the subsequent national immigration law. And the anti-poverty clause, likely to become public charge laws remained in national immigration laws. So the point law is that the anti-poverty sentiment was really deeply integrated into the American system of selecting immigrants and this has a longer history than we think.
FREMSTAD: One thing I would add too, I think it’s interesting, in some ways, right, it was about poverty, keeping poor people out. But a lot of people, it also what I think the Trump administration is doing is extending it far beyond even those historical, was very discriminatory. There’s also a bit of this it feels like with the Chinese exclusion act that was actually aimed at laborers, working people. So I think there’s a part of this where it’s way beyond even historical conceptions of poverty. The other part of the interesting thing I think about the history here, in different nativist periods this has been interpreted in different ways to target different communities. So in the 30s refugees from Nazi Germany became targeted. In some periods it’s been quote, unquote “degenerates” people based on sexual orientation so it’s kind of been, since it’s such a, nobody says public charge in real language today. It’s an archaic, ancient term and it kind of gets filled with whatever the animus is today.
HIROTA: I would also like to add that a central feature of this likely to become public charge laws is massive discretionary power of the inspecting officer. This very adjective, “likely”, blurs the whole definition of this likelihood, the definition of public charge. And after all, the inspecting officers have tremendous power to determine who could be entered and who should be expelled thanks to this vague clause. So what happened is of course back in the mid 19th century precisely because of the Anglo-American officers, anti-ethnic, anti-Irish prejudice, Irish suffered disproportionately because of this clause compared to other immigrant groups like Germans. And in the early 20th century for example, Asian immigrants like Japanese and South Asians were targeted for this clause, disproportionately once again compared to European immigrants. And one of the important episodes that I know is that there were middle class Japanese immigrants with some cash and they did not appear likely to become a public charge at all from economic point of view but then the officers excluded them as a potential paupers on the grounds that in America, racism was too strong so that these immigrants would gain employment therefore despite the possession of potential cash and middle class appearance they were deemed likely to become public charge. So the whole clause can operate with very strong racist dimensions and this also applies to the Trump administration’s proposed new rule. The use of public benefits itself did not automatically necessarily make immigrants deportable or ineligible for future visa applications. The point is that the Department of Homeland Security could use the previous years of public benefits as a negative conservation, as grounds for denying visa applications. So the new rule would not apply to immigrants equally. The officers could have very strong discretionary power, assert discretionary power in decided whose visas can be renewable, acceptable by using, by manipulating this likely to become public charge rule.
VALLAS: And that’s obviously something that we’ve also seen a lot of attention paid to in the past several weeks but also months as a tax from the Trump administration on immigrants and immigrant communities have continued to move forward at just truly alarming speed all kinds of discretion on the part of low level immigration officers and bureaucrats to interpret and enforce policies and laws which opens up all kinds of space for discrimination and prejudice just like you’ve been describing. But I want to ask what is possibly a stupid question to both of you but that feels to me to be really at the core of this entire discussion and this entire history that you’ve been shared, Professor Hirota. Historically haven’t most immigrants come to the United States seeking a better economic live for themselves and for their children and if that is indeed true as I believe it to be, how do we square the idea of give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses with policies that explicit and not just policies but an entire culture underpinning them, as you’ve been describing, both of them, that explicitly seeks to keep out immigrants who come from poverty? And Shawn, I’ll go first to you.
FREMSTAD: It’s a great question; I think part of the story here is it gets back to this issue of discrimination. In Professor Hirota’s book there were differences even among states. So you had New York was actually more welcoming I think if I remember it than Massachusetts and they saw more of a role for actually helping people transition. And I think there’s also questions about if you’re not an Irish Catholic immigrant but maybe you’re a working class immigrant from some other more quote unquote, white place in Europe at the time. You probably got in so I think it’s a lot about stereotypes and concepts and it has always been the case that millions of poor and tired and huddled, I think that has been a reality. But there’s also been this other reality at the same time always operating alongside of it. I think what strikes me most about this is they don’t even want to have, again getting back to the removing the nation of immigrants language from the CIS, the immigration service motto, this is like a really beyond or kind of return to a very different kind of nativism.
VALLAS: Professor Hirota.
HIROTA: Sure, two things. First of all, on the one hand it is true that the United States has had a relatively liberal immigration policy compared to some other countries and that’s why US has been one of the biggest receivers of global migrants over the past centuries. But the problem was that liberal immigration policy did not apply to immigrants on equal terms. There was internal discrimination against immigrants, even among impoverished immigrants and of course apparently Europeans enjoy the more liberal policy than Asians and other immigrants even within the system that discriminates against the poor so that I think this inequality in this immigration system that’s a fundamental problem. And then secondly, this whole theme, give me your tired, poor, this Emma Lazarus poem it was conceived very accepted by the American general public very poorly even back then. It was a really idealistic sentiment that Lazarus described. The American public sentiment back then was much more restrictive and exclusive when the poem was introduced in the last 19th century. And so the biggest irony with the poem is that even though now it became very famous but this popularity was more like a twentieth century product. When it was written in the late 19th century, it was almost like forgotten and ignored by the American public it went so against the general sentiment in American society. So that’s a very sad part of that poem.
VALLAS: Shawn, in the last minute or so that I have with both of you how do we expect this to move forward in the weeks ahead, what should we be watching, what we understand that the Trump administration is likely to use a formal rule making process to move this policy forward. What should we be watching for and how should folks get involved with if they want to try to stop this from becoming the policy of the land?
FREMSTAD: Right, so right now it’s still in a draft form but we think it will show up, it gets published in what’s called the Federal Register as a proposal, as a proposed rule probably in the next 30 to 60 days. And that will first, this is an opportunity to formerly comment but that will be I think an important point to really lift this up and focus. I think it’s been very under the radar so far because it isn’t out there officially and there’s so much else going on right now. So I think watch for that. I think it’s always a good time to be connected with people doing immigrant advocacy work and making sure that this agenda is on also. I think there’s a lot of education that needs to be done. The impact of this will be particularly harsh on people with disabilities, it will be particularly harsh on again, people coming from places like Mexico, will be particularly harsh on people who are undocumented but have citizen family members here but just a lot of important work to be doing advocacy and organizing wise in the months to come.
VALLAS: And we’re seeing chilling effects playing out in communities across this country with immigrant families, actually going into social services office and saying stop my food stamps, stop my kid’s Headstart, whatever it is because I’m afraid this is exposing my family to danger and perhaps the risk of being split up.
FREMSTAD: And I think at this point people should not panic, one important thing to know is that the draft version of the rule says it will be prospective so it’s looking forward if you had received these benefits in the past we’re not going to count that. So there is some time I would not just immediately, but making sure you’re educated, you’re in touch with immigrant advocacy organization who can tell you more about this is important.
VALLAS: Well as the National Immigration Law Center has put it and I think these are probably the right words to end on with a heavy and truly demoralizing topic, no longer, if this policy goes into effect, no longer would we be the country that serves as a beacon for the world’s dreamers and strivers. Instead America’s doors would be open only the the highest bidder. I’ve been speaking with Shawn Fremstad, he’s a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and as I said before one of the chief nerds when it comes to public benefits and immigration. And Professor Hidetaka Hirota is a professor of history at City College of New York, he’s also the author of the new book which looks at the US’s long history of keeping out immigrants who come from poverty. Professor Hirota and Shawn, thank you so much for joining the show.
FREMSTAD: Thank you.
HIROTA: Thank you.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas, the show is produced each week by Will Urquhart. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @offkiltershow and you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the WeAct Radio Network or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.