Built on the Backs of Immigrants?

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by Mark Angelides

It is becoming a hugely popular sound bite used by politicos and pundits to state that “’X’ was built on the backs of immigrants.” We’ve heard it about America; we’ve heard it about the UK. But is it really true? And if so, what are the implications?
First let’s examine what this somewhat vague statement could mean or imply:

  • It means that the actual work of building “X” was physically done by immigrants.
  • It means that the wealth produced by immigrant labor for “the elite” was used to produce or build “X.”
  • It implies that if immigrants hadn’t been forced to do the work, it wouldn’t have been done.
  • It implies that those who are not immigrants (no one really knows how far back this should go!!) owe a debt to those that are.
  • It implies that Americans/Brits alive today, owe their “privilege” to immigrants who arrive today.

But do any of these really stand up to basic tests of common sense? To discuss, we should ideally come up with a definition of who exactly is classed as an immigrant…
According to the Migration Policy Institute, around 27% (86 million) of people living in the US are immigrants and their US born children. Do the children born in the US count as migrants? What about 3rd generation or 4th generation?
Surely the children of migrants born in the US are the beneficiaries of the immigrants “who built this country” too? To whom do they owe a debt of gratitude or acknowledgement? And let’s not forget the over 1 million migrants who come to the US each year… Are they owed a debt of gratitude or acknowledgment because someone many years ago shared an arbitrary legal definition with them?
If we talk about the value of migration, let’s not make it a one sided deal. The millions of people who migrated to the US did not do so out of altruism, they did it for their own benefit. And then of course there are the slaves who created wealth for an elite few. They did not come of their own free will, surely there is some reparation or acknowledgement owed? Well…The US went to war with itself to end the injustice and hundreds of thousands died to end it. In the UK, thousands took to the seas to ensure that no country could practice slavery, costing billions (in today’s money) and countless lives. While we can all agree that slavery was, and is, a stain on the morality of our nations, it is not something anyone alive today played a part in, a culture cannot go on blaming itself for something over which it had no part in.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, it wasn’t until late 1865 when slavery was finally ended in the US. Since that date there have been people who were worked like slaves, forced to endure harsh conditions, poor treatment, and even death at the hands of “nation builders,” but this is still happening in a more sanitized form even today. We call it by a different name, but the vast majority of people in work today (immigrants and non-immigrants) are still actively involved in building and developing the country they live in and being paid (some pretty awful wages) by a richer group. This may seem a convoluted way of looking at the question, but it sets the boundary of WHEN and to WHOM do we owe a debt of gratitude?
Will the people of the America’s future look back to this time and say “We owe those regular Americans a debt of gratitude, this nation was built on their backs!” The reality is that every nation is built on the backs of those that came before, it has always been so, and always will be so. This is true of migrants and those native born. But aren’t we all building the nation so that our children and grandchildren will have something better than we have?
To use the phrase “backs of immigrants” for political point scoring is dishonest and wrong. America was built on the backs of Americans…And may it always be so!