Essentially Criminalized Workers
The closing of the economy in such an immediate and widespread manner has brought to light the central function of labor in capitalist accumulation. It shows how vulnerable the system becomes when workers withhold their labor, providing a candid dramatization of Marx’s labor theory of value in action.
The rush by some sectors of the ruling class to kick and shove the working class back into production and service work under conditions of spreading infection and increased mortality, is a visceral compulsion on their part to “save the economy” at the expense of the working class. It is an exposition of the existing relations of production. The owners of the means of production need to exploit labor to survive as a class, and workers need to sell their labor power as a means to survive.
While many migrant workers are “essential,” their oppressed status excludes them from even the hollowest gestures of national collectivity amid crisis. They are already at the frontlines of expendability and have the fewest options. State repression of migrants has a certain inertia and is one of the few functions of the state that has not shut down. In fact, it is intensifying.
Over 30,000 Central American refugees continue languishing and are exposed in shelters and makeshift camps along the US border, as Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy denying asylum remains was officially sanctioned by the Supreme Court as the pandemic intensified. Over 50,000 more migrants and refugees have been kept locked up in for-profit detention centers and denied basic protections while the virus is quickly spreading and turning them into death camps. The US government has deported over 7,000 (including over 400 children) people since the beginning of the pandemic, including those already infected with COVID-19.
While migrant workers carry out their essential work, immigration agents have become even more aggressive in policing the boundaries of their marginalization. According to a New York Times report,
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun 24-hour-a-day surveillance operations around the homes and workplaces of undocumented immigrants. The agency plans to deploy hundreds of additional officers in unmarked cars in the coming weeks to increase arrests in cities where local law enforcement agencies do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.
In the southwest, Border Patrol agents have established their presence at COVID-19 testing checkpoints and at hospitals, deterring immigrants from seeking life-saving medical attention.
While the US population has been intimately re-introduced to the essential labor of farmworkers, most of whom are undocumented migrants, the federal government has been taking measures to lower wages for farmworkers by suspending federal minimum wage requirements for seasonal agricultural “guest-workers” and making such workers easier for employers to attain.
Within the education system, the administration is also targeting undocumented youth. The Department of Education under Betsy DeVos deliberately carved DACA recipients out of eligibility for emergency aid to the undocumented. Undocumented people and families with undocumented members have been systematically barred from receiving the modest payouts as part of the multi-trillion-dollar bailout for capitalists. These bailouts have had broad bi-partisan support, with Democrats in Congress validating the exclusion of immigrants alongside their Republican counterparts.
Exclusion has also been carried out in some states run by the Democratic Party. New York State Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, for instance, disqualified undocumented workers from access to state aid.